The 5 Biggest Stories in Social Media from 2011

The Social Media Monthly's January issue cover

=== This article originally appeared in the January issue of The Social Media Monthly, the first print magazine focused on social media.  We are publishing it here in 2 parts (Part 2: 5 Social Media Trends To Watch in 2012) with permission from Bob Fine.  Until March 1, you can support the Social Media Monthly on Kickstarter and get a discounted subscription and other fun rewards. ===

Social media now accounts for 22% of all the time that we spend online. So how did we spend that time in 2011?  And how will that change in the next year?  Here are the top stories on social media in 2011.

1.    Social Media and the Arab Spring: The Revolution Will Be On YouTube

On January 27th, reports emerged that Internet access had been shut down in Egypt in advance of a major planned demonstration. The scale of the shutdown was an unprecedented yet ultimately ineffective attempt by a government to cut off access to the media—Facebook, Twitter, blogs, YouTube—that protesters were using to organize and spread information about the protests.

During the week before Mubarak’s resignation, the rate of tweets about political change in the country increased ten-fold. “Our evidence suggests that social media carried a cascade of messages about freedom and democracy across North Africa and the Middle East, and helped raise expectations for the success of political uprising,” says Philip Howard, a University of Washington associate professor in communication who was involved in the study. Ironically, government efforts to crack down on social media may have led to an increase in public activism in Egypt, as people who could no longer follow the unrest via social media took the streets to find out what was going on.

A study by the Dubai School of Government, “Civil Movements: The Impact of Facebook and Twitter,” found that the growth rate of Facebook users in all Arab countries except Libya doubled or more than doubled in the first 3 months of 2011.  In that time period, the regions 1.15 million active Twitter users were generating a quarter of a million tweets per day, at the rate of 3 tweets per second.   (Dubai School of Government’s Arab Social Media Report, “Civil Movements: The Impact of Facebook and Twitter,” May 2011. PDF )

Would the Arab Spring, the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, and the civil uprisings in many other parts of the region, have occurred without social media? Perhaps. But it would have been a lot harder for protesters to communicate, spread the word, and share realtime updates about the situation on the ground.

And it is a lot more difficult for governments to brutally suppress uprisings or demonstrations with the whole world watching events unfold first-hand on YouTube.

2.    Weinergate (And Other Notorious Social Media Fails)

Social media is no longer new.  So why are brands still getting caught up in social media disasters?  And why would any public official think they could get away with messaging pictures of their unmentionables?

If you really missed the highly public Twitter meltdown of the aptly-named Anthony Weiner, former U.S. Representative from New York’s 9th congressional district, you’ll see more of him than you ever wanted to see with some quick online searches.  For goodness sakes, learn the difference between a Direct Message and a public Tweet.  And if you do get caught with your social media (ahem) pants down, do you really think that claiming that your Twitter account was hacked is going to work?

This stuff is not new anymore, and yet it’s amazing how many brands continue to ignore the basic rules of operating in a world where every customer has their finger on the Twitter trigger, and how few organizations have a social media crisis response plan in place.

Social media fails:  the Qwikster Twitter avatar was a pot-smoking ElmoJoining Mr. Weiner in the list of notorious 2011 social media fails:

  • Netflix, which neglected to secure the Twitter account before announcing the name of its new spin-off, Qwikster.  It didn’t take long for the media to notice that the @Qwikster account was owned by someone with a pot-smoking Elmo avatar, and content to match.
  • Chapstick, a company that saw negative comments on its Facebook wall about a controversial ad and, rather than responding to the comments or allowing fans to come to its defense, the company just…deleted them. The outcome was predictable: customers felt like the company didn’t care about them, blog posts with screen shots of the now-deleted posts, and a bigger mess than if the company had simply responded to the posts with a point of view or allowed the debate to play out.  Put a commenting policy in place—and stick to it.
  • ConAgra, which invited food bloggers to a dinner with a celebrity chef—only to reveal at the end of the meal that the dinner consisted of frozen Marie Callender frozen entrees.  The guests felt shocked, conned and humiliated. Guess what bloggers do when they feel they’ve been conned?  Right. They blog.
  • The list would not be complete without Kenneth Cole’s infamous and highly offensive tweet promoting his spring collection, posted during the tense stand-off between government tanks and protesters in Egypt: “Millions are in an uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online.”

If you want an example of how to handle a social media misstep the right way in 2011, you don’t need to look farther than the Red Cross.  When an intern accidentally tweeted something about #gettngslizzerd from the organization’s Twitter account, the Red Cross took the opportunity to level up and show they were human, and not above having a sense of humor:  “We’ve deleted the rogue tweet but rest assured the Red Cross is sober and we’ve confiscated the keys.”

It’s 2012. Hire someone who knows something about social media to tell you where you’re vulnerable. Get a crisis communication plan in place.  Better yet, find out where your customers are spending their time online—and join them. You will definitely learn something.

American Express and Foursquare: The Check-in Goes Platinum3.    The Check-In Goes Platinum

In March, American Express and foursquare announced a partnership in which users were encouraged to sync their credit card and their foursquare account.  By checking in at various merchants, participating users would receive a credit on their next AmEx statement.  A few months later, the partnership went national, and AmEx now offers significant discounts on purchases for cardmembers that check in via foursquare or Facebook.  While special offers have long been a part of the check-in experience, the AmEx program removes the hassle of redeeming coupons or explaining a “mayor special” at the register.

Foursquare knows that it’s going to take more than badges and mayor contests to keep people checking in. Over the summer, the company announced a series of features that make it easier for merchants to create and manage specials.  The company also introduced a Merchant API, which allows companies to integrate foursquare data into their existing business dashboards, making it much easier for large merchants with multiple locations to manage deals and track consumer behavior.

But adding more Deals isn’t enough if consumers forget to check in.  Apps like RunKeeper use GPS to track a user’s location and share information about your fitness regimen. With the launch of iOS 5 this fall, foursquare introduced Radar, an optional feature that will notify users when they’re close to restaurants on a list they’re following, or if they’re passing by a venue that is popular with their friends.  “Now we can deliver users information that is contextual and relevant without them having to do anything at all,” says Alex Rainert, foursquare’s head of product.

These types of innovations will keep foursquare at the head of the class when it comes to check-in apps, and help prevent check-in fatigue among consumers. Our prediction for 2012? Merchants and brands will get more creative with check-in marketing, too.

4.    Google Plus vs. Facebook: The Platform Wars

Google finally took its long-anticipated plunge into social media, and the roar that greeted the arrival of Google Plus was nothing short of deafening. Google Plus launched in July of this year, and had 50 million users creating Circles and playing with Hangouts a record 3 months later.  The technology hype-and-spin cycle has never been faster. Social media gurus declared the death of Facebook and offered Google Plus for Business seminars just 2 weeks after the platform launched. A months later, Forbes published “A Eulogy for Google Plus,” declaring that the platform had failed.

Then, in September, Facebook upped the stakes by introducing a series of new features. While Google is trying to socialize the web experience, Facebook is colonizing it. Users can now automatically share activities such as listening to music, reading stories, watching video via a broader Open Graph implementation, and with new apps designed to share more experiences in realtime.  The company also announced the Timeline, a more visually-rich presentation of a user profile, but had to delay the launch because of a trademark lawsuit.

So how big of a threat is Google Plus?  Aside from the social media insiders who will rush to quickly—“Squirrel!”—stake a claim to the latest shiny new thing, mainstream users will be much slower to switch to a new platform. Why would anyone leave all the friends and photo albums they’ve accumulated on Facebook? On the other hand, Google has a lot of advantages. It is quietly deploy integrating Google Plus more broadly across the web as the social layer that works with its other services—Gmail, YouTube, Google Apps and more—seamlessly adding content sharing across everything Google touches. You know: the whole internet.

As for Facebook, the juggernaut keeps on rolling, with 800 million users sharing more of everything every day.  Don’t move your money out of Facebook. But ignore Google at your peril. And watch for more developments in 2012.

5.    Social TV

2011 is the year that television got its social game on. USA Networks launched social games and moved its Character Chatter to Facebook. CBS celebrated Tweet Week.  Discovery Communications developed “second screen” engagement strategies to get fans talking about shows in a branded environment.  Sundance Channel premiered a show via TwitVid. And live tweets appeared on shows for The Weather Channel, Piers Morgan and Burn Notice.

Why the surge in socializing TV?  For one thing, it seems to work.  A study by NM Incite and Nielsen found a correlation between social buzz and TV ratings, especially among younger audiences.  Reality shows, dramas and comedies saw the biggest social-to-ratings impact with women age 18-34, while men showed the strongest correlations with competition reality programs and dramas.  Meanwhile, analytics companies like Bluefin Signals and Seevibes are lining up to provide new TV audience metrics and analytics based on monitoring social buzz.

Our prediction? Get ready for a lot more social TV action in 2012, as networks find new ways to keep you watching, tweeting and chatting about their shows.

Read Part 2 of the article: 5 Social Media Trends To Watch in 2012.