The Next Generation Of Social Media Experts

by Jason Falls |
[flickr style=”float: left”]photo:250236754[/flickr]All good technology ideas are hatched in garages, right? Or basements. Perhaps that’s why it didn’t surprise or concern me Wednesday when Nick Huhn and I ventured to the basement of a technology building at the University of Louisville to serve as reactionaries to student presentations in a U of L-Murray State collaborative marketing class entitled, “Marketing in the Era of Consumer Generated Media.” The class was a first of its kind at Louisville and Murray State and was co-presented by professors David Faulds (U of L) and Glynn Mangold (Murray State). There were eight Louisville students and seven Murray State students represented in the four groups of presentations we saw. Each one looked at CGM, how brands are using it (both well and not so) and identified some ethical misdeeds by some.

Now I know what the old farts meant when I was in college and heard someone say, “It’s so much fun to be around you young people.” I’m now an old fart. And it was fun to be around those young people.

My biggest takeaway was two-fold. First, the college students studying social media are exploring, discussing and learning the same things we professionals are. Second, we’d better stay on top of our game because the fresh set of eyes of the next generation, the one that has grown up in the digital world, is about to hit the workforce with a level of aptitude far more anchored in this world than we are. In long-winded Jason Falls summary, let us not be like the generation of marketing folks ahead of us – the 50- to 60-year-olds who scoff at the idea of transparency and tell us to go play with our MySpace and let them show us how to market with their CBS Evening News spots and Redbook ads – because if we are, we’ll soon be made fun of just as much.

Here’s what the young people had to say:

Brands that are doing good things with Consumer Generated Media, which they defined in varying degrees, but basically summarized as social media tools allowing the consumer to add to the conversation (blogs, comments, forums, video uploads, etc.):

  • Mattel – Specifically website tools that allow parents and children to discuss and interact, comment on products, etc.
  • Pepsi Max – One of the few they found that had a website ready for consumers once the Super Bowl commercial hit.
  • Nintendo Wii – They liked the pre-, during and post-buzz of the product launch.
  • American Airlines – Milestones site for Advantage members.
  • NikeId – Create your own shoe resulted in mass customization and customer satisfaction.
  • Barak Obama – Grass roots campaign that has truly resulted in a controlled brand hijack.
  • Scion – Having an exclusive car show for bloggers and influencers who dig Scions rocks.
  • Proctor & Gamble – Swiffer Sweeper, “Science Behind The Brands,” and “Ask Julia,” – all cool.
  • Toyota – For their consumer blog and UGC campaigns.
  • Apple – For the pre-launch buzz about the iPhone (Even if it was via Jobs-esque orchestrated leaks.)

Brands that are mucking it up:

  • Mattel – No kick ass website can make up for the fact they blew a chance to make Scrabulous work for them.
  • Victoria’s Secret – No way to rate or share information about the Pink Line products for the younger target.
  • Dr. Pepper – The whole Yahoo! Las Vegas hotel wedding thing … what did this have to do with Dr. Pepper again?
  • Jeep – Though thought to be strong in the social media space, the students thought Jeep’s Marvel Comics promotion with the Jeep Patriot launch was a good idea, but not up to par with what a good campaign should be. According to the student’s research, legal issues after the fact prevented post-promotion publicity and buzz, almost killing the effectiveness.
  • Burger King – Student research says they’re targeting 16-24 year-old males but that the blogosphere is generally negative about the brand. I asked if it could be because 16-24 year-old males don’t blog much. It could also be the result of the fact big plastic king heads in ads is just creepy.
  • Ford – They said the “Way Forward Plan” should be called the “Way Backward Plan” … even on the PowerPoint slide. Killer.

Ethical Violators:

Target, Wal-Mart, Whole Foods, Hunter College (I’m diving into this one for further discussion later.), Wal-Mart, Exxon Mobile for Al Gore’s Penguin Army, Sony Ericsson Cell Phones, Wal-Mart, Sony PSP and … oh, what was that last one? Oh yeah! Wal-Mart.

One group (Sarah Kayrouz and Amber Lyons of U of L and Ashley Luberda and Sarah Wells of Murray State) called out Microsoft for their Vista-loaded Acer computer outreach to bloggers, though I thought they were a bit anxious to call it a violation of the ethics standards. Product review programs happen all the time and Microsoft didn’t push for positive reviews. Still, the students cited negative blogger reaction, calling the program a violation of the principle of protecting the consumer since pushing influencers to review their product could bias information given to consumers. If the criticism is right as an absolute, then PR as a whole is unethical. And I suppose some out there would affirm that notion.

One group (Jessica Amundson and Devin Wilbur of Murray State and MaryCrae Brotzge and Julia Lawson from U of L) offered their opinion of what makes good web design for new media. Wilbur presented the following as dos:

  1. Make it easy to navigate
  2. Foster some version of community (which I assume means conversation at a minimum)
  3. Provide for user-generated content (commenting, etc.)
  4. Include activities or elements of fun/games to engage

Not a bad list. His group also produced some don’ts:

  1. Let content go stale
  2. Produce a lot of links that take folks away from the site
  3. Fall into the “me too” syndrome
  4. Have content that adds nothing to the consumer’s experience with the brand.

That group also emphasized that the key to successful CGM marketing is collaboration with your audience. The same group offered up a “Thinking Point” that read, “We expect companies to be held to high ethical standards. Shouldn’t we also hold consumer to ethical standards with new media?”

Interesting perspective indeed.

Another group (Ryan Culligan and Billy Harfosh of U of L and Kyle Howard from Murray State), in reference to Mattel’s mishandling of the Scrabulous Facebook application made a logical statement that seems obvious but is seldom adhered to by brands: “Avoid fighting online enthusiasm.”

Amen.

Each of the four group presentations used the WOMMA Code of Ethics as a starting point for their ethical discussions. They quoted it so religiously, I almost Tweeted Andy Sernovitz and said, “Hey, I’m sitting in a room full of your fan club. These kids are sharp, but starting to frighten me.” Certainly WOMMA is the right place to start. The students did seem a bit fixated on WOMMA sanctioning members who violate the code of ethics. There’s really no need. The consumers punish them enough. Give the folks in Bentonville a call if you need verification. The best discussion of it came from the group featuring Alisa Blankenship and Jonathan Erickson from U of L and Ken Hoover and Joe Kay from Murray State. They did a nice job of quoting folks like B.L. Ochman and citing from the class’s core texts, Paul Gillin‘s, “The New Influencers,” and Emanuel Rosen‘s, “Anatomy of Buzz.” (Both of these books are on my office credenza for easy access.)

All told, I took six pages of notes on their presentations, both for the evaluations and this blog post. But I came away with more knowledge than I started with, particularly with regard to what college students are seeing, hearing and learning about social media.

If I have any criticisms, other than the minor disagreements I’ve pointed out, it would be that while they all did a great job of pointing out what brands were doing right and those that weren’t, I would have been really impressed if the negative were followed with an explanation of how or why the execution didn’t match the brand strategy. The Dr. Pepper example stood out to me. I just kept saying to myself, “What the hell does this wedding promotion have to do with Dr. Pepper?” It’s easy to be critical, but tell me what specifically makes the criticism stick. Where did they miss? What could they have done to make it better? And the web design dos included activities – fun and games. I would agree but only in some cases – those that ladder up to a payoff of a greater brand strategy.

And we, as social media thinkers, should also be careful when offering criticism, too. We don’t know what limitations were placed on the programs in terms of budget, timing, personnel and so on. Edelman caught a lot of flack for the Wal-Mart blogging thing, but working with clients for a few years now, I wonder if the idea made it to fruition despite the objection of counsel?

But these kids didn’t miss much. Howard asserted that CGM needs to be focused on the target audience and work within the context of the campaign. If every brand trying social media heard and heeded that, there’d be a lot less bad examples for the students to highlight.

If I saw the future of social media thinking Wednesday, it’s both good and bad. Good because the next generation of thinkers is already on the ball. Bad because they could bounce the rest of us right out of our jobs.

(But don’t get too uppity yet, kids. Us old farts ain’t stupid.)

IMAGE: “Eraser finished with cleaning chalkboard – BC” by frozenchipmunk on Flickr.

[tags]consumer generated media, cgm, ugc, social media, marketing, University of Louisville, Murray State University[/tags]

About the Author

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for Elasticity, one of the world's most innovative digital marketing and public relations firms. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).