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December 29, 2008
Social Media is People (but more enriching than Soylent Green*)
Everyone wants to know how to take advantage of social media. Whether it's to promote a business or an academic program, it's not unusual to hear people as, "How should we be using Twitter?" or "What should we do with Facebook?" The questions often focus on the tools, but as I've mentioned before, in Social Media: Your Interactive Information Resource, social media is about making connections—human connections. While this has been apparent to me for sometime, it's become increasingly clear over the past month. So rather than writing a typical how-to or advice article, today I'll just tell you about two recent events that really drive this message home.
Heidi thinks the veil between the 'brick and mortar' world and the 'cyber world' becomes more elusive each day.
That's what I wrote as my Facebook status message when I returned home from the Cleveland Social Media Club party on December 10. As the name suggests the Cleveland SMC is "a community for the champions of Social Media and those seeking to learn." (If you live in Northeast Ohio and work with, or are interested in, social media you should join.) What makes this group different from many online communities is the regional nature of it. We're all here so we can actually meet in person. As such they've already had several events, but this was the first one that I attended.
My friends tell me that I'm no longer shy, but I am an introvert, so I have to admit I was just a wee bit nervous. Although I knew a few people in the group—either in person or online—many were unknown, or at best vague cyber-acquaintances. Thus I wasn't sure how well I'd handle the small talk. As it turns out it wasn't a problem. I knew the host, Dave Stack, from the real world, his best friend is friends with one of my best friends, I'd previously met a few folks from a Cleveland bloggers meet-up, and George Nemeth was there and George knows everybody and is more than happy to make introductions. Within no time I felt as at ease as I would have with people I'd known much longer.
I met some great people and look forward to seeing them again at a future event. But I don't have to wait until the next event to continue the conversations. Members of Cleveland SMC can friend each other and converse on that site, but we also post our other profiles there. Since the event I've connected with several of them on Facebook, Flickr and Twitter. And thus the conversations continue.
It doesn't matter if/when we meet again face-to-face. It doesn't matter if one person prefers Twitter and another prefers Facebook. Once the connection is made it can be continued on any one or more of the online services available. Cleveland Social Media Club (on Ning) provides an information hub, but it's also enabled us to easily create multiple redundant pathways to one another. Thus, if one service goes down, the connections aren't lost, we still have other channels available.
When a service goes down: the demise of Pownce
Pownce was the service that hooked me on social media. It's where I learned that you could forge real connections online. Pownce gave me access not only to my peers but also to leaders in the field. If I went to Pownce with an idea I had about a Web project I wasn't getting feedback from just anybody. I was getting feedback from people in all areas of the business—ranging from the managing director of Octane Interactive, Wayne Smallman, to the lead designer at Digg, Daniel Burka. Pownce was an incredible resource.
Of course, it wasn't all about work. Powncers shared photos, absurd videos and thought-provoking articles while also conversing about everything from politics to bacon. My friends group contained liberals and republicans, atheists and born-agains and people from several different continents and cultures. But we had our geekiness in common, so everyone played nicely together in the sandbox. As we shared media and stories, personal experiences and jokes we got to know each other on many levels, much as one does in the brick and mortar world.
By the time December rolled around we'd become a pretty tight community. Then we heard about the shutdown. As you can imagine, the community reeled. Where would we go? What would we do? Sure we're on Twitter, but how can you discuss global warming or share pierogie recipes in 140 characters? It was clear, the sky was falling and there was very little we could do about it. Or was there?
A community comes together
All gnashing of teeth and wailing aside (and yes there was a lot of that) one of the first things people did was to start announcing where else they could be found. Pownce always made it easy to post our other profile addresses on the site, but now people were indicating where their primary addresses would be. People posted their addresses for Twitter, Facebook and Friendfeed. People shared e-mails. One fellow declared that he preferred IM and shared 5 different ways to connect with him that way.
We had this information, we had the ability to download our data, but it was clear that we were scattering into the wind. In my panic, I decided I needed to create a new, possibly temporary home for us, someplace that would still exist after December 15, where we could continue to share our contact information. Given that I was already familiar with Ning, I created Pownce Refugees, a place to keep the community alive after Pownce shutdown.
At the time I really wasn't certain about my long term goals, I just needed something I could launch quickly. I configured the page to use the colors from the Pownce home page, enabled some features that I thought might be useful and spread the word. As I and others started playing with it I added RSS feeds of Pownce mentions on Twitter, the Pownce Exiles Room on FriendFeed, the Pownce Exiles group on Vox, Pownce in the news and so forth. This way I thought we could use this page to keep track of Pownce-related activity elsewhere.
The next thing I did was to start creating groups for Pownce theme days. On Pownce we would often post content related to a day's theme. Thus we had Music Video Monday, Wordle Wednesday, Foto Friday and so forth. It sounds silly, but it was a good way to get new people involved as it gave them ideas on things to post. When you are new to social networking, it can be intimidating, but theme days provided some great starting points.
As I was busy priming the pump with groups and content, people started joining. Then they told other people to join. They spread the word on Twitter and other places, and within no time we had more than 100 members.
100? That's not much, Twitter has 6 million users
100 isn't much (we're now at 139), but it was enough to begin a new community. It was also enough to catch the attention of the Ning staff. As a result of our rapid growth, they featured us on the Ning Blog in an article entitled, Former Pownce members find a new home.
This was actually a fairly major accomplishment as Ning is a rather large enterprise. In April 2008 there were over 230,000 networks on Ning, and they were growing at over 1,000 per day. Only 3-4 are featured on the blog in any given day.
The other good news was our traffic. I created Pownce Refugees on December 1, and installed the analytics on December 6. As of December 15 (Pownce shut-down) we had
- 933 unique visitors
- 1,870 total visits
- 12,836 page views (6.86 pages per visit)
By way of comparison this blog was 20 months old by the time it started generating that level of traffic.
Our traffic sources also told an interesting story.
- 56.2% were direct traffic, meaning members (or others) who already knew the address,
- 40.11% were from referring sites and
- only3.69% were from search engines.
Those of you who check stats regularly know that this is atypical. Search engine traffic often plays a much larger role, often times 50% or more. But this was a social media site, marketed through social media to active social media users. It worked well because we (I credit our early adopters for spreading the word) were focused on a very specific niche (Pownce users), who were well-versed in social media tools, and we had a deadline that affected everyone involved.
Where are we now?
Since then we've lost a bit of momentum and probably need to refocus marketing on community building strategies. But traffic is steady and we have a core of regular visitors. As of yesterday we've had a total of:
- 3,000 unique visitors
- 5,193 total visits
- 25,741 page views (4.96 pages per visit)
Traffic sources have shifted slightly. The increase in direct traffic is from membership growth and usage.
- 67.8% are direct traffic
- 27.09% are from referring sites and
- 5.1% are from search engines.
Where will we be next year?
Who knows? The goal was to stay in touch. That seems to be working. In the meantime various members of the community and others are also working to build services with features more akin to the original Pownce. And while the economic climate is gloomy, new services continue to emerge. In another year we could be spending our lunch hours exploring some yet unknown site with yet another funny name.
But what this has shown me is that social media works. In the right situation it can be a very effective marketing tool. But it's the people and the connections between them, that make it so.
* For those 7 of you unfamiliar with the science fiction classic, Soylent Green, there is a classic line towards the end that states, "Soylent Green is people!" Alas, soylent green was also what people ate.
What is the secret of Soylent Green?
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