Forrester: Social Media Is Now Mainstream Media

Photo by Matthew Field, via FlickrForrester Research today released its third annual social technographics profile of online adults around the world, and there’s only one possible conclusion: Social media is now in the mainstream – at least the consumption of social media.

Social technographics is Forrester’s lens through which it analyzes what people do with social media. Do they read it or look at it, do they create it, do they share it, or are they doing something else?

In the latest survey, 73% of all US adults are “spectators,” which means they read it, or look at it, at least once a month. Half of adults are “joiners,” which means they participate in a social network like Facebook. This is double the percentage from just two years ago.

Curiously, the number of people who regularly write blogs, upload video and music, or otherwise create content remains at 24%, compared to 18% in 2007. This does not disprove the importance of social media. To the contrary, it ratifies a hypothesis of Clay Shirky’s, which is that inside any collaborative effort, there is always a tiny group of people running the engine.

These findings echo the recent social technographic survey my association conducted on our members, Massachusetts physicians, around the same time that Forrester was in the field with its survey. Even among our members – median age around 50 – social media is a regular part of their existence.

Shel Holz wrote earlier today that NOW is the time to get into the online conversation with your communities. Couldn’t agree more.

But be careful. There is still much wisdom in the notion that you must start small, get it right, attract a following , and then grow.

As Shirky told the ASAE and the Center ‘s annual meeting last week, it’s a lot easier to start small, get good and get bigger, than to start large, be bad at it, and then try to make it better.

I would add, it’s not only easier, but probably a lot faster, too.


14 Takeaways From the ASAE Annual Meeting

Photo by e453753With apologies to other bloggers for stealing this format idea …

1- The online annual meeting “hub” was a fabulous experiment. I always felt connected with everything going on. There’s lots to learn from this – starting with the value of keeping it simple on the surface, and hiding the complex technology underneath.

2- Twitter was the way to stay connected. But I found myself wanting the content to be aggregated into something more permanent and findable, so I could look at it later, without scrolling through screen after screen after screen. The next stage, perhaps?

3- Kudos also to ASAE for not letting the hub experiment get hijacked by worries that non-attendees would hijack content for free. ASAE took the long-term view, which is that it all adds great member value.

4- People really do get the strategic imperative of social media, but many remain intimidated by the chunks of time the tools seem to demand. This was especially true of those small-staff saints who have to do the HR, plan the meetings, take care of the board, work with the vendors, recruit the members, wash the dishes, and turn the lights off at the end of the day. The next step is to mainstream the productive tools that make social media as easy to use as a good cell phone.

5- The compelling connection of social media to business goals must be more powerfully articulated for the C-suite folks. The “ROI” questions are still getting squishy answers. “Engagement” is not a business metric. “Meeting registrations” are.

6- Advocacy and social media is the new field waiting to be plowed. Obama was elected partly because social media awoke and energized a dormant base. His opponents in health care reform are now using both social media and talk radio to energize and organize themselves. But are social media platforms effective for influencing the undecided middle? I doubt it. Maybe other media channels remain better suited to that task.

7- Social media is transformational, but we can’t forget the rest of the marketing/communications toolbox. One of the sessions I attended was about the defining and messaging your association’s unique value proposition. Another was about engaging and nurturing a vibrant volunteer community. These are the kind of fundamentals that determine whether an association is relevant, and we can’t take our eyes off them.

8- Some people still don’t know how to do a presentation. One session I attended had two guys sitting behind a table talking for 80 minutes flat, rambling on about a report that we could all read on our own. Discussion, dialog, and debate? Not there. I literally dozed off for a spell!

9- Long live face to face meetings! That’s where the bonds of trust become ironclad.

10- I really have to get my staff to more of these things.

11- Connecting people has become one of my favorite things to do. One of my most fulfilling moments was to introduce a friend from the council on which I serve to a vendor/good guy, and then watch their conversation open new business possibilities for each.

12- Volunteer – NOW! Serving on the communications section council for the past two years focuses my thinking, brings themes into much sharper relief, and takes the meet-and-learn benefits of any conference to an entirely different plane. It’s the difference between watching a ballgame and playing it.

13- Seeing and admiring the great work of ASAE staff gives me a good sense of how our own members feel about our staff.

14- I’m truly ready to go home, but it would have been nice to catch the Sox here at Skydome/Rogers Centre. Guess I’ll have to settle for my seats for the Sox-Yankees at Fenway this Friday … !

Social Network Usage Among Physicians is Soaring

Photo by TwOsE, via FlickrA year ago, our medical society was one of the first associations to privately license Forrester Research’s survey tool to determine the social technographics profile of our membership, physicians in Massachusetts. Review last year’s findings here.

A key takeaway last year was that physicians are definitely part of the social media world. They weren’t leading the pack by any means, but they use social media tools at least as frequently as their peers in their group – and sometimes more often.

Given the explosion of social media tools in the past year, we thought it was already time to refresh the data and invest in another survey using Forrester’s tool. In late June, we sent an e-mail survey to a large cross section of our membership. This year’s sample was much more robust, with nearly 800 members responding, compared to the 522 who answered the same survey a year ago.

Key takeaways

  • Our physicians are still strong consumers of social media content, even relative to the general public. “Spectators” account for 74% of our membership, almost exactly equal to the proportion of the US adult population.
  • “Creators” are still under-represented among our members, even among our younger physicians. “Creators” are the people who write blogs, upload photos and videos, and so forth. In the general US population, the creating class comes from the young. But only 12% of our members 25 to 34 were “creators,” compared to 19% of US adults in the same age group. A year ago, I speculated that the chief reason was time – the lack of it. I still think that’s true. Our young members age 25 to 34 are medical students and residents, and are among most time-starved of any young professional group. But they do consume the content by the bushel — only 5% of this group is considered “inactive.”
  • Physicians’ use of social networks – as a specific social media tool – is growing very, very fast. Thirty-two percent of members were classified as joiners – those who use Facebook, LinkedIn and other social networks. That is just a shade under the US adult population of 35%. Last year, 21% were Joiners. (Learn the definitions of Forrester’s social technographic “ladder” in an online slide show.)
  • The percentage of those who visit social networks rose 50%. Among physicians age 45 to 54, 26% visit social networks at least once a month, triple the number from a year ago.
  • The number of those who maintain a social network site rose 60% for all members, doubled among physicians 35 to 44 and tripled for those 45 to 54.


A year ago, the case for focusing on social networks rested mostly on our younger members. This year, there’s a critical mass for online networks among every age group, even those over 55. Given Facebook’s growth since last summer, this may not be surprising. But until we did this survey, it wasn’t clear that this applied to our members. Now, we know that it does.

There is still a strong case for developing RSS feeds, tagging, ratings, reviews, blogs, widgets for portals (iGoogle), video and podcasts. It’s no longer a question of whether there are fish in those ponds – we know there are. Now it’s a question of business and marketing strategy – not if we fish there, but where and when.

One final note

I asked Forrester to add one more question – whether our members use Twitter. Four percent of our total sample uses Twitter regularly – about 8% among those age 25 to 34. Forrester didn’t use the answers to calculate social technographic profiles, but it is a good baseline number for the future nonetheless.

The Un-RFP and Its Unexpected Benefits

Photo by zetson, via flickrI thought I’d update you about a topic I wrote earlier this year, when we began a search process to hire a new communications consultant. I had written that I solicited expressions of interest via an RFP, and how the very term “RFP” give consultants the same reaction that “Niagara Falls” gave the Three Stooges.

Clearly, RFPs have gotten a bad rap, because there are so many bad ones out there. My posts attracted many great comments, and the resulting “un-RFP” we wrote benefited from that great feedback.

So what happened? We put together a team of eight people to review the proposals and select a consultant. They came from communications, education, membership and IT. Twenty consultants and agencies responded to the first RFP. We selected eight of them to make a one-hour webinar presentation, and answer our questions.  From the eight, we selected three to come to our offices for a 90-minute presentation. From the three finalists, we selected Ignite Social Media, a group from Cary, N.C.

What did we learn?

  • There are a lot of people out there doing great work in social media, producing impressive results for their clients.
  • There are a lot of great specialists in this area, but a smaller number had a compelling vision of how to incorporate social media into an organization’s total communications footprint.
  • Despite this, many agencies and consultants understood the challenge we were presenting them. We felt we couldn’t go wrong with any of the finalists, so it was a matter of selecting the best fit among some really, really good professionals. It was hard to say no to those we didn’t select.
  • Finally, one awesome, unexpected benefit. I deliberately created a diverse team – not just in job function, but in their attitudes towards social media. Some were believers, others were skeptics. In our selection meetings, I spoke last, so I didn’t skew the result. I had hoped that the diversity would keep each others’ extreme viewpoints in check, and we did get that.
    • And we got more. What I didn’t expect was how everyone – even the skeptics – began to appreciate the potentially world-changing nature of social media. It didn’t require a bit of selling on my part, just a willingness to step back and let the process do its magic.
    • So I learned that this process is a great way to organically grow the conversation about anything new in an organization, not just social media.

Lots of people in our business are trying to figure out the same thing. So as we embark on our exciting journey, I’ll keep you posted on how it goes.

Swine Flu Outbreak: A Moment of Truth for Associations and Social Media

Photo by videoplacebo via FlickrHealth care associations have had their hands full this week, gathering and disseminating the latest on the swine flu outbreak in the U.S. It’s moments like this when associations prove their worth – in times of urgency, if not crisis.

The flu’s outbreak in the country occurred last week in Texas, where the Texas Medical Association acted quickly to alert its members about what had happened. By Monday this was a certifiable mainstream media story, for better and for worse. The job for associations wasn’t so much to alert their members anymore, as to separate the good information from the bad and provide measured, authoritative guidance.

Our state Department of Public Health made our job easier. It started issuing regular alerts, held statewide conference calls, and established focused incident teams. We relayed the state’s information via our own Flu Advisory e-mail alerts, and used our website to highlight state and federal flu information feeds, as well as our own flu resources. As of Monday, we were still playing it low-keyed, since there weren’t any confirmed cases yet in Massachusetts, or even in New England. We didn’t want to stoke any hysteria.

Things changed significantly Wednesday morning, when the state announced the first two confirmed cases in Massachusetts – two school children who had just returned with their family from Mexico.

We changed our approach, deciding to put all our media touchpoints into play. We created a graphical banner on our home page, to provide easy access to our information. We focused our blog exclusively on flu information. We set up on Twitter account and invited followers. We set up a new Facebook page focused on the flu.

We didn’t add anything special to the state’s information. But we also didn’t assume that all our members, or the public, had access to all the official information at our disposal. So we reached out to people wherever they could get their information, whether it was by email, on websites, social networks, RSS feeds, or Twitter.

I’m also hoping that users of these media will contribute to our knowledge, which would make a time consuming process more worthwhile. We don’t yet have the tools to write once and syndicate to our all channels with one click – we will someday, I hope, but not now. For now, it’s a laborious step by step process, but necessary activity in our evermore fragmented media world.


Boston Herald image: April 30, 2009If you want evidence of how some media will stoke the hysteria, see this image at the left. It’s the front page this morning of the Boston Herald. As Mo Vaughn, a former Red Sox slugger, once said, “Stupid people in Boston! Stupid!”

The Herald is almost irrelevant in this market now, but this idiocy confirms the need for associations to be measured, trusted and reliable sources of information.

Digital Now 2009: What Will You Do on Monday?

Digital Now logoDigital Now’s annual conference last week, as always, wonderfully captured the spirit of the association community, and its love/hate affair with technology. There was no need to persuade people that social media will be the media of the future, nor of the idea that social media is the modern expression of the association’s core purpose. That’s been done.

Instead, what arose were two things: The eyewitness experience of the potential of microblogs, and a quiet determination to do social media right.

Let’s rewind a bit.

At Digital Now three years ago, social media was just beginning to leak into the association world. It was intriguing and enticing.

Two years ago, many speakers were singing the praises of blogs, online communities, Second Life, and more. The cool tools were the drug of the day.

A year ago, there was palpable disillusionment. Memorably, one guy said, “We started a social network last year, and the crickets are chirping.”

Clay ShirkyThis year, with the euphoria gone and the hangover eased, there was a new spirit – we have to get this right. Clay Shirky, the keynote speaker on the first day, said that the public doesn’t find technology useful, until it’s technically boring. It’s not about the tools, dude.

He also began the main theme of the weekend when he said that it’s much easier to start small with a good system, and let it grow, than to start with a bad system and try to fix it.

That’s what theme of the weekend was: Go simple. It was repeated again, and again, and again.

For me this has always been difficult. I always want to do things with a splash. I like the idea of the big bang, the serial atta-boys, and so forth. But as I shared with about a dozen attendees at the small session I led, the big bang approach got us a few crickets, some bruises, and the possibility of many lessons learned. One observed, “Sometimes, it comes down to ego.”

He’s right. So simple it will be.

At the same time, the conference created a trap for the attendees. Twitter is the phenomenon of the year, right? This was the weekend that Oprah went into rapture with her first tweet, and singlehandedly slowed Twitter to a frustrating crawl.

Twitter was the wow technology of Digital Now. About a quarter of attendees (including me) tweeted throughout the conference, using #dn09 and #digitalnow. Reading back on the tweets, it’s like reading the transcript of a good baseball game: Long stretches of ordinariness and tedium, punctuated by spontaneous outbursts of spectacular brilliance.

As a whole, Twitter got the job done. Its power to create a community was plainly visible. But the trap is that it creates the temptation run home and recreate this for the folks at home. Wrong. OK, no technology could be simpler. But if you build it, they won’t come – not even for Twitter.

Charlene LiSo how does this become like the “air” of the association? On the final day, the soft-spoken and wise Charlene Li, the co-author of the great social media book “Groundswell,” wrapped it all up.

Her talk was a little about strategy, but mostly about implementation. As she said, this has to relate back to your corporate strategy. She said that when she works with a company, the first things she asks for is the company’s strategic plan. Without that link, social media is a waste of time.

Her four parting points:

1-    Find your revolutionaries, and cultivate the “realist/optimists;” the people who will eagerly try new things but never lose sight of the pragmatic impulse. These people will be your most effective at promoting adoption throughout the organization.
2-    Start really small.
3-    Measure the right things. She didn’t talk about visits, or links, or such. She talked about “net promoter scores,” and “lifetime value” of each of your customers. These get closer to the strategic heart of your business than any clickstream could ever do.
4-    Embrace failure, because it’s a guarantee that you will fail (whew!). Relationships are hard to do right 100% of the time. She pointed out that Walmart failed spectacularly three times before hitting the right note with its blog for merchandise buyers.

Charlene ended with a simple question: “What will you do on Monday?” This brought it all home. Pick one thing to start on Monday, and act on it. This started about 25 different small group discussions that could have lasted for an hour.

The conversation continues. One speaker, Peter Hirshberg of Technorati, reminded us of how recent this whole social media thing is. It was only five years ago that blogs dethroned CBS News. Yet today, as he demonstrated in a video, social media is the air that 12 and 13 years olds breathe. TV is so … old.

It will be like air for associations, too, and soon – if we get it right before our competitors do.

What We Can Learn From Sermo – and What We Can’t

The biggest threat to associations today is the internet pure play – the web-only organization that delivers the core value of associations, without any of the financial or cultural baggage.

Sermo logoSermo represents one of those threats. It was the first professional social network for physicians, founded in September 2006. Its primary value is to give physicians the ability to connect with each other to ask questions, share knowledge and help each other. Today, it claims about 100,000 registered users.

Sermo’s chief marketing officer, Gina Ashe, spoke on a panel with me at ASAE and the Center’s Healthcare Association Conference last week in Baltimore. As a non-physician, I had never seen how it worked, and came away quite impressed. Her examples of how Sermo can advance health care were engaging and compelling.

Some reasons why:

Sermo works hard to keep technology in the background. Though its user interface today is reasonably pleasing eye candy, its first interface was simple and bare. When Sermo develops features, Ashe said the recurring question is, “Does this create harmony between the community and technology, or put our community at war with it?” This is a good test for any website.

Sermo doesn’t try to pull physicians out of their workflow, but integrate itself into how they work. Trying to pull physicians (or anyone else) out of their workflow is asking for failure. This is a good principle for any social network.

Sermo tries to balance the freedom that flows from anonymity with a desire to ensure responsible and ethical behavior. Sermo’s mantra is “anonymity with accountability.” Only one quarter of its members use their real name, which undoubtedly encourages participation. But this anonymity is not total, because the company knows who every member is, even when public users don’t. Sermo also verifies the the professional credentials of every member. You must have an M.D. or a D.O. to be a member, and you have to prove it. (However, Sermo might open the network to non-physicians in the future.)

Accountability, Ashe said, is also imposed by public reputation of users, which is developed over a period of time through the quantity and quality of a user’s activity. This sounds a lot like eBay. Sermo also requires users to pledge upon registration that they will disclose all potential conflicts of interest.

This is all good food for thought for association leaders.

However, I have always had concerns about Sermo’s business model, and nothing she said that day erased my concerns.

For example, some aspects of the company aren’t 100% transparent to my satisfaction. True, it discloses that its sponsors listen to the conversations, and she said it clearly tags member physicians who are employed by pharma. But she didn’t say whether this applies also to physicians whose research has been even partially funded by drug companies, are paid to speak about their products, consult for them, or own pharma stock.

And, while Sermo clearly names three investment firms as major investors, this isn’t enough for me. If I were a user I would want to know if any specific pharmaceutical company is listening to my particular conversation. As I said, transparency is not complete.

Further, though Sermo requires members to promise to disclose their conflicts, I am not completely assured, given what we know about human nature. People lie, rationalize and obfuscate.

This may seem like hairsplitting. But this is where where the hottest battles in medical publishing are raging today.

Ashe also discussed a new Sermo offering, in which its feeds can be displayed directly onto Bloomberg computer screens. This means that traders in a company’s stock can watch Sermo members comment about a company’s products in real time. With some pride, Ashe said these conversations are starting to move company stock prices.

This is frightening. It’s fertile ground for fraud, abuse or price manipulation. Ashe told the conference that the community self-regulates, but this rings hollow at a time when self-regulation in financial services is a bad joke.

If I were a Sermo user, I might not be happy knowing that my professional concerns could affect the stock market – especially these days. A single rumor – whether true or false – has been known to shake markets. And if I were Sermo, I might worry if this concern could put a lid on my members’ comments.

Sermo is young and it is smart, and its people have figured out a good deal of the social networking equation. But there’s a still a lot more to learn. Here’s hoping Sermo abides by the words of P&G’s leader, A.G. Laffey: Fail early, fail cheaply, and don’t make the same mistake twice.

(Disclosure: My employer, the Massachusetts Medical Society, publishes the New England Journal of Medicine. Sermo approached us in late 2006 about the possibility of partnering with them, but we declined, mostly because we were already developing our own social network experiment. I don’t know if that constitutes a conflict, but in case you think so, here you go.)