No Bull$#*@: Social Media Straight Talk With Jason Falls

The "No Bullshit" voice on social media discusses his new book and many other things. "We're... 5-6 years into the evolution of social media to social media marketing and brands still flat suck at it," he says. (See what we mean about no BS?)

After taking a few weeks' hiatus from publishing here to focus on a mounting pile of other writing and projects, I thought I would start April with a change of pace. Recently, Jason Falls invited me to a video interview on his Social Media Explorer site. And, after getting grilled by him, I wanted to return the favor. Jason is one of the sharpest and most straightforward voices in discussions on how social media should be utilized for marketing. He is a 2009 Sammy Award winner for his work with Jim Beam and has also worked with Maker's Mark, Humana, AT&T, General Electric, and a wide range of other clients. And his expertise appears just about anywhere a discussion on social media marketing pops up.

SAM FORD: Your latest coauthored book is called No Bullshit Social Media. What inspired you to write the book? What do you feel is the highest offender on the BS list in digital marketing and communications today?

JASON FALLS: Erik Deckers (my coauthor) and I really wanted to give businesses who were interested in social media but hesitant to dive in a little kick in the pants, but also provide those who were using social media as a sandbox a bit more guidance on how to move toward using social media marketing more strategically. When you peel away the attention-grabbing title, the book is essentially a how-to guide for strategic planning in social media marketing. That's what we were inspired to provide folks with. In terms of who's the highest offender? Anyone who is still selling the "Join the Conversation" spiel without following it up with how to connect all the fluff with business drivers, measurement, and knowing what you're getting in return. 

I'm presuming you feel hyperbole and buzzwords run rampant in the digital space. If my hunch is correct, what causes it? Why are marketers, corporate communicators, and consultants so prone to such behavior?

We're all salespeople. And salespeople have to have a shtick. You stumble across a phrase that raises the eyebrow of a client or a prospect and you stick with it. If I ever meet the guy who first said the word "synergy" out loud, I'm going to punch him. (Women have much better taste than to be guilty there.)   

Speaking of buzzwords--to partake in some hyperbole of my own--what are the buzzwords that are doing the most damage to how companies communicate with their audiences?

ROI, Engagement, and (soon to be) Content Marketing. These are distractions for executives and account planners to sit around and robble, robble about in meetings so they can bill clients more hours. Communicating ideas to your audience isn't hard. But agencies need to bill more hours and marketing managers need to show their CEOs full calendars, so we invent stupid stuff to sit around and discuss to kill time. Approximately 95% of all marketing campaigns--social media or not--could be solved by asking, "What are we trying to persuade the audience to do?" Take the answer, and then tell the audience that. And stop debating about fancy concepts that solve themselves if you just tell the audience what they need to hear in the first place.  

One phrase that seems to be on the lips of CMOs, CCOs, and research publications about marketing and communications is "big data." Do you feel companies are making good use of the data now available to them in the information age? How should they be using it?

Hell, no. Most companies think "big data" is most easily deciphered by tag clouds. They're looking for an easy button (thank you, Staples) and think some pedestrian social media monitoring tool is going to tell them what their customers want after running a keyword filter on 45 bazillion conversations. There are a handful of companies that are discovering what I call online market research tools (Most are positioning themselves as "insights platforms" or some other such flowery nonsense ... maybe they'll add "synergy" in there soon.) that allow you to drill into conversations, cross-filter them through demographics, natural language processing and sentiment, tone, and passion algorithms that then get close to data that might offer you some insights, but only if you put a brain on the project, not a computer. Again, most brands are looking for the easy button. They forget that it takes a researcher to look at the data and make sense of it all. The ones that figure that out are winning in ways beyond driving more "Likes" on Facebook.   

Here in my Fast Company columns, I write often about how companies often are hearing what their audiences are saying through the data they collect but not really listening to people. My presumption is that quantitative research is more abundant to collect and easier for marketers to deal with, so greater validity is given to what can be turned into numbers. For instance, I recently argued that companies should become cyborgs, letting the technology and data do what it can but having a human side as well. That's my belief, and I'll argue passionately about it. But I'm curious: Is there anything that data can't do, in your mind? 

Pee on a wall? Oh, that's a different argument. My bad. Data can't draw conclusions. Only human brains can. You can run all the filters in the world on data about women discussing what they purchase or want to purchase. And the data can say that Twitter is the platform with the most volume of these conversations compared to other platforms. But the data can't draw the conclusion that this is likely because Twitter is more conveniently mobile than other channels and thus fosters tweets while shopping, where they're more likely to post about products and services. Machines don't draw conclusions. Humans do. Stop looking for the easy button.   

In particular, I've argued that empathy is key: being able to understand your audience to the point that you can put yourself in their shoes. But it seems that marketers have never been quite so good at that. Why are we so much better at communicating at people, rather than with them, and so obsessed with the audience as an object yet too often strangely disconnected from their wants and needs as actual people?

Because at the end of the day, marketers know they have ulterior motives. We're trying to get people to buy something, whether it's a product, service, or an idea. We're not communicating in a genuinely pure way--human to human. We have a goal for the exchange. When consumers--people--approach conversations or communications, they seldom have goals for it other than just to communicate. Marketers don't get that because they can't and then report back to their bosses, "We just have to communicate with our audience in a genuinely pure way so that one day they'll love us enough to buy." Their bosses want to know why they didn't cut to the chase and sell. (We can always blame the CEOs. Heh.)  

Enough about my pet concerns, though. What are you focused on these days? What are you finding in your work that concerns you, surprises you, intrigues you?

We're 12 years after the Cluetrain and 5-6 years into the evolution of social media to social media marketing, and brands still flat suck at it. I did a spot check of the top social brands, according to Dachis's Social Business Index this week, and the interpretation of posts on Google+, Facebook, and Twitter for those brands was, "Me, me, me, me, me, support our charity, me, me, me, me, me, Happy St. Patrick's Day, me, me, me." Probably about 5 percent of the posts I saw were interesting, engaging, consumer-centric and genuine. The rest were "click my junk" and "buy my crap." So, after 5-6 years of evangelizing this, we've gotten nowhere and have to keep pounding our heads against the wall. Fortunately, I'm good at that part. Heh.  

In particular, I know you've "taken your show on the road," so to speak, by hosting Explore events in a variety of cities. What was the inspiration for these events, and what are you hoping to accomplish with them, with such a saturated market of conferences out there?

As saturated as the market is, there are three basic types of events out there for the digital marketer. The "how to Facebook" events are not challenging enough for marketers. The conferences-masquerading-as-trade-shows are just one big sales pitch and also not challenging enough for marketers. Then there's a third kind--the strategy-focused, bigger-picture events that push marketers to think deeper and differently about how they use these channels to connect with their audiences. We don't think the options out there in that third category are very good. So we're trying to fill it. We bring smart people to the table to speak. Like Sam Ford. 

Well, I'm looking forward to joining you at your upcoming Explore Nashville event on April 13th. What's the theme of this event in particular, and what are you hoping the collection of speakers you've brought together will provide to those who are coming out?

The theme is the same for all my events: Push the thinking. Our speakers are challenged to do that for themselves and for the audience. Our audience is challenged to do that to make themselves better. And my team is challenged to do that to make the event different and better than other events. Our February event in Dallas caused one attendee to say that if Apple did a conference it would look like Explore. We're not sure he was completely sober when he said it, but we struck a chord with folks. We plan to keep that up.

What's next for Jason Falls?

We (Social Media Explorer) have a new type of market research report coming out soon called The Conversation. We're doing a deep analysis of what people are saying online about a certain industry. Our first one will be about the banking industry and should come out on or about May 1. The early feedback on our draft is very encouraging. We think it's going to really help banks and bank marketers and the agencies that serve them. And because we're focusing on the unfiltered and unbiased online conversation, we're confident its a unique approach and product that the marketplace will find useful. (Subscribe to our newsletter to get information about the report's release.)

Sam Ford is Director of Digital Strategy for Peppercom Strategic Communications, a Futures of Entertainment Fellow, a research affiliate of the Program in Comparative Media Studies at MIT, and an instructor with Western Kentucky University's Popular Culture Studies program. He was named 2011 Social Media Innovator of the Year by Bulldog Reporter and serves on the Membership Ethics Advisory Panel for the Word of Mouth Marketing Association. Sam is co-editor of The Survival of Soap Opera with Abigail De Kosnik and C. Lee Harrington and coauthor of the forthcoming book Spreadable Media with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green. Follow him on Twitter @Sam_Ford.


[Image: Flickr user Barabeke]

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