Opt-In At The Source

Today I wanted to share an observation about a common mistake PR and marketing professionals make when focusing efforts in social media. In essence, most companies don’t focus on growing opt-in at the source for their digital communities. Instead they end up spending more time in other people’s platforms.

I’ve always known this anecdotally from experience working with clients, but a recent report from SmartBrief shows some data behind it.

What do you see that is wrong with this graph?

If your company is focusing efforts on Twitter and Facebook as the main hubs of your social presence, you’re (with some exceptions) doing it wrong.  Twitter and Facebook (i.e. – networks where you do not control the signal to noise ratio) should, for a majority of brands, not be your main focus. Rather, they should function as outposts to grow opt-in for a social platform you control – with that being the focus.

I understand the reasons for this. Twitter and Facebook are popular in particular because they are easy. It’s easy to update a Facebook page with frequency and engage with users there. It’s easy to share great links in Twitter that get ReTweeted and leverage it as a CRM tool. Even easier to set them up. But easy is not necessarily better unless it leads to outcomes. There are reasons that more robust platforms like blogging are less focused on. It’s a blank slate and requires creativity, critical thinking and planning. On the flip, there are many reasons why this is more valuable.

What do I mean by opt-in at the source?

the source as depicted in The Matrix Revolutions (2003)

You need to grow a community through a social technology that lets users opt-in directly to content (i.e. – through a tool such as RSS or email, where content is getting pushed to them in a way they won’t miss it). I would argue RSS and email — while not as “sexy” — are still better than Twitter or Facebook as a method of distribution. Twitter and Facebook (and even LinkedIn) are not opt-in at the source as they are configured as real-time streams. They are designed for you to miss things and focus on just what’s new, now.

Followers/likes vs. RSS subscribers

There’s a great thread on GigaOM discussing the subject of  Twitter followers vs. RSS subscribers and lists some key reasons RSS (a method of opt-in at the source) is a far higher quality metric – the top 5 are listed below:

1. Lack of context. Finding value in a character-restricted tweet is a lot harder to do than a dynamic and expandable RSS item. As a result, it’s a lot easier to tell a story and make a lasting impression via RSS than Twitter.

2. You don’t have to work for it. It takes more effort to subscribe to an RSS feed than to follow someone on Twitter (i.e., choosing your reader, selecting the right feed, and so on, compared with simply clicking on “follow”). Consequently, subscribers have a greater vested interest in what’s being broadcast than who they are following.

3. Spam. Ashton Kutcher may have been the first to record 1 million Twitter followers, but only the Fail Whale knows how many were legitimately interested in his affairs. Twitter is combating the problem, but there’s no such thing as spam subscribers.

4. Deficient continuity. Unlike RSS, unread tweets or status updates “drop off the stream” — that is they are not stored and labeled for a follower’s later use. An RSS reader, on the other hand, keeps everything tidy in reverse chronological order, so subscribers don’t miss a thing (unless they want to).

5. More noise. Twitter’s open API is great. But it comes at a price. Because third-party platforms are allowed to tweet on a user’s behalf, readers have to filter an increasing number of tweets they may have not originally signed up for. RSS, on the other hand, comes directly from the source.

Why should you care?

As Anil Dash pointed out – no one has a million Twitter followers. Further, it is absurd to totally yield your presence to the stream. As Leo Laporte noted:

….It makes me feel like everything I’ve posted over the past four years on Twitter, Jaiku, Friendfeed, Plurk, Pownce, and, yes, Google Buzz, has been an immense waste of time. I was shouting into a vast echo chamber where no one could hear me because they were too busy shouting themselves.

Thank God the content I deem most important, my Internet and broadcast radio shows, still stand. I believe in what I’m doing there, and have been very fortunate to have found an audience. I’m pretty sure I would have heard from people if there had been 16 days of dead silence there. Hell, if we miss one show I get hundreds of emails. But I feel like I’ve woken up to a bad social media dream in terms of the content I’ve put in others’ hands. It’s been lost, and apparently no one was even paying attention to it in the first place.

The problem with a focus on any sites that places a premium on real-time is your messages are always competing for attention with so much else. In Facebook and Twitter brands are competing for attention amongst user’s friends, business contacts, other brands and pure media players. It’s a cacophony and in my mind not a true community in the sense that it isn’t a unique place developed for people to go and have a social experience that feels special and specific for that group.

Other people’s platforms – for suckers, or should be the focus?

Some say platforms are for suckers:

…you shouldn’t build a company on top of another platform — no control, no assurances, no input, your fate is in their hands, it’s limiting, and so on — you should make it possible for others to build on top of you.

Others make the case for other people’s platforms (O.P.P.)

In the case of Twitter, they enable a communications platform. This instantly gives you reach and distribution than is easily trackable, as well as low friction to get things done.

In the case of Foursquare, they enable a location platform. This instantly gives you context of places, intent, and activity for users.

In the case of Facebook, they enable a social platform. Getting connected to a social graph where people spend their time uploading photos, connecting with friends, and spending a lot of time online you are presented with a great platform to introduce entertainment.

Granted the above is being talked about in a product context. But it’s not really so different when we are talking about building a community behind a brand. In both cases, it must be sustainable and allow the flexibility necessary to accomplish your objectives. At the end of the day – if you have business objectives to accomplish on the web (and not merely chase KPIs like following on Twitter, impressions on Facebook, etc.) you need a destination where you control the experience. In cases you do not have this, you’re put into a situation you are having to calculate value through fuzzy logic. Case in point: Vitrue’s Facebook Fan calculator. It is just not a measurement any marketer versed in analytics (let alone the C-suite) is going to take seriously.

You might be unique if…

If you’re a large consumer brand where the whole world knows you and you’re basically being reactive online – go ahead and focus energies on larger networks like Facebook. That’s where existing fans are already. That’s a reason why I was able to grow 6 figure Facebook fan pages quickly for popular brands that actually did yield pretty good outcomes. But at the end of the day – that brand is still interested in getting those fans from social channels to opt-in at the source of their marketing messages (in the case of the brand linked, they ultimately want users to subscribe to an email list they have a tight process around and can tag business results to).

Even if you are a large brand other people’s platforms still make sense to live within a larger digital workflow. Ultimately though, for large or small brands what community should your focus be? It all depends on objective – but for B2B companies in particular, you’d be insane to do something like give up a website/blog where you have total control of the experience (and can tweak to make a high-conversion destination). As an example, for Marketo, one of the fastest growing SaaS companies ever (and former client while at TopRank) – their blog (which has around 10K subscribers) is their single most effective marketing tactic.

What have you seen?

The takeaway from this is consider your focus carefully and design a flow that supports it to achieve a tangible objective. Facebook and Twitter are wonderful platforms to help grow a community and very valuable outposts. Tactically you should be using them in a way that supports your larger social media strategy. Hopefully that’s one that encourages opt-in at the source.

Curious what your experience has been?