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Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Statistically Speaking...

Unfortunately my Google Analytics account hasn’t been working for me/ I didn’t install the code properly so I will take an alternative view and analyse visitor’s use of my blog through my Stat Counter account. As Stat Counter and Google Analytics collect the same type of data, I hope the results I have will be equally as useful.

I’ve found it quite fascinating to look over the information that has been collected through this account, with the results being far more promising than I had expected. I am really surprised to learn that since setting up my blog in February it has received 193 unique visitors, with 97 of these being first time visits and 96 returning visitors, with 428 page loads in total so far.
Although I know that the majority of these visits will be from classmates, there have been visits from internet users from as far away as Beverly Hills, California, with someone from Quinter in Kansas recorded as spending 15 hours 49 minutes and 38 seconds viewing my blog (doesn’t quite seem right?!). What I found most interesting though was the fact that someone from Somerville, Massachusetts arrived at my post, ‘ Social Media Envoy as New Online Celebrity Endorsement’ through googling the terms ‘ celebrity endorsement and malaria’. They did, however, only spend between 5 and 30 seconds on my page. Still, quite good to know!

Although the majority (56.8%) of visitors spent less than 5 seconds viewing my blog, 10 people (8%) spent around 5 minutes browsing, with 27 visitors (21.6%) spending longer than an hour. The website does point out that there are problems with accurately trying to assess how long people are looking at your blog, with these figures only being an estimate, using the last time during a visit that the viewer loads your webpage as the exit time. I would guess that the people who were recorded as staying at my site for over an hour had more likely left it open in a separate browser! The stat counter site also points out that it’s very important to install the same code on each page of a website to gain a better insight into how longer viewers are browsing the entire site for.

Looking at the exit link statistics lets me find out how many people have followed each link I have included throughout my blog. The majority of my links have been used at least once, with various people leaving the site to go to one of the PR blogs through my ‘Interesting Digital PR/Communications’ page. In analysing how people have reached my blog I see that the majority, 68 visitors, reached my blog through the link on the StirPR Blog spot. One visitor came to my blog by using their iPhone in London. It really is quite amazing how much you can find out about your visitors! But this is probably more interesting for me than anyone else... The graph below breaks down the total amount of visitors to my blog in February, March and April.

What I will say about tools like Google Analytics and Stat Counter is that I can definitely see how they could be highly useful to organisations utilising social media channels, particularly within PR campaigns. Statistics such as this could not only indicate to what degree people find your website or blog interesting and engaging (by analysing visitor length times and exit links) but they would also help in the evaluation stages of a campaign, giving practitioners very useful and accurate statistics on the global reach of a campaign, as well as specific locations of those who were exposed to their messages.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Choirs and Castells

This video is the outcome of a collaborative online project set up by the composer Eric Whitacre who, in harnessing the potential of social networks and digital media channels, has established a virtual choir. I think this is a really nice example of the possibilities of these channels and a case which rather poetically demonstrates some of the main points of social media theorists like Van Dijk and Castells.

The concept of ‘The Network Society’, coined by Van Dijk (1999) and discussed by Castells in The Rise of The Network Society (1996) is explained as being to do with the potential replacement of the public sphere in terms of a physical space by the increasing development of online networks. Communication- ‘interpersonal’, political debate, marketing & advertising, information dissemination etc- is no longer restricted to direct face-to-face conversation, print or broadcast media as we all know, with the internet now revolutionising information flow, leading to new terminology such as ‘information’ or ‘network societies'.

The term ‘society’ suggests an all-inclusive framework, which infers that this is a global phenomenon. However, with internet usage and digital technologies predominantly being diffused within the public’s of North America, Western European and East Asian countries, to talk in terms of a ‘global network society’ ignores those countries where the technology is still absent or currently in development. Therefore, many scholars have acknowledged this in writing on the concept of the ‘Digital Divide’. This not only takes in to account the parts of the world where internet use is still relatively low, but also considers the effect of demographics in relation to how this impacts upon availability of the internet to potential users and how varying factors can limit their understanding of information technologies. For example, consider the demographics of the members of the virtual choir, here performing another piece:

Although the choir boasts members from 12 different countries, the majority of the members are from the USA, with some from Western Europe and only a few from South American and Asian countries. In addition to this, it appears that the members are of a very limited age range, from around early 20’s to late 30’s. Although this is a very focused example, it represents the main users of the internet quite well- the “Participating Majority” as Van Dijk (2006) outlines, who are younger and predominantly middle and working class and who use the internet for recreational purposes (like online choirs!). In contrast, the “Disconnected and Excluded” who can be of lower classes, are ethnic minorities as well as of the older generation. There is a danger here as Van Dijk (2006) explains,

“One thing is for certain: people who do not have access to the new communications networks, nor the skill to use them or to process and select information distributed by them, will be powerless.”

I think it is important to consider these theories in terms of how the internet and networks can be used by PR practitioners within campaigns. The example of the virtual choir demonstrates the innovative ways in which social media can be used to produce very sophisticated results as well as how people can collaborate and communicate on complex projects without having to ever meet in real life. It demonstrates the reach of these communications channels and the fact that people are engaging with these technologies and in increasingly developed ways. However, it is still apparent that many important publics are excluded from the network society who should not be ignored. Although it is vital for organizations to understand and integrate social/digital media within campaigns they also need to be careful not to alienate those publics who are not yet online.

Friday, 16 April 2010

Digital Deception

So far I have used this blog to explore the potential benefits of the integrated use of social media channels by PR practitioners and have illustrated this with some specific social media campaigns. However, there is also a much murkier side to this type of PR activity that I think it is just as important to address as, just as has happened throughout the history of the PR industry, a few players are doing their best to ruin the good reputation and effectiveness of this activity in conducting practice of significantly questionable ethical standards.

Emerging activity which has come to be referred to as ‘flogging’, ‘astroturfing’ or ‘front grouping’ has involved PR practitioners exploiting the values of transparency, authenticity and interactivity most celebrated by social media champions and using them to manipulate and mislead audiences. Organisations that have used such tactics appear to have misunderstood the potential chance to improve upon how they operate and instead look upon social media as just another channel through which to push their brands and products, and in a particularly sneaky way. It is a very similar trend as to that which developed in the print media sector in the coming together of advertising and editorial content in the form of advertorials. With the internet only making everything easier, I suppose similar issues were inevitably going to cause problems online.

What is perhaps the most unethical aspect of astroturfing is that often the authors of the content published are painted as your average joe/josephine public, written to look like personal blogs but are in fact carefully crafted promotional propaganda pieces developed strategically by the companies themselves. By recognizing recent trends such as citizen journalism and the public's increasing need for authenticity in the face of recent private sector scandals, corporations have even found a way to capitalize on the growing distrust of their dodgy practice, and with further unethical practice!

But audiences are only becoming wiser. There have been many examples of companies using these methods being busted by readers with a more critical eye. For example Vichy a French cosmetics company and devision of the L’Oreal group did a particularly bad job of creating a ‘customer’ blog creating an unrealistic character which was just not made believable enough to audiences. What is most interesting about this case however is that once the company eventually owned up to their mistakes (they blamed it on a poor understanding of social media) they started on a clean slate with customers who appreciated their eventual honesty and now appear to have reasonably good communication with the company through a much better, more authentic and transparent website. This is a case the social media author Shel Isreal wrote about on his blog. Wallmart and Sony have also been criticized for their use of such tactics in the past amongst many other companies. Although these cases cause concern it is perhaps more worrying to consider the organizations who have not been caught out and what they have got away with, particularly when it comes to fake blogs on sensitive social issues.

I think although these examples are old and hopefully audiences are growing in awareness of these schemes, it is still important to highlight such activity as it is so incredibly easy to create online content and pass it off as credible if you have the skills and know how. In addition to this, I for one have to admit having not really given these issues much consideration (aside from issues with Wikipedia) and had never heard of the terms ‘flogging’ or ‘astroturfing’ until recently and only due to actually studying in this area. I believe that there has to be more effort in monitoring and pulling up companies who use these tricky tactics, something which websites such as PR Watch/Centre for Media Democracy (find an interesting article here on how to try and distinguish astroturf sites) and Corporate Watch currently do. Most importantly, just as the sector has dealt with problems over ethics in the past, PR practitioners need to bear these problems with social media use in mind and ensure that they not only feel obliged to tell the truth but view this as being vital in the upkeep of the industry as a profession.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Digital Integration

A recent article in PR Week reports on the findings of a study carried out by the publication to assess the current use of social media channels by various organisations. Although developing specific social media strategies/channels/departments may seem like the obvious step now for companies in ‘the digital age’, the results of this survey indicate that many organisations are still struggling to effectively manage their digital communications.

The Digital Integration Report is one of the first studies in this area to talk in terms of quantitative data, providing some interesting figures to analyse. For example, 29% of PR practitioners surveyed still voice scepticism over whether digital media had the potential to really improve operations, a quite substantial percentage considering the amount of positive discussion on social media use, particularly within the PR sector.

The results of the study suggest that organisations are struggling to effectively integrate social media strategies amongst existing ways of operating as well as agreeing on which internal department is to take responsibility for the implementation of these strategies. It appears that this line of thinking is one of the main drawbacks for organisations grappling with these ‘new’ communication channels. Although social media is more obviously valuable to marketing comms or PR departments, I believe employees across the organisational board should be aiming to reap the benefits of these technologies by incorporating such activity into their existing work methods. Social media can no longer be viewed as an extra task of the media relations officer but something all staff are familiar with, even as a full time job for someone in a dedicated social media officer role.

With the majority of companies and organisations struggling to keep afloat at present however, this is perhaps an idealistic scenario for the short term. There has, for example been debate within the non-profit sector on how to find the resources to adequately implement social media strategies. Although new media channels may appear free, effective staff engagement with these technologies does come at a cost in terms of how much time is needed to maintain an online presence (as well all know now from our experiences with blogs!). As a result, many non-profits are creating volunteer positions to take responsibility for social media maintenance; a good way to avoid cost issues but perhaps compromising the level of expertise and available hours staff are able to work.

Nevertheless, I would strongly argue that the development and implementation of a well considered social media strategy and ideally the creation of ‘social media officer’ positions within organisations is something that they are only going to be forced to integrate in the future. This report, although highlighting that the use of social media is still in need of fine tuning for many organisations, again stresses the importance of knowledge in this area as an extremely valuable and employable skill.