Harvard Business School’s Mikolaj Piskorski spoke at the 2009 CTAM Research Conference about his work ‘stalking the stalkers’ — revealing who’s doing what with social media. Karen Ramspacher, 2010 CTAM Research + Insights Conference co-chair, sat down with him to discuss his research.

What are you researching today? How has your work evolved? 

My research was initially motivated by understanding what users do on online social networks. Now that I have a handle on that, I have moved to examine how companies can engage with these users in ways that benefit them both. I call this ‘social strategy’. Social strategy is designed to help companies move beyond “We have a page on Facebook, but no one wants to be our fan.” “We did a viral video that turned out to be not so viral. What now? Many companies have been trying to use social media to acquire customers or drive sales, but have found it is not easy. So I am working on a Harvard Business Review article that seeks to help companies develop campaigns that ring the cash register through broad engagement. To do this, you need to change your mindset completely and start thinking about why people are attracted to online social networks and social media in general. This is best understood by analyzing what Facebook does. Put simply, it helps people become better friends or allows them to meet new friends and get closer. Facebook is a platform that allows people to meet their social needs in ways that they cannot do as easily in the offline world.

So, what can companies learn from this to market their offerings? These days, many are using social platforms to communicate their messages. Companies very rarely think about helping people with their social needs. Companies need to become more like Facebook, and consider how they can use their products to help people become better friends or meet new people. That is how you build engagement through and with your brand, product or offering. You end up making people better friends and monetize your product at the same time.

At Fuse, we’ve had a lot of success using social media, like Twitter, to implement a digital strategy for brand awareness. How is this engagement related to what you’ve just described?
This is a great example of the difference between a digital strategy and a social strategy. With Twitter, a company can talk to customers or potentials, and it is two-way communication. This is a great example of a digital strategy that you use as a cheap platform to communicate with your audience. It is a fantastic idea, particularly because it’s free! Here I usually ask companies to think how Twitter contributes to their competitive advantage. How does it benefit your company more than other companies? Secondly, I usually point out that this is not social strategy yet, because it does not allow two people in the audience to be better friends or to meet new friends. It does not allow people to improve their friendships in the same way that Facebook does. And so it does not build the same level of engagement.

Note that you can have just a digital strategy, and that’s perfectly fine. But you will be missing out on huge opportunities to connect customers to each other. This is where you can really generate huge engagement.

What is a good example of a media industry effectively using social strategy?

The book publishing industry is a great one. It has some of the most social content on the planet, because it provides conversation starters. So does television.

Let me give you the simplest possible example for the book industry. We know people surf interests — that is one of the ways they connect with each other — so a company can create a Facebook application to help meet this need. People worry about what to put in their status updates. Publishers can provide the app that users easily pull a perfect excerpt and post it to their status, such as “This excerpt from a new book intrigues me…,” and share it instantly with friends. The app can recommend the kinds of books and excerpts that will illicit interesting reactions like funny, smart or witty. Your friend ends up asking, “Where did you find that?” And you say, “Oh I found it in this book.” And that leads to a book purchase, and you made someone make a better friend.

What about the TV industry? What do you see as our industry’s best chances?

TV is also a natural conversation starter. We know from research that people love to watch and respond to videos, often more so than status updates. If you host a video you get a lot of reactions online, a lot of action. But people have trouble making videos and posting to Facebook. It’s a lot of work. So what if television programmers created an app to help them to post little pieces of content (along with whatever copyright restrictions are needed)? For example, TV networks could provide an excerpt from a football game or a classic line in a sitcom. I can guarantee you that it will start a conversation or a string of jokes, and maybe help someone make a new friend. Meanwhile the content is exposed to others and drives viewership.

What do you think the television industry is doing right when it comes to social strategies?

I think that a number of networks are beginning to integrate with Facebook through chats, status updates during award programs, voting, and encouraging programming discussion with friends. These are all great starting points, but there are so many more opportunities for TV companies to people connect with each other through content they provide. I’m sharing this message with a lot of people, hoping to help companies. I have an interest in helping the TV industry with it. Let’s take the research and critical insights and think about what we do next with them to make them actionable.

(Interviewer Karen Ramspacher is vice president of research at Fuse, Madison Square Garden’s national music television network. Prior to Fuse, she was vice president of research at Oxygen Media and NBC Universal)

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