Social media: the need to know
Published as Insight on 21 July 2011 - If there is one thing that has radically changed with the development of the social web, it is how easily information is shared with others. A news article is only one click away from a larger audience of followers and friends on Twitter or Facebook. And, through a chain reaction of ‘shares’ or ’retweets’, the reach of news is theoretically limitless making talk of ratings and circulation numbers a relic of the past.
The social web not only enables people to share information, they can also rate it. Google users have for some time been able to rate the value of websites and articles with the so-called ‘+1’ button. With the launch of social network Google+, the relevance of this button further increases because users can now also show friends, family or colleagues the webpages and articles they find interesting. Google was of course not the first to offer this type of a rating button. Since April 2010, Facebook users have been able to 'Like' webpages or articles and also social network messages.
Social networks like Facebook, Google+ and Twitter initially made their money from ad sales. Now their business model is additionally based on the information generated by its users. Access to this information, such as the number of likes and shares that pages receive, can be used by marketeers and ‘data miners’ for example to target new niche audiences and optimise search engines. For instance a drinks company may want to know the 'like habits' of beer drinkers, in order to determine their potential sponsor strategy. In the new reality of the social web, the impact of negative or positive sentiment is considerable and hard to ignore. Regardless of reputational impact, articles that are liked and shared have a tremendous viral potential.
In monitoring social media, the number of shares and likes an article receives is an indication of its relevance, as is the quality of the shares and likes. When authors like technology expert Robert Scoble, the known Dutch blogger Nalden and stand up comedian @youpvanthek share or react on an article, they significantly influence how others rate the message and increase the likelihood of it going viral. Liking is however not always appropriate because, although a positive article, a story about hunger in Africa, would not be considered something to 'like'. The need for interpretation of likes or lack of likes becomes apparent. Choosing the right communications strategy therefore always starts with knowledge and understanding of social media behaviour.
Critically, knowledge is more than the information provided by search systems. Knowledge is interpreted information that has meaning and is free of 'noise'. What is the impact of a negative or positive message? How have people responded? How is the internet spreading the message? How often and by whom is the message rated? And, probably the most important question, is it relevant? Search systems provide the information but people are needed to filter the information on relevance and consequently interpret it. Intelligence remains a people’s business.