When I discuss social media marketing I sometimes call it digital word-of-mouth. It’s apt. Digital word-of-mouth could someday become as powerful at growing brands as its off-line namesake. But hasn’t the Digital Age promised us the ability to accurately measure this type of brand influence? Now that word-of-mouth is in moving to “ones and zeroes,” can’t we quantify these conversations — perhaps even predict their future impact?

In a word: No. But that’s quickly changing, due in part to the work of Kevin Hillstrom and described in his new book Hashtag Analytics. One finding from Kevin’s scrupulously scientific approach to Twitter analytics is this less-than-scientific tidbit: Communities rely on love to grow and thrive.

What he means by “love” is something more akin to The Golden Rule than pledges of affection. Or, to quote his post on an analysis of the hashtag community surrounding the Martha Stewart brand: “If a community ‘loves’ those who participate in the community, especially newbies, the community thrives”

Considering his background in catalog analytics, it’s no surprise Hillstrom handles the new challenge of measuring social media with familiar tools. He analyzes online interactions the way he’d parse a customer list, applying mathematical models as a way to assign people digital profiles — similar to the methodology behind list segmentation systems like PRIZM by Claritas.

No, it’s no surprise he’d try this approach. What is surprising is its effectiveness.

Not that the transfer is easy. It’s one thing to look at a database of purchase behavior and demographic attributes. It’s quite another to look at lists of user “amplifications,” replies and re-tweets. Kevin just makes it look easy. He’s a master, and as I read his book I was in awe at how he tackled the challenge. I’m equally impressed with his conclusions, and the implied promise of future insights that this system holds for web marketing wonks like myself.

(In other words, I’m wowed by this book and its author. It’s therefore in goodhearted fun that I mashed up Mike Myers’ image with Kevin’s. No offense intented, bro. If nothing else, consider it a visual warning never to try updating your personal grooming style by rocking Joaquin Phoenix. Big mistake.)

When Twitter Becomes An Online Forum

Before I share a few of his findings, I should touch on methodology. But just a touch. You’ll always be able to learn more by buying his book, or by visiting his blog, or by following my own posts about my own forays into Hashtag Analytics, starting with the one I posted yesterday.

To begin, a word about why analyzing conversations around hashtags is important. The advantages of studying Twitter participants are clear:

  • Twitter is hugely popular, providing a ton of data
  • Twitter makes downloading this data easy and inexpensive
  • Twitter has shown itself to be a channel capable of driving business for a brand

But there’s a problem: Unless a tweet contains a hashtag, it’s hard to measure sustained, multi-participant conversations. Hillstrom focused on tweets that all contained the popular hashtag #blogchat. This has the advantage of being a weekly conversation — a crucial requirement. For this analysis you need to measure at least a few recent weeks of behavior. It’s only when you’ve gathered this much data that you can begin attributing profiles to participants and predicting their future group status and level of influence.

Kevin relies on the hashtag’s ability to turn Twitter conversations into a loose online forum. You probably know another, more popular use of hashtags: Event-based topics, such as #CES or #SXSW. The jury is still out on what can be quantitatively surmised from this type of conversation, but the qualitative value of these event-based tweets is irrefutable.

Here is a sample of Tweets from May of last year, surrounding the hashtag #ungeeked. I captured these two tweets (plus many more, which can be seen when you click on the image) during my presentation at an Ungeeked Elite event. Jason, Sally Hogshead and Chuck Frey were three people in attendance.

I downloaded a batch of tweets from this event so I could study the effectiveness of my presentation. I had worked on the presentation with my employer at the time, HarQen, to explain what voice asset management is and why it matters.

A Useful Online Focus Group

That morning was the first time I had ever given the talk. When I got back to my computer, I made this screen capture and highlighted in yellow every comment with mention of me or what I was presenting. It became a useful online focus group.

If you look at the full thread that I captured you’ll see that when I played for the audience a voice excerpt of Martin Luther King Jr.’s most famous speech, it had the desired effect. His “I have a dream” pronouncement dramatized the impact of “original voice.” Another slide, showing Ben Franklin flying a kite in a rainstorm, also had some impact. One attendee tweeted that original voice has the power of electricity — but is only truly useful when captured and managed. This was exactly the take-away I was aiming for!

These discoveries were helpful, and one related finding from the tweets also jumped out at me: Chuck Frey is a terrific and vocal advocate. I, in fact, met many extraordinary people for the first time that morning, including Chuck, Jason and Sally. But here’s an important question: Is Chuck a more influential advocate for the brand than, say, Jason? Or Sally? For that I’d need quantitative information, derived over time.

A Quantitative Analysis of Hashtag Participation

The above example shows the value of qualitative information. Kevin focuses instead on quantitative measurement, especially because this approach allows for predicting future behavior.

He applies a process called logistic regression to a handful of data points — markers of weekly participant behavior. This distributes participants into one of eight digital profiles, of Hillstrom’s invention.

The graphic to the right shows a predictive model he created. It’s applied to the various profiles, listed in green. By counting the number of participants in each digital “bucket” and applying predictions based on past behavior of those in the bucket, he can forecast the longterm viability of the group.

A key conclusion from his research is that without acquiring and nurturing new participants, a hashtag community will soon shrink in both size and reach. Another is that in order to fully understand and benefit from these communities we need to look at them as full-blown ecosystems.

The Hashtag Ecosystem

I’ll leave you with this excerpt from the book:

Hashtag Analytics is designed to illustrate that there are different, non-traditional ways to evaluate how a social media ecosystem evolves and changes. Maybe the most important takeaway from Hashtag Analytics Is the concept of “ecosystem”.

In an ecosystem changes that happen today yield outcomes that may surprise one a few months from now. Models are created to explain what might happen in the future, and by using the models, individuals are able to mitigate potentially negative outcomes by making subtle changes today.

The same process can be applied to social media ecosystems. Too often, we focus on Influencers … we try to Identify the Influencer, then we market to the Influencer in an effort to achieve our own objectives. Our analysis suggests that manipulation may or may not work. Our analysis suggests that kindness always works.

What we learned in Hashtag Analytics is that “everybody” is an influencer in some way. This is an enormously liberating finding. The new participant who re-tweets content from an influencer can one day become an influencer if the influencer simply offers kindness in return for the retweet! We also learned that Influencers don’t necessarily maintain Influencer status over time.

I found Kevin’s work particularly exciting since I’ve been searching for some time for a reliable way to identify influencers through database analysis. He’s let me know that, at least by by some measures, these elusive souls do indeed exist.

The bigger news is that “Influential status” is ephemoral — here today and often gone tomorrow. Which leads to the biggest news of all, which is also a reassurance:

At least in Twitter, Influencers are made, not born.

Special thanks go out to Michael Czerwinski, data analytics extraordinaire, and his generous employer, BVK. You have no idea how helpful you were, Mike, in getting me to fully understand this complex analytic methodology.
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About Jeff Larche

Jeff Larche

Jeff Larche has a deep background in database marketing and direct response. His is a consultant specializing in CRM and interactive marketing with Accenture. His own blog, which is also the name of his original consulting business, is Digital Solid. When he's not working at his day job, he's provided digital strategy support for a worthy not-for-profit, Rock the Green: mixing education about our environment with a day of great live music on Milwaukee's beautiful lakefront!

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Comments on Social Media Explorer are open to anyone. However, I will remove any comment that is disrespectful and not in the spirit of intelligent discourse. You are welcome to leave links to content relevant to the conversation, but I reserve the right to remove it if I don't see the relevancy. Be nice, have fun. Fair?

  • Pingback: Studying a Twitter ecosystem one user at a time - Digital Solid: Marketing Technology ROI

  • Drew Steuer

    This is a very interesting concept. Being able to measure the influence of a social media page such as twitter. This could, and most surely will, have a huge impact on the way companies market themselves online, but also through traditional methods.

  • http://trafficcoleman.com/blog/official-black-seo-guy/ Black Seo Guy

    Twitter is growing and growing fast, most companies are realizing the real power behind marketing to the massive with Twitter.

    “Black Seo Guy “Signing Off”

  • http://flavors.me/40deuce 40deuce

    I've said this for a long time, but I'm glad that more and more people are starting to realize just how much insight can be gained just from listening to what people are saying in social media.
    Also, thanks for the book recommendation, I'll have to check out Hashtag Analytics.

    Cheers,
    Sheldon, community manager for Sysomos

  • http://writemorewritefastwritenow.com/ Tammi Kibler

    “The new participant who re-tweets content from an influencer can one day become an influencer if the influencer simply offers kindness in return for the retweet!”

    What an interesting insight that is. I think it a mistake when people snub new Twitter users as inconsequential when actually, if you get to influence a Twitter newbie early on, you can shape their entire perception of both Twitter and your industry.

    Someone has found a way to measure this? Genius. I will check out Hashtag Analytics.

    • Jeff Larche

      I agree Tammi. It is pretty brilliant. Glad I could let you know about this work.

  • http://DonnyGamble.com Donny Gamble

    I have been laying off of Twitter because I just can't seem to get a good response to make it profitable

  • http://www.businessesGROW.com/blog Mark W Schaefer

    One of the best articles I've read in awhile. Solid analysis.

    • Jeff Larche

      Thanks, Mark. It's fascinating stuff

  • Storch Kirill

    let me ask you a question, I know its not quite on the subject of twitter but I was reading your article and I thought of this. How much does it help to iframe your website inside of facebook in order to increase your conversions? Because I am thinking of iframing my site

    http://mindflashad.com/brandin…/

    and putting it all into facebook to look like this

    http://www.facebook.com/pages/

    Do you think that will help?

    • Jeff Larche

      My suspicion is that this would go against Facebook's terms of service. I can't recall seeing iframe content on Facebook's business pages. It's worth trying I suppose. Anything that can deliver current, relevant content to readers will likely improve the odds of better conversion rates.

    • http://www.puredriven.com Patrick Garmoe

      I'm not sure about the terms of service issue Storch, but what you are showing is pretty similar to a customized Facebook welcome page. A customized welcome page can boost your conversions for people clicking to your “Like” page by 20 percent, on average. Not sure what the conversion would be to taking the quiz, but I'm sure it would help somewhat.

  • http://twitter.com/Dezigngossip Simon Hodges

    Nice insights :)

    • Jeff Larche

      Thanks Simon. Glad to share what I've discovered. Of course Kevin deserves all the credit …

  • http://www.neverstopmarketing.com jer979

    You weren't kidding. Great post. I am going to reblog and comment. Will let you know when I do.

    This subject is near and dear to my heart. In fact, blogged on it in these “pages” before.

    It sounds like the book is validating Duncan Watts' research, which makes more sense to me. Gladwellian ideas on influence seem just to neat and orderly.

    If you have a moment, you might enjoy this post of mine on the topic of
    Influencers vs. Fans: Allocating Your Resources
    http://jer979.com/igniting-the…/

    well done and thanks again!

    • Jeff Larche

      Thanks, Jeremy. I follow your blog and especially enjoyed your “Allocating Your Resources” post. I appreciate your comment. Let's keep in touch!

      • http://www.neverstopmarketing.com jer979

        Interested in chatting live one of these days for 17 mins?

        Jeremy

        -Subscribe by email or RSS to the Never Stop Marketing Blog

        -Become a Fan on Facebook

        -Connect at LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook

        -Call me Tel: 202 370 1431 Skype: jer979

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  • Elizabeth MacGahan

    People are clearly using social media to shop. Go where the eyeballs — and wallets! — are. Check it: http://venpop.com/2011/the-top-5-twitter-outlets/
     

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002134323522 Micheal Fox

    Excellent tips. Clear, to the point. Social media is really a great tool for online marketers. It can help reinforce your brand. Through this strategy you can see what people are talking about. Once you know that, then you can join and connect with them. If your thinking you need help in your social media needs, you can also check out: http://socialmediasolutionsexpert.com/

  • Carlos

    Very good and useful article, thanks for sharing. I would like to ask you what application do you recommend to evaluate words and influencers around a hashtag. Thanks again.
    Carlos.

    • http://www.neverstopmarketing.com jer979

      I use Sprinklr of course ;-)