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The Home Depot on Twitter site is transparent about the public relations function of its Twitter accounts. The site introduces its PR coordinator on its site: “I’m Sarah on our PR team, joined by Brandi and her team from Customer Care.” Home Depot has multiple Twitter lists including: @HomeDepot/localnews, @HomeDepot/weather, @HomeDepot/brands-you-trust, @HomeDepot/homeimprovement, @HomeDepotdeals, @HomeDepotfdn, @HomeDepotracing. Its multiple lists reflect the fact that Home Depot is seeking to connect and provide useful and valuable information to rather specialized audiences. The bulk of the content includes promotional specials, customer service comments, and banter designed to spark discussion. For example, on Earth day, Home Depot tweeted, “Happy Earth Day! What are you going to recognize today?” John Deere MachineFinder MachineFinder’s blog showcases large photos of its tractors from around the United States accompanied by human interest stories. For example, blog post titles include “Nothing Pedals like a Deere,” “10 More Incredible John Deere HDR Images,” and “30 Examples of Tractor Art and Art From Tractors.” In addition to the colorful and interesting photos, video content is periodically posted. Few people comment on the blog posts. A MachineFinder tweet that seeks to drive people to the blog post typically represents one of the listed comments.
MachineFinder’s twitter username, @machinefinder, has 1,433 followers. MachineFinder tweets appear to drive traffic to their website, to promote their blog entries, and to link their followers to important industry news. As reflected by TweetStats (April 23, 2010), MachineFinder disseminated 229 tweets in the time period spanning from October 1, 2009 to January 31, 2010, 30 of which were @ replies and 31 retweets.
919 Caterpillar, Inc.
Caterpillar, Inc. launched its first blog on July 8, 2009 for power generation users and professionals. According to a press released on Caterpillar’s website, this Power Generation Online Community “can be described as an interactive forum where consulting specifying engineers, operators and other power generation professionals can exchange ideas and best practices” (retrieved from the Caterpillar website, April 26, 2010). Caterpillar debuted a second blog in September of 2009. The purpose of this waste industry blog is to connect its waste industry group and waste industry professionals in order to share best practices (retrieved from the Caterpillar website, April 26, 2010).
Caterpillar Inc. employees take turns writing blog entries for both the power generation and waste industry blogs. The tone is conversational and personal. The two Caterpillar blogs seem to initiate legitimate conversation with community members. Less emphasis is placed on promoting Caterpillar. For example, in one of the waste industry blog entries, a veteran Caterpillar employee writes, “Over the last few blogs, we have touched on spacing equipment, product support measurements, and overall change in how we do business with the recent economic downturn. In this blog, we take a step back and do an overview of Life Cycle Management. In this new blog, Manage Your Fleet - - Taking a Life Cycle Management Perspective, Bill Debord focuses on other variables that drive cost over the life of your machine - - Selection, Operations and Project Management, Repair & Maintenance Management, Business Management, & Rebuild, Resale, Disposal” (April 26, 2010).
Also notable is the fact that the authors pose important questions to prospective viewers. For example, in the Power Generation Online Community, authors pose the following questions in their blog entries “How can I make money off of my standby genset during times when it’s doing just that… standing by?” and “Oil sample analysis provides important data on your engine. Who do you trust to give the best insight?” Given its emphasis on real questions and dialogue, it’s not surprising that the Caterpillar blogs generate a fair number of comments per post.
Caterpillar’s Twitter username, @CaterpillarInc, has 3,577 followers. According to TweetStats (April 26, 2010), Caterpillar disseminated 121 tweets from October 1, 2009 through January 31,
2010. They averaged two tweets per day and 23 tweets per month, with no retweets and insignificant @ replies. Caterpillar’s tweets appear to fulfill many purposes: (1) to disseminate important company news, (2) to promote a blog entry by one of its employees, (3) to drive traffic to its website. Apparently, it does not use Twitter for discussion.
920 Sony As you might expect, Sony uses many forms of social media. In its electronics business, the “Sony Electronics Community” includes a blog moderated by two staffers, photo and video content, material for downloading, separate communities for product ratings and reviews, a learning site “digital darkroom,” online course work at “Backstage 101,” and communities for Vaio (computers) and a site for Sony Reader users dedicated to “literary moments.” The Sony Electronics Community blog offers information about products and how they’re used.
Photos, videos, podcasts – all kinds of content resides here. During the study period, the blog had 48 posts, 30 of which generated 124 comments. The moderators do interact in the comments, to thank commenters, offer additional information and make suggestions.
Other Sony businesses that use blogging include PlayStation, which has the most active blog of any company evaluated in this study. For one week at the end of January 2010, 14 posts generated 1,504 comments plus 116 replies. (For the study period, there are 342 posts.) On Twitter, Sony also has multiple accounts. The main @Sony has about 12,000 followers;
@SonyElectronics has about 13,000. @SonyPictures boasts some 60,000 followers while @PlayStation (video games) has more than 250,000. The scale is daunting. During the study period, these four Twitter accounts had 2,985 tweets, 38% of which were @ replies and 14.5% of which were retweets. The content of the tweets is largely broadcasting, though there is some discussion. Most tweets are merely informational.
ConclusionsExcept as noted in the detail above, corporate blogging is largely an exercise in one-way communication, if we define one-way as between company and others. The content is designed to position and persuade, sometimes merely to sell. The firms with the most blog comments (Ford, Wells Fargo) seem content to let those commenting discuss things among themselves rather than engage with them. The Caterpillar blogs that focused on customer-centric issues and problems represent an exception. Excellence theory is essentially about two-way communication and symmetry – the concept that organizations will change something of themselves as a consequence of that dialogue. There is little evidence that such symmetry is present in the blogs we evaluated.
Twitter would seem to be the natural space for two-way discussion, but the @ reply (the very essence of dialogue on Twitter) is underused, as is the retweet. There also is little evidence that the firms studied are operating symmetrically on Twitter. Will policies change, goals be adjusted, and/or mutually beneficial outcomes be realized? Unknown. Do Twitter followers think better of companies on Twitter?
Considering both blogging and Twitter, it’s often unclear whether the public relations arm of the firm or the Marketing one are handling social media. If marketing is in charge, the lack of symmetry isn’t remotely surprising. PR has, for the most part, a likelier tendency to look for reputational impact and opportunity for discussion than do marketers. The selling process, often referred to as “consultative” or “relationship” based, is still fundamentally about persuasion through skillful use of language. This suggests to us that neither Excellence, nor the Relationship Management Theory are very much in evidence among the companies we studied. Rhetorical Theory, on the other hand, with its focus on suasive language seems a better fit.
Facebook holds great potential because of scale. Gathering “fans” (or recently, “likes”) creates a focus group of people already interested in your organization. The temptation for firms is to market to this group, rather than establish a relationship with its members. This seems to us to be 921 a very risky notion, as tolerance for advertising increases with relevancy and decreases with the reverse. It’s a balancing act: you want to take advantage of the captive audience, but the focus on efficient maximization of impressions in traditional marketing reduces the relationship value.
We could make a case that firms shouldn’t build their own presence in social media. Rather, they could participate as third parties in social networks. One business development strategy for solo PR practitioners is to visit blogs and sites and comment intelligently, building and enhancing reputation with little capital investment. Any of the firms in our study could opt to do the same – is it better for Pottery Barn to have 96,000 Fans, few of whom interact with the Pottery Barn people who run its Facebook page, or to have groups such as Pottery Barn Fanatics with just 1,300 members who ostensibly have a stronger affinity for that brand?
The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company relies on third-party sites for user product reviews – TireRack.com is one – and it’s not certain that bringing that capability onto Facebook or even its own website would improve reputational impact.
To revisit the research questions and hypothesis:
RQ1: Is the current content of organization-driven social media consistent with the idea of persuasion?
Yes. The bulk of blog postings, replies to comments and Twitter activity is consistent with suasion.
RQ2: Is the content consistent with the precepts of Excellence Theory?
No. Even two-way discussion, hardly new to public relations during the Excellence Study, is erratic among the companies represented in this research. Neither did the researchers observe symmetrical behavior in subject blogs and Twitter activity.
H1: Organization-driven social media content is asymmetrical, and therefore focused on persuasion despite its two-way potential.
Hypothesis 1 is supported by the research.
Further research should use direct surveys among subject firms to connect their intended strategy with the observed behavior.
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On August 11, 2009, The Wall Street Journal published an editorial written by John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, a retailer specializing in natural and organic foods and consumer products. In the editorial “The Whole Foods Alternative to Obamacare,” Mackey argued “…the last thing our country needs is a massive new health-care entitlement that will create hundreds of billions of dollars of new unfunded deficits and move us much closer to a government takeover of our health-care system.” Mackey then presented a series of reforms, many of which are often associated with libertarian or politically conservative positions.
Examples of his suggested reforms included “less government control and more individual empowerment,” tort reform, health savings accounts, and high deductible health insurance plans.
Mackey also credited the health savings accounts and high deductible plans offered by Whole Foods to its employees as producing substantial healthcare savings for the company.