Simon Smith

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The risk of other people’s platforms

(Cross-posted from the Klick Health blog.)

A few weeks ago, I received an alarming email from Twitter stating that my account was suspended for impersonation. At first, I thought it was spam. But after navigating to my Twitter profile and seeing an account suspension notice, I went into panic mode.

I’m by no means a huge Twitter user, but like many people and brands, I use it to connect and communicate with an audience, and have cultivated a presence on the platform for more than four years—all the while dutifully staying within the boundaries of Twitter etiquette and rules. Losing my account felt like being evicted from a house that I built.

It was, however, a house that I built on someone else’s land. And being so abruptly removed was a reminder of the risky path many brands walk by putting too many eggs in other people’s baskets—be it Twitter, Facebook or YouTube.

My Twitter suspension email, apparently for impersonating myself. After a few emails to support, my account was reinstated, but with no explanation.

What’s your company’s AOL keyword?

I often hear marketing managers talk with reverence about platforms like Facebook and YouTube while grudgingly acknowledging that they need a website at all. Some companies go so far as to redirect their domain to their Facebook page, and Facebook reps have talked about a future in which companies with Facebook pages won’t need websites.

And it seems appealing. Who wants to maintain a website when companies like Facebook give you the tools to communicate and engage directly with your audience? Free? (And pharma is by no means exempt; an increasing number of pharma brands are launching branded Facebook and YouTube pages, albeit with modifications such as removing comments to avoid regulatory issues.)

But I’ve seen this story before, and it doesn’t end well for brands. Remember AOL keywords? In the late 1990s and early 2000s, it seemed like every brand was promoting its AOL keyword rather than its own URL. How about MySpace?  Today, it’s Facebook pages and Twitter hashtags. Tomorrow it will besomething else.

The risks of relying on other people’s platforms are many. As I experienced, you can be shut down, with little recourse. Even if not, you’re  investing in building content on someone else’s platform that doesn’t benefit your owned properties (for example, by increasing your inbound links and search engine rank). Then there’s the bait-and-switch, whereby platforms tweak their original offering to the point where brands find themselves increasingly paying for what was originally free exposure. Perhaps most importantly, yesterday’s hot social network is today’s viral joke; all that investment is wasted if users turn elsewhere, and history suggests they will—while websites endure.

Spokes are fine, as long as there’s a hub

Social media should drive traffic to your website—not usurp it—as shown in this hub and spoke model.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been entirely heeding my own advice. At the time my Twitter account was suspended, I had let my personal blog lag. I wanted to tell the world about the incident, and see who could help. But I had few blog readers who would listen.

Fortunately, I still had Facebook and email. So, after using them to track down a Twitter contact, and submitting a formal appeal through Twitter online, my account was eventually reinstated—albeit with little explanation. (It probably helped that they accused me of impersonation, but the domain name of my personal email address,, is the same as my Twitter username, @simonsmith.)

The experience reinforced to me the value of the hub and spoke digital marketing model. Other people’s platforms—the spokes—can certainly be useful in achieving your marketing objectives. But it’s critical to diversify—a wheel with two spokes will collapse—and to develop a strong hub to which the spokes drive traffic.

And never rely on just one platform. Because one day, you could be kicked off.

Innovations: Can Treato make social listening safe (and useful) for pharma?

(Cross-posted from the Klick Health blog.)

The benefits of social media listening often don’t outweigh the risks. It can sometimes mean nothing more than word clouds that quantify brand mentions. What we really want is insight. Not just data.

Enter Treato. An Israeli startup that’s about a year old, it aggregates health-related social media conversations and analyzes them with natural language algorithms to reveal “the voice of the patient.” The result is comprehensive market insight that Treato says achieves 80% accuracy compared to other methodologies, but with much greater scale.

“Everyone tries to listen,” says Michal Tamir, Treato’s VP Marketing and Business Development. “We actually understand.”

Eavesdropping on a billion conversations

I came across Treato recently while reading about new digital health startups and accelerators. There’s been a recent surge of disruptive innovation in digital health, unleashed in part by adoption of mobile platforms and apps, as well by healthcare inefficiencies that beg for novel solutions. Intrigued, our analytics team contacted the company for a demo.

Visit Treato’s free public site and you can immediately grasp the potential. Search for a pharmaceutical brand and you get instant results showing how patients rate it relative to competitors, what they’re taking it for, and what side effects they’re experiencing. For more qualitative insights, you can also see anonymized patient quotes that Treato analyzed to generate your report.

Treato gleans all of this from unstructured data, having crawled and analyzed more than 1.1 billion posts from over 1,500 websites generated by more than 23,000,000 patients and covering more than 24,000 drugs and conditions.

This differs from sites like PatientsLikeMe that use a more structured approach. Whereas PatientsLikeMe is similar to a facilitated focus group, Treato is like eavesdropping on patients talking other over coffee. The former approach may yield answers to specific questions, but the latter reveals a level of openness and honesty that more structured methods might inhibit. It’s also far more scalable; no registration is needed for participation, and everything people say publicly online can be indexed.

Patient intelligence without adverse event reporting?

In addition to its free service, Treato offers a professional service called Treato Pharma that’s available to pharmaceutical companies and their marketing agencies. If the free version is akin to a heart rate monitor for your brand, the paid version is a tricorder.

After you configure Treato Pharma for your brand and its competitors, you can navigate through tabs covering “Patient Insights,” “Competitive Analysis,” “Drug Switching” and “Top Websites.” Here you can uncover what patients are saying about your product, what they’re saying about competitive products, what’s driving them to switch products, and which websites are most likely to host conversations about your product (which you can use to inform media campaigns). You also get a dashboard to present key insights from each area on a single page.

To understand just how powerful this can be, consider Treato Pharma’s ability to report product effectiveness by condition. If your product has multiple indications, Treato Pharma can show how patient sentiment differs for each.

Competitive reports are equally useful. In our demo, Tamir showed how Treato Pharma allows you to see what topics people discuss more or less with your product than with your competition. For example, if patients talk more about “weight gain” with a competitor’s product, that might trigger you to revise your market positioning or even prompt research that could support a new product claim.

Importantly, you can analyze how the patient conversation changes over time. This lets you gauge the effectiveness of marketing campaigns; by comparing patient awareness or sentiment before and after a campaign, you can understand its impact and ROI.

Powerful, yes. But what about implications for adverse event reporting? “That’s the number one question we get,” says Tamir. But Treato has a legal opinion, she says, that the aggregate and anonymized data they use doesn’t contain the patient-specific information required by the FDA for a reportable adverse event. Treato can also remove information as needed, she says, to address any regulatory concerns.

Next up: Tapping Facebook’s massive user base

While the current versions of Treato and Treato Pharma are impressive, improvements are already planned that should make them even more so. This includes the ability to export data (although not yet to Excel, to the disappointment of my colleagues in our analytics department), as well as expansion to indexing Facebook data. The latter reflects a trend, says Tamir, in which people are increasingly discussing health issues on Facebook.

Treato has also experimented with Twitter, but they claim it offered little value. “Ninety nine percent of brand mentions there are spam,” says Tamir. Also, she says, the 140-character limitation inhibits deep insight.

Overall, Treato Pharma seems like a powerful tool for pharma marketing, and one that I hope to test further in the next few months. But as with so much else in digital health, a good marketing product might not be enough to attract users. We’ll be watching closely to see how Treato goes down with regulatory and legal.

What if Klout is right?

I admit it. My first reaction to Klout, which attempts to measure online influence, was similar to my initial reaction to Facebook: “Seriously? People are using this? It’s probably just a fad.” (Exhibit A.)

I remember the early days of Facebook. I would receive request after request to “friend” people on the site. And I ignored them. I had seen how such sites as Friendster and Tribe devolved into flame wars and spam fests. And I was happy with LinkedIn, a pragmatic and professional social network.

But eventually, I caved. And for the first few weeks (perhaps month), I was hooked. From the utility of reconnecting with old friends to the dopamine surge of being tagged in a photo, it became quite addictive.

So while I’m skeptical about Klout, I wonder: What if they’re right? Not just in their algorithm for determining influence (which can always be tweaked, like Google’s search algorithm), but in their bet on the impact of assigning and leveraging an influence score. Now, about five years later, Facebook has changed the world (regardless of whether its worth $100 billion or half that), and is approaching a billion users. It’s hard to imagine a world before Facebook, when people weren’t instantly sharing pretty much everything.

As close to “whuffie” as we’ve seen

If you want to understand where social media could take us, you could do worse than read Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. So much so that it’s become cliche to talk about “whuffie,” the social capital that Doctorow’s book describes as akin to today’s money: the more whuffie you have, the more stuff you can get in return.

We’re moving fast in this direction, for a few reasons. One is certainly the creation of social networks such as Facebook and Twitter (which, by the way, I also initially pooh-poohed as a waste of time, but now use avidly), which make it easier to analyze people’s social capital. Another is that an abundance of information creates a scarcity of attention. So in our information saturated world, we increasingly live in an attention economy (as Chris Anderson describes in Free).

Attention is capital that can be converted to goods and services. For example, if you have a top Google search result for an in-demand keyword such as “life insurance,” you can convert that attention to money in the form of advertising to visitors or generating leads for life insurance companies. There is tons of information online about life insurance (over 119 million results in Google). Gaining attention amongst that abundance is worth something (about $19 a click in the US, for a Google search ad).

And that’s just the beginning. Recently, for example, I learned of a service called Wahooly that’s partnered with Klout to exchange advocacy on behalf of startups for equity. Yes, you read that correctly. If you’re an influencer, as measured by Klout, you can earn equity in a startup simply by advocating on its behalf to the people you influence.What Klout’s trying to do is identify the people who have that increasingly valuable attention. If it can do that, it could sit as effectively between attention and monetization in the social space as Google sits in the search space. And just as Google lets people earn attention in organic results or buy it through ads, Klout could let people build influence organically or buy it, such as by brokering relationships between advertisers and influencers.

So you no longer need to be rich to get rich (most countries only accredit investors with a large net worth, such as $1 million or more, although that’s changing). You can build your social capital, and increasingly exchange it for range of goods and services, and even hard cash.

Does Klout threaten traditional authority?

Talk about Klout as anything other than offensive, however, and the technorati will heap scorn.

There are certainly worthy criticisms. For example, Klout skews heavily, it seems, to the technologically inclined. Prolific technology writer Robert Scoble, for example, has a higher Klout score than the Dalai Lama. Then there are questions of whether one number can ever adequately capture influence, whether one company should have the power to say who’s influential, and whether Klout is simply a digital reinvention of high-school popularity contests that will lead people to do what’s cool versus what’s right.

Even if Klout never adequately addresses these criticisms, I think it represents something important: the quantification of social capital. Whether Klout or a competing service (of which, perhaps surprisingly, I’ve seen few) achieves this goal in a meaningful way, enough people believe in the prospect and its desirability (including big investors) that someone will likely figure it out. And, like Facebook, many of us will get sucked into its gravity as more people and organizations heed the numbers.

If it were incumbent corporations decrying a disruptive technology, like newspapers complaining about Google or credit card companies complaining about Square, we would all likely recognize the self-interest. But with traditional authority figures decrying technologies that might disrupt their power, such as old media authors with poor Klout scores calling them irrelevant, we’re not so quick to make the same conclusion. Should we be?

Disruption doesn’t just happen to companies and industries. It also happens to people and societies.

And often, those disruptions are initially dismissed as fads.

Guilty as charged.

Image credit: Cheon Fong Liew (modified with Klout logo by me)

The return of reputational capital: Why credibility is once again your best investment

Invest in yourself: Your credit score is probably less important to your long-term economic success than your online reputation (image credit: wynlok)

My little sister is adventurous, generous and, in the best possible way, idealistic. As I write this, she’s volunteering as a counselor at a Palestinian summer camp. So I wasn’t surprised to learn that she recently traveled to Cyprus. Nor that she stayed with a complete stranger she met online through CouchSurfing, a website—make that movement—for finding accommodation and creating a better world “one couch at a time.”

But I was somewhat surprised when I saw pictures of her accommodations. Rather than the dirty hovel you might expect from a service targeting frugal travellers, her room was spacious and immaculate, the fortunate side-effect of staying in the home of an architect’s son. And, exceeding even the common generosity of the CouchSurfing community, her host even offered use of his car, a convertible Mazda Miata perfect for booting around in the Cyprus sun.

It’s the kind of accommodation and transportation that could set you back some cash. Except for one thing: you couldn’t buy it if you tried, because CouchSurfing’s rules expressly prohibit such commercial transactions. So whereas a decent hotel in Cyprus might cost you $100 a night, an architect’s house and a convertible (not to mention meals) are free.

Free, that is, if you have a good reputation, and the right attitude. Because while CouchSurfing doesn’t allow commercial transactions, it does require you to have credibility. If fellow CouchSurfers give you a poor rating, you’re out of luck. Violate core principles, and you’re out of the community completely.

CouchSurfing’s just one example of a growing reputation-based economy. Science fiction writer Cory Doctorow’s “whuffie,” a digitally tracked future currency based on reputation, now seems one of the more prescient predictions in recent years. A confluence of developments including information (and general) abundance, social media growth and transparency, and an increasingly unreliable financial credit system have driven the trend. Make no mistake: your reputation (and, particularly, your digital reputation) is now as important to your economic future as your credit score—if not more so.

From handshakes to credit score—and back

Long ago, in the dark ages before MasterCard, personal integrity was your credit score. We didn’t need elaborate algorithms for calculating your worthiness of a loan. If you had a good reputation, you could borrow from family, friends and the community. If you had a bad reputation, you were marginalized. Your handshake was worth more than gold. And the community’s memory rivalled that of a bank mainframe. People didn’t forget. If your grandfather’s grandfather screwed people, you were born tainted.

But for most of the 20th century, we disconnected personal integrity from credit worthiness. Your credit score was largely determined by things like your equity and, bizarrely, the amount of debt you were already carrying and able to manage. One of my older sisters (not the CouchSurfer; I have three) never claimed one of those ubiquitous student credit cards while at university. When she graduated, despite having a steady job with the government, she struggled to get credit. With no history of debt, she was essentially blacklisted. Meanwhile, the Kenneth Lays and Bernie Ebbers of the world had no trouble accessing capital, despite character flaws that would ultimately lead to their undoing.

What happened? As communities grew and dispersed, our ability to track reputation disintegrated. Doing business with people overseas, for example, it’s hard to know their reputation, particularly if you don’t speak their language or know anyone in their community. Ditto when our communities grew beyond the few hundred people our brains evolved to track. And then there’s the fact that integrity is a tough thing to measure. It’s pretty hard to track how many promises or handshakes people betray.

But it’s fairly straightforward to track people’s financial transactions. So why go through the arduous process of assessing character when you can much more easily track earnings, equity, debt load and repayment history? Hence your credit score became far more important than your reputation, allowing for national and international financial institutions to build obscenely lucrative businesses by extending credit to people they’d never met, and didn’t need to.

But all of that is starting to change.

From Visa to Facebook

Something’s happening now that’s returning us to a more communal, reputation-based economy. The massive growth in goods and services sharing—things like car sharing and couch surfing—is some of the most tangible evidence, as sharing doesn’t work without ways to measure and monitor reputation (as noted by collaborative consumption guru Rachel Botsman). Then there’s the explosion of interest in personal branding, the art of managing your image the way corporations manage theirs. In fact, there are now even entire businesses built to protect your reputation.

As I see it, there are three main trends driving the return of reputational capital:

  1. Reputation helps us curate abundance. In his excellent book Free, Chris Anderson describes how an abundance of information on the internet helped give reputation monetary value. How so? With so much information, what’s scarce is attention. We decide what information to attend based on reputation. (That’s how Google works, for example; sites with many high-quality inbound links have a good reputation in Google’s eyes, hence rise up the search ranks.) When you have a good enough reputation to attract attention, you can monetize that attention with products, services or ads. But information isn’t the only thing that’s abundant these days. In industrialized nations, there is a general abundance of goods and services to meet our needs. We’re overwhelmed. So we determine what goods and services to attend based on reputation.
  2. Transparent social networks allow us to measure and track reputation. And if you don’t think this is important, note that nearly half of employers review job candidates on social networking sites. Of course, bulletin boards, forums and chat rooms have been around awhile. What’s new, as noted by David Kirkpatrick in The Facebook Effect, is the level of transparency we now have with social networks. On Facebook, you use your real name and connect (mostly) to other real people. Ditto with services like LinkedIn. Everything you share there is recorded for posterity, and we’re becoming increasingly comfortable sharing a lot. Now add rating and “liking,” and you have a way of keeping score. You can try to avoid it by abstaining from social networks. But for many industries and jobs, the benefits of social networking—like the ability to use your reputation and network to attract business—outweigh the risks. It’s now much easier to track handshakes, no matter the number, distance or language of your connections.
  3. Our relationship with credit is on the rocks. After the recent financial apocalypse, a lot of people have basement-dwelling credit scores. Hell, a lot of countries have basement-dwelling credit scores. And as much as governments try to stimulate economies with more borrowed cash, it’s doubtful the days of delirious debt spending are coming back. Americans in particular are maxed out, with the US now having the lowest savings rate—recently dipping into negative territory—since the Great Depression. (China’s savings rate, by comparison, is 30% to 40%, which the US has, oddly, tried to partly blame for the recent financial crisis while further spending itself into debt.) With credit no longer a clear marker of borrowing worthiness (especially in places where people have negative home equity due to the financial crisis), reputation has returned in importance.

Unlock wealth with your name

All of this suggests that cultivating a good reputation (and, generally, being a good person) could provide greater return on investment than most financial investment vehicles. For example, sellers on eBay with a good reputation tend to sell items at a higher price. And people who contribute to open source projects, like Linux, can translate their reputation-building contributions into lucrative jobs.

Let’s take a more concrete example. Imagine you put $1,000 today into an impossibly high-interest 12-month investment. Go nuts and imagine 10%, even though the highest guaranteed 12-month investment you’re likely to get with any bank right now is less than 2% in Canada. One year from now, you’d have yourself an extra $100. Which is about the cost of a one-night stay in a Cyprus hotel. Cultivate a reputation on CouchSurfing like my sister, however, and you could get yourself a weekend’s accommodation free, with food and, in at least one case, a car. Which, even just considering a two-night stay, is worth at least twice as much as your unrealistically high 10% interest return. Better yet, you need no principal (unless you want to build your reputation by hosting guests), meaning all you need to invest is your time.

So clearly, your reputation is worth something. Build it up. And try not to max it out.

Are Traditional Media Outlets Obsolete?

There’s a good chance you rarely read a newspaper or listen to the radio. At least, nowhere near as much as your parents. And for good reason. As more people turn to the web for news and entertainment, traditional media outlets lose revenue. And as they lose revenue (as Crowdsourcing author Jeff Howe notes), they have less money for solid reporting and entertainment. Which means they run more dreck, and more syndicated and wire stories. Which people find useless, so they abandon ship. Which reduces the audience further—and the death spiral for traditional media continues.

But I’m beginning to notice another trend signaling some serious obsolescence. This evening, Toronto’s branch of Canada’s national radio broadcaster, the CBC, reported a story about a Facebook group pressuring to end a university strike. It’s not the first time traditional media outlets have reported on Facebook. Recently, they also reported about a Facebook group pressuring the Ontario government to change pending driving legislation (which the government did). In fact, it’s becoming a trend.

And the trend is this: traditional media outlets are increasingly playing catch-up with web media. If 4,000 people can organize on Facebook, without using the traditional media to promote their cause, and can spread the word through social networks, blogs and other “new” (but really now mainstream) media, how important or relevant is a news show that covers the story after the fact?

I remember in the late 1990s, when I was finishing journalism school, we received a presentation from a representative of the National Post, a new national newspaper. I raised my hand and asked the speaker what they planned to do about the internet, and whether they felt it would impact their business or journalism in general. She just about laughed; most traditional media outlets saw the internet as a fad, as something that could never hurt their business.

Today, they see the writing on the wall. But I know, including from friends who work as web consultants to major newspapers, that they still don’t get it. And the reason is this: traditional media are top-down, while the new new media are bottom-up. And the bottom-up, crowdsourced approach runs completely counter to the top-down, authoritative approach that has defined traditional media for decades.

I don’t think, however, all traditional media outlets will die. Rather, I think that they’ll adapt, as new technologies typically change existing technologies rather than eliminate them entirely (television didn’t eliminate radio and radio didn’t eliminate newspapers). And to adapt, I think they need to adopt two strategies: provide the means to aggregate and filter crowdsourced material and fund investigative reports (that utilize crowdsourcing) that are too exhaustive and expensive for most individuals to undertake.

Of course, that’s by no means a complete answer to the problem. We could probably get a far better one by posing the challenge to the internet’s one billion inhabitants and crowdsourcing a solution.

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