Archive for March, 2010

Social media: it’s not about technology, and it’s not about Gen Y

As I’ve pointed out in earlier posts, social media adoption rates are staggering, but one of the more striking aspects that I’ve recently come across is social media’s generational transcendence.

I think many people have the perception that social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, and others represent a “technology” phenomenon lead by teens and their older siblings in Gen Y, a group historically prone to take up new technology faster than their parents and grandparents. This theme echos in the comments of companies taking insurance marketing surveys as they seem to single out Gen Y as the group worth pursuing in social media marketing efforts.

However, recent statistics paint a different picture and suggest that what we’re seeing is not really about technology. Rather, we’re witnessing a marked societal change enabled by technology.

It may come as a surprise that 18-to-24-year-olds, the most independent and mature of the Gen Y’ers, are actually a minority in the social media population. Pingdom recently assembled the following age distribution from Google Ad Planner data:

Gen X and middle-aged individuals make Gen Y look like a much quieter group than many seem to believe.

I decided to go another step and compare the distribution of social media users presented above by Pingdom to the distribution of the US population. The green bars in the chart below are the same as those in the graphic above. The blue line represents the distribution of the US population in 2000 using US Census data. (I’m making the assumption that today’s population is distributed roughly the same as it was in 2000.)

With the exception of the youngest (0-17) and oldest (65+) segments of the population, social media use basically follows the shape of the general population’s distribution. This suggests that social media adoption is not really dependent on age. In other words, the reason there are so many 35-to-44-year-olds on social media sites is simply because they have the greatest numbers in the general population, though their group does appear to have an especially keen interest in social media.

The disconnect in the 0-17 group is likely explained by the fact that many of its members are just too young to engage in social media use. Technology barriers or general resistance to change may be factors for the oldest members of the population.

Recent statistics on the habits of mobile social media users also support the hypothesis that social media is not a Gen Y phenomenon. As of December 2009, Nielsen reports that women and the middle-aged are responsible for most mobile social networking. Considering the growing popularity in always-on smart phones–many of which make updating and checking social networks effortless–mobile users are well worth paying attention to. In fact, ComScore reports that Facebook and Twitter access via mobile browser grew by triple digits from January 2009 to January 2010.

Marketing Charts makes the following observation from the December 2009 Nielsen study:

Despite the stereotype of teens spending every waking moment on a mobile device, Nielsen data suggest their parents actually spend more time performing mobile web surfing. Only 7% of mobile social networking activity was represented by 13-to-17-year-olds and only 16% by 18-to-24-year-olds in December 2009.

Marketing Charts also points out another interesting finding from a Ruder-Finn study: “45% of all mobile internet users go online to post comments on social networks, with 91% of mobile internet users going online to socialize.” Put another way, the rapidly expanding mobile population is an active, chatty group.

So to summarize. . .

  • Social media adoption is fairly universal in the population
  • The vast majority of social media users are 25 or older
  • The middle-aged are particularly active in social networks
  • Use of mobile devices to access social networks is growing at triple-digit rates
  • The typical mobile user on a social network is middle-aged and highly active while there

To emphasize, technology should not be the focus in this new era of society. Technology is merely a facilitator, not unlike iron and steel in the Industrial Revolution. To focus on technology is to miss the big picture.

Social media sites and mobile devices are merely instruments that give society the ability to take on a whole new level of visibility and dynamism. Our new electronic infrastructure serves to accentuate and elevate the basic human desire to connect, and this desire is by no means limited to the youngest members of the population.

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A couple of Twitter basics: Follow Friday and hashtags

I recognize that some of the readers of this blog are new to social media, and one of my original goals in starting the blog was to help others understand some of the key concepts of using social media sites.

Follow Friday

Since it’s Friday, I thought it would be fitting to mention the Twitter tradition of “Follow Friday.” Like many aspects of Twitter, Follow Friday is difficult to understand at first because tweets, which are limited to 140 characters or less, can contain only so many context clues.

If you see a tweet with #FollowFriday or its more abbreviated form #FF, it likely contains the names of other Twitter users. Follow Friday is a Twitter tradition where a user will share the names of other Twitterers on Friday. It’s a great way of introducing people to others.

So if you have a handful of folks that you enjoy and want others to know about them, be sure to advertise them in a Follow Friday tweet or two the next chance you get. You’ll probably find that they reciprocate in the weeks that follow.

Hashtags

You may be wondering about the # symbol in #FF.  The # symbol denotes a “hashtag,” which is a convenient way to tag a tweet. Tagging tweets is useful for adding context, organizing, and increasing visibility. Most Twitter programs, including the Twitter website itself, recognize and hyperlink hashtags so that you can simply click them to perform an instant search of that tag. Searching by hashtag is a great way to find content relative to that tag, and by including hashtags in your tweets, you increase the chances of being found by others with similar interests.

A site called tagdef.com is a great resource for finding out what a hashtag means. For example, if you see a tweet with #hcr, it may not be immediately obvious that it represents healthcare reform, but you can find that out by looking on tagdef.com or a similar sites where users submit definitions for hashtags.

Fortunately, some hashtags, like #actuary, are more self-explanatory. . . at least to those of us who know what an actuary is.

If you have any Twitter questions or tips, let me know in the comments.

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A sign that insurance companies may be opening up to bloggers

EarthTimes reported earlier this month that AXA Equitable Life Insurance Company recently launched a new site called The Source.  According to EarthTimes,

The Source is designed to help the expanding population of bloggers, as well as traditional media, keep abreast of financial security trends and the growing pressure on individuals to generate retirement income beyond Social Security and employer-sponsored plans. Content already posted on the site includes:

  • Highlights of a recent AXA Equitable retirement thought leadership forum that featured former Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul Volcker.
  • A look at the trends in inflation, interest rates and taxes that are changing the landscape of retirement in America.
  • A video that reports on the unique financial needs of women.

It’s possible that this could be the beginning of a shift in the industry toward greater acceptance of newer forms of media like blogging. Given current angst among US consumers and the negative perception many have of the insurance industry as a whole, this could prove very beneficial.

The popularity of blogs has surged for much of the past decade, and consumers are turning to blogs more and more for information.   For better or worse, people have a tendency to trust information and advice from blogs, which are often perceived as more genuine and “human” than conventional forms of print media.

Given the mass acceptance of blogs by the public, it makes sense that bloggers can play a key role in lubricating the flow of information between consumers and insurance companies seeking to develop closer relationships with their clients.

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Watching healthcare reform and social media shape each other

Regardless of where you stand on the infinitely complex landscape of healthcare issues in America, there is one thing you can probably agree with: healthcare is one of the most talked about issues of our time. It’s even difficult to get through a meal with friends and family without the conversation eventually leading to subjects like health insurance, hospital administration, and healthcare reform legislation.

Given Americans’ propensity to discuss health issues, it makes sense that social media sites like Twitter are being embraced as a means of taking the conversation to even greater heights. Even professionals in the healthcare industry are using Twitter to facilitate open discussions. A great example is the Healthcare Communication and Social Media community (@HealthSocMed), which hosts a conversation on Twitter every Sunday night about communications and marketing practices by healthcare organizations. The hashtag #hcsm is used to tag tweets participating in the conversation.

Among individual Americans, the conversation has been a steady rumble for much of the past 12 months, but it found a new peak the night of March 21, 2010 following the House of Representatives’ vote to pass a massive health overhaul bill.

Trendistic, a web site that shows graphical trends in Twitter topics, showed that the term “health care” hit a spike around midnight Sunday night as the graphic below shows.

Another Twitter trend-tracking site called Tweetstats shows that healthcare reform was one of the biggest trending topics in the 24 hours that followed the bill’s passing.

Twitter is not the only cyber social outlet for people who want to discuss healthcare. There are an array of options like WebMD’s Health Exchange and the Revolution Health community where people can go to ask health questions, connect with other people who have similar health issues, and much more.

So whether you’re a professional in the healthcare industry, a politician, or just an individual consumer, healthcare conversations taking place online will surely touch your life and career in some way. And given the added visibility cast by social media and the collaborative communities engendered by such sites, it’s likely that the conversation will ultimately shape the outcome.

If you’ve used social media to discuss healthcare issues, let me know in the comments.

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On Facebook’s acendancy, data, data, and more data

One of the hottest topics on the web this week was Facebook’s recent dethroning of Google as “most visited” site (albeit it only for one week). This was a historic, attention-grabbing moment for Facebook and also accentuates the meteoric rise in popularity of social media.

As I thought about Facebook’s visitation statistics, it struck me that there is something fundamentally different about a visit to a social media site like Facebook compared to a drop-in on Google. Ten years ago, all visits were more or less equal. A visit was simply a page view. If someone was viewing a page, presumably it was because the page had something of interest. In other words, the page had something to offer the visitor.

However, a visitor’s motivation for navigating to a site like Facebook is different, as is the  subsequent experience while visiting. People go to social media sites not only to view and retrieve information, they’re also going there to add information. I know, I know, Google is collecting information every time you do a search, but it’s not readily available to other web users. A web search is a one-way street.

A status update on Facebook is so much more. Even if someone is asking a question on Facebook, the question itself contains information because it says something about the person, including their interests, needs, and wants. A seemingly insignificant bit of information about someone can trigger an entire exchange of additional status updates, each of which paints an additional hue on a social canvas that was very blank only a few years ago.

And while social media sites–a group growing three times faster than the overall Internet in terms of “time spent” according to Neilsen in 2009–continue their rocket-like ascent, the data contributed by users of these sites that can actually be used by other people grow at an astronomical rate.

Consider the following statistics on just a few of the most popular social media sites:

  • Six-year-old Facebook now has over 400 million users users (exceeding the population of the US). Half of them log into Facebook every day, and 35 million of them update their statuses every day.
  • As of March 2010, users of YouTube upload 20 hours of video every minute, a rate that equals 12 centuries of video per year!
  • The number of tweets blasted by Twitter users grew 1400% from 2009 to 2010. The loquacious group now generates 50 million tweets a day, or 600 per second.

Great, so what can we do with all of it?

Obviously, there is a lot of non-information in all that clamor, especially if you’re looking at it microscopically, which as individual users, we are. But the possibilities for finding patterns and trends are thought-provoking to say the least. For example, it may be possible to create “social graphs” of the various connections that people have with others at a global, state, and city level as this visualization suggests. Such a bird’s eye view of real-time human interaction is remarkable.

A recent article in the Economist notes that

… the world contains an unimaginably vast amount of digital information which is getting ever vaster ever more rapidly. This makes it possible to do many things that previously could not be done: spot business trends, prevent diseases, combat crime and so on. Managed well, the data can be used to unlock new sources of economic value, provide fresh insights into science and hold governments to account.

The article distinguishes information and knowledge in the following way: “information is made up of a collection of data and knowledge is made up of different strands of information.”

Considering that digital information increases tenfold every five years and that Cisco predicts that the torrent of data traversing cyberspace will approach 667 exabytes by 2013 (that’s 667 billion gigabytes), finding those strands of information will be quite a challenge.

But the reward is likely great too.

The Economist also provides a hint as to how the insurance industry might be affected:

As the world is becoming increasingly digital, aggregating and analysing data is likely to bring huge benefits in other fields as well. For example, Mr Mundie of Microsoft and Eric Schmidt, the boss of Google, sit on a presidential task force to reform American health care. Early on in this process Eric and I both said: Look, if you really want to transform health care, you basically build a sort of health-care economy around the data that relate to people Mr Mundie explains. You would not just think of data as the ‘exhaust’ of providing health services, but rather they become a central asset in trying to figure out how you would improve every aspect of health care. It’s a bit of an inversion.

To be sure, digital records should make life easier for doctors, bring down costs for providers and patients and improve the quality of care. But in aggregate the data can also be mined to spot unwanted drug interactions, identify the most effective treatments and predict the onset of disease before symptoms emerge. Computers already attempt to do these things, but need to be explicitly programmed for them. In a world of big data the correlations surface almost by themselves.

Social media can play a big role in health care reform too, as I suggested in a previous post.

If you’re an actuary like me, work in some other quantitative field, or are just interested in finding those information trends, the future is bright. It will be fascinating to see what patterns emerge as we learn more about ourselves than we ever knew before.

For more information:

[Photo by joiseyshowaa via Flicker]

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Using the web to get found in translation

It goes without saying that we are in the most advanced era of human communication. Geographic location no longer matters when it comes to delivering communication data to and from individuals around the world.

However, if you think about it, we’re still very much in the dark ages.  Despite all the advances in communication we’ve seen in the last 100 years, you can still step across a border and be completely unable to communicate with another human being. It’s actually quite amazing. You can have two people with the same mental aptitude staring at each other fumbling around trying to figure out how to convey even the most basic of information like the location of the nearest restroom.

Given that there are over 6000 different living languages in the world, I’d say we have a long way to go. The most popular language in the world measured by number of native speakers is Mandarin Chinese.  English has the largest number of non-native speakers, a group ranging between 250 and 300 million. This is quite a small subset of the world’s some 6.5 billion inhabitants.

So while we all have something to say, we are still quite limited in our audience.

We’re probably many, many decades away from a universally spoken global language, but fortunately, we are beginning to see promising translation technologies emerge. I believe that most of this is being driven by the popularity of social media, a phenomenon catching on worldwide.

In an earlier post, I discussed the dramatic spread of the Internet in the last 10 years. It is estimated that there are now over 1.5 billion people that access the Internet worldwide. Comscore reports that two-thirds of Internet users now access some form of social media. If effective translation technology can be embedded in social media platforms, that means about 1 billion people can actually talk to each other—in real time. (This is a nice step up from using English as a universal language.)

The good news is that you can already take advantage of translation today.  If you own an iPhone or iPod Touch, you can use a Twitter app called Tweetie 2 to translate what people are saying on Twitter.  I’ve personally found its translation ability quite good, and it has enabled me to communicate with people in both South America and Japan. The fact that I can connect to people who speak different languages is fascinating to me.

Looking farther ahead, collaboration technologies like Google Wave will provide platforms not only for translated conversation but real collaboration. In other words, people who speak different languages can work together and get things done. An example of Google Wave translation in action is given in the following video (you may want to expand it to full screen mode for best viewing):

For more of a marketing perspective on translation, see blogger Una Coleman’s post “To translate or not to translate? That is the question,” in which she discusses using website translation to increase market reach.

If you’ve found online translation services helpful for either personal or business use, please share your experiences in the comments.

[Photo by greekadman via Flickr]

Language stats:

* http://www.vistawide.com/languages/language_statistics.htm
* http://www.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=number+of+internet+users

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Social media will have a considerable impact on insurance marketing according to LIMRA survey

The fall 2009 edition of LIMRA’s MarketFacts featured an article by Mary M. Art on the future of technology in the insurance industry. The article reported results of a survey of various industry experts. They were asked to give their opinion as to whether various trends were going to have extreme, considerable, moderate, or little or no impact on the industry over the next five years.

Social media was one of the topics covered.  The following is a summary of the LIMRA article.

In general, most experts believed that social media would have a considerable, but not extreme impact on insurance marketing over the next five years. Four social media trends were considered (listed below from highest impact to lowest). Roughly 50% to 60% of industry experts agreed that these trends would have considerable to extreme impact:

* Financial companies’ need to monitor what consumers say about them online in blogs, social networking sites, etc.
* Consumers’ use of social media (e.g., blogs, discussion forums, social networking) to validate their financial company choices
* Availability of streaming video, podcasts, and interactive games for marketing
* Use of social media in general by financial companies

Experts in North America felt that social media would have more impact than their counterparts outside North America. However, producers’ use of social networking is expected to have a larger impact outside of North America. One North American expert stated that “unless compliance restrictions ease, it will be difficult for producers to fully leverage social networking.”

Regarding younger generations, one expert noted that “we’re already seeing [consumers use social media to validate financial company choices]. It will become greater. This is how Gen Y communicates.”

The top social media challenges listed by experts are:

* Finding business benefits from creating a social media presence
* Compliance
* Lack of understanding of social media
* Fluidity of the medium and the resulting need to continuously educate oneself about current social media
* Losing control of your company’s brand through the use of social media.

Do you agree with the consensus view of industry experts over the next five years?

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