Thursday, September 30, 2010

Some research questions

Now is the time of year when students begin to look forward to their next steps in education.

I am fortunate to be able to help some students with an interest in online public relations and at this stage, we are exploring ideas.

Without giving away any of my students work but just exposing some of my thinking to them and a wider audience I seek criticism from real experts.

The first of the conversations I have had is challenging. It is for a work in social media.

We know that there is a lot of practitioner experience available from all over Europe and the United
States in particular.  However, there is much less well grounded academic research available. This is a fast moving environment and traditional academic publishing is, by comparison, slow.

This means that the student has an opportunity to add to the body of knowledge as part of a Masters degree by submitting their own papers.

While, at face value, one may like to look at so called 'social media' as it is used today there are some early decisions one would have to make.

Perhaps it is a good thing to first of all think about what we mean by  'social media'.  Is this truly a media, or is is a defined range of communications channels used by people (after all FTP is not social media but is used a lot). If so which people?

Social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter, Linkedin and bulletin boards, Blogs, wikis, Foursquared, Augmented Reality, video and other sharing channels (like, for example, YouTube, Slideshare and Picasa) are available on many communications platforms such as PC's laptops, smart phones, games machines like Nintendo Wi and Xbox and slates like iPad. Some are good on one channel and not so good on others.

The range of platforms offers us a view as to what sort of people access which channels and under what kind of circumstance. We still need more research in this area.

From this we might understand that people without the relevant platforms or channels might be disenfranchised. But we know that there are intermediaries (who has not seen a child show a grandparent
something 'cool' on a mobile phone). 

Thus I think it is worth exploring what we think we mean by social media. 

We have to define the channels that  exemplify social media and then explore the  platforms on which these are available.

A student will need to find sources  that can inform an understanding of channels that are available, useful and are or can be (or have been) popular.

A student will need to explore the recent academic works from the PR, marketing and communication academic journals.

The extent to which these disciplines are new suggests that it will be useful  to look  at a number of other academic disciplines.

I find that the behavioural sciences and neuro-psychology research is informative and is beginning to
explain people's use of platforms (for example people watch television and use a laptop and a mobile phone concurrently under a number of circumstances) and these activities use a wide range of parts of the
brain that normally would not be active using only one platform/channel.

This involves a lot of searching and research - and playing with lots of digital toys too :)

At an early stage, it is helpful to look at how much content there is available to the public and how much of it is about, for example, a specific brand. Here is some software that gives us a quick overview

I would not be at all surprised if, at an early stage, a researcher did not discover that there is a lot of content discussed and shared about almost every thing in many channels and across a lot of platforms.

Experience suggests that most organisations do not and actually probably cannot engage their communities at such a hectic pace across so many platforms and channels. This is an interesting consideration when thinking about the role of both PR and marketing in an age of near ubiquitous interactive communication.

For one student this  may help in a finding as to how relevant Social Media is as a brand communication instrument. In the totality of all the conversations of all the people using a range of channels and platforms, it may be that research will explore any opportunity to be part of such conversations and if, in addition, the brand can be 'inserted' into the conversation. 

My view is that it will quickly becomes noticeable that this is much more difficult than most believe (and challenges much current practice).

A proposal to consider the future is one that has me hooked.

A student might be extremely brave to consider the future and the evolution of Social Media communication past, present and the new trends for the future. 

 It is a fascinating subject. The amazing first burst of Usenet and BB's activity three decades ago was astonishing. It showed that people want to engage with each other online, globally and in a new and dynamic way. 

I know it has taken the communications industries a couple of decades to see how dynamic the whole concept is and there is a long way to go among leaders in industry and commerce (and academia and government).  Equally, I recognise that there is the potential for a radical revolution as potent as any in prospect or history.The Bourbons discovered what happens when eating cake is no longer an alternative to recognising social change in 1792. Such revolution is in prospect for a lot of countries, economies and governments not to mention companies in the next few years.

The extent to which near future developments such as the Semantic Web with automated ontology creation will affect corporate transparency and porosity  is an interesting thought.

The development of virtual realities such as 'walk in' Augmented Reality will change personal relationships, experiential marketing and even replace some travel and meetings and is an exciting prospect. I can bet, and history is on my side, that it will become popular in personal relationship experiences long before commerce really gets its head round the wider applications.

The ability to, at will,  identify clusters of online values (words, pictures, experience values) and their proponents, supporters and interested constituents will transform marketing. But much more important will change the nature of relationship building, commerce and even the nature of value.

Yes, the future is interesting.

There is another tack that has been presented to me. It is the consideration and strategic analysis’s of brand
communications in different social  media platforms. I am sure this will be fascinating for people in PR and Marketing. 

Its drawback is that it will need updating every six months or so and so the challenge is be to find a replicable methodological approach - but, of course, each time results are report, they will create a sensation of interest as long as the methodology is robust.

Being able to'listen' to the totality of conversations of a sample in each channel and across a number of
platforms has its challenges and then to try to identify the extent to which the brand is implicitly or explicitly part of these conversations is not impossible and there will be a lot of people who will find this capability really helpful.

A researcher would have to deploy some heavyweight technologies but they are available.

No one can imagine how excited I am at working with bright enquiring young brains in such an array of new thinking that will soon be available to the public relations practitioner - well, those who are following there new developments.

I am, of course interested in comments and insights from you..... One thing we do know is the power of the network to help answer hard questions.