Social norms versus market norms: implications for social media and online PR

Dan Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational is a fascinating look at why human beings systematically behave in an irrational fashion.  Ariely is a behavioural economist – he goes a long way to exploding the traditional rational expectation theory of economics. The subject titles of the chapters in the book immediately give you a flavour of the non-intuitive findings of his research. For example:

The Cost of Zero Cost – why we often pay too much when we pay nothing

In one experiment, a group of people were offered the choice of receiving a $10 Amazon voucher for free – or paying $7 for a $20 voucher. Under rational expectation theory, everyone should choose the $20 option. Because the overall gain is $13 versus $10. However, in the test, virtually everyone in the group picked the free $10 option.  The power of free is very powerful  (but says Ariely, irrational).

However, one particular chapter struck me as having major implications for social media – namely, The Cost of Social Norms. According to Ariely, we live simultaneously in two different worlds – one where social norms prevail, and the other where market norms make the rules. Social norms are usually warm and fuzzy. Market norms are very different. The exchanges are sharp-edged: wages, prices, rents, interest, and costs/benefits.  Says Ariely “when we keep social norms and market norms on their separate paths, life hums along pretty well. However, when social and market norms collide, trouble sets in.” Take sex as an example. A guy takes a girl out for dinner on three occasions and pays for the meal every time. On the fourth date, he casually mentions how much this romance is costing him. “Now he’s crossed the line. Violation! She calls him a beast and storms off. He should have remembered the immortal words of Woody Allen – the most expensive sex is free sex”.

Introducing market norms into social exchanges thus violates social norms and hurts relationships. Once this type of mistake has been made, recovering a social relationship is difficult.

So what does this mean for the world of social media? More specifically for those who hope to use social media for commercial benefit? If Ariely is right, then you need to understand very clearly where the boundaries lie between social and market norms.  As a PR, is it possible to apply both social and market norms to your relationship with a journalist? Ultimately, you are being paid by a client to achieve a certain commercial goal ie you’d think market norms would apply every time. Yet much of the talk around social media seems to be couched in warm, fuzzy terms like conversation, dialogue and engagement. PRs are forever talking up their special “relationships” with journalists. However, in a business context, surely market norms must apply at some point.

In another of Ariely’s experiments, people didn’t mind doing certain tasks for free – because it was seen as a social norm. The minute money was involved, market norms came into play – and people’s involvement and behaviour changed. On Twitter, can you switch from providing good info with no expectation of financial reward to pimping your own commercial interests?

Getting the balance right between social and market norms is thus going to be one of the trickiest challenges facing social media marketeers.

PR via e-mail: the worst that can happen

Mark Brownlow’s excellent E-Mail Marketing Reports blog has a great post today called “E-Mail Marketing: the worst that can happen”.

Given my recent post about what PR can learn from e-mail marketing best practice, I thought Mark’s post was very timely. It is well worth reading the whole post – and if you simply replace the words “e-mail marketing” with PR, the same principles apply.

With respect to Mark’s original post, here are the “PR via e-mail” versions of his main points:

Email marketers (PRs) often complain that their colleagues or superiors (account directors or clients) want them to do unhealthy things with their (press) list, to squeeze yet more dollars, downloads, pageviews, or whatever (press event  or press coverage) out of subscribers (journalists).

Examples might be sending more and more email (press releases) with the same old tired offers (stories or pitches). Or sending email to a “borrowed” list of attendees at a trade show (or getting a press list from PR Newswire).

A key reason is that the perceived cost of doing anything with email marketing (PR via e-mail) is low. Not the low cost of sending emails (press release or pitches), but the perceived low cost of doing it badly.

He makes a great point when he says: “My home is my inbox. The inbox is not like a TV set or car radio or magazine or billboard or website or even your mailbox. It is a private place. We care what goes in there. But people don’t just ignore or delete “bad” emails. They resent them. A brand pays a price for not delivering value-by-email and annoying the subscriber. Survey after survey shows that subscribers will report email as spam if they are unwanted, come too often, are not relevant enough or come unsolicited. Does this matter? Yes. Spam complaints are a major factor in determining the reputation of the sender. The more complaints you get, the worse your reputation, the less likely you are to get delivered.”

If PR is about reputation management then PR firms need think about how the potential (mis)use of e-mail can impact their own – and more importantly – their client’s reputation to the media. The very thing they are being paid to do.

Five key online PR statistics for the UK (and why certain pages rank better than others)

The following stats should be of interest to anybody who is in the market for selling (or buying) online PR services:

1. The term “online PR” is searched for around 266 times per day in the UK.

2. The top ranked UK site for the term “online PR” can expect to receive around 111 click throughs as a result of these searches (according to Google, the top ranked page for a term via organic search can expect to receive click throughs on average equivalent to 42pc of the total number of searches)

3. The SEO value of these click throughs to the top ranked site is around £150 per day (ie given that the CPC for “online PR” is roughly £1.35 for a number one ranked advertiser, the top organically ranked site is thus gaining around £150 in Adword equivalent spend).

4. The top ranked Adwords advertiser for the term “online pr” in the UK can expect to receive around one (1!) click through per day.

5. The probability that someone  searching on the term “online PR” is actually looking to buy online PR services is 0.56 (in other words, just over half the people searching on the term are looking to buy. The rest are informational browsers).

In case you were wondering, here are the top 10 ranked pages for “online PR” in the UK at the moment











Although no one knows the exact nature as to how Google ranks pages, there clearly are a variety of factors that contribute towards Google’s evaluation. Anyone who has taken an interest in SEO knows that there is a checklist of things that are believed to contribute such as number and quality of back links, domain age, use of keywords in URL, frequency of content update, page title, header tags, etc.  And it is now possible to analyse these things in minutes rather than take days or weeks using a hotch potch of disparate tools.

Click here for a full, detailed speadsheet with an analysis of the top 10 ranked sites.  It makes for interesting reading. Take for example, the Bigmouth Media page. It has achieved a very high SERP ranking on the term “online PR” in a relatively short space of time – in terms of backlinks, it has comparatively few – a mere 85 as opposed to Immediate Future’s 22,400 or Online PR’s 5,010 (it also shows that the Page Rank quality of the back links does play a part too). However, it ticks all the boxes for on page optimisation ie “online PR” appears in the page title, URL, header tags, meta tags, etc. It also has a Yahoo directory listing.  Curiously, the 9XB page makes the top 10 with no page rank and no back links. But it does include the term in the page title.

Fairly obviously, if you could tick the boxes in every element, your chances of a high SERP spot are good. And given the value that accrues to the page gaining the number one organic spot (unlike gaining number one spot in terms of Adword position), you can see the importance of ensuring you’ve done as much as you can with the things under your control eg page titles.

Of course, this is only one keyword term.  But you can see the benefit of this kind of analysis – and how it can be used to ensure a properly informed approach to online PR and content generation generally.

Anyone who wants further analysis (or would like escherman to carry out an in-depth analysis of their own market sector) are welcome to get in touch – just drop me an e-mail or call 020 8334 8095.

What can PR learn from e-mail marketing best practice?

For all the current attention Twitter receives in PR circles, e-mail remains the staple diet of press release distribution.

Sending a press release via e-mail should therefore be subject to the same kind of best practice used for other forms of e-mail marketing. However, it did make me wonder how many PR firms could honestly say they do the following:

a.  provide clients with exact numbers on open rates for e-mailed press releases

b. provide detailed stats on which links generated most interest

c. keep subject lines to under 150 characters

d. test different subject lines

e. segment e-mail lists based on previous response and interest ie on real numbers

f.  create new content based on item e?

g. automatically create both HTML and text versions of e-mails

Think about point a. The excuse for ringing up a journalist and saying “did you get my e-mail” is completely removed if you know for certain the e-mail was opened and/or links were clicked on. (And with the availability of low cost e-mail service platforms such as VerticalResponse that  handle all the reporting for you, the excuse of cost disappears too).

Not only is there no excuse for the kind of cold calling that still gets Charles Arthur’s goat,  but it doesn’t work anyway. According to digital marketing firm Abachi : “Approaching a potential customer with a cold call gives the impression that you need their business but they don’t need you.  The prospect immediately has power and over you in any conversation that you initiate.  Even if you have a fantastic product or service that will be of great benefit to the prospect, you are perceived as needy and inferior.  Many negotiating experts agree; perception is everything.  Even if you have power, if you’re perceived as being ‘needy’, you have no power and all negotiations will be carried out on that basis.”

Substitute customer for journalist in the above and you get the idea.  Unless you are Matthew Freud or Max Clifford who basically control access to someone the media is desperate to talk to, PRs generally need journalists more than hacks need us.  Hence why PR cold calling of the kind outlined above routinely fails.

Jason Baer reported last year on 15 pertinent stats regarding e-mail marketing – PR firms sending releases or pitches via e-mail will be subject to the same kind of principles:

1. 21% of email recipients report email as Spam, even if they know it isn’t (how many journalists are already doing this with PR e-mails?)

2. 43% of email recipients click the Spam button based on the email “from” name or email address (ditto point 2)

3. 69% of email recipients report email as Spam based solely on the subject line (again, how many journalists are already doing this?)

4. 35% of email recipients open email based on the subject line alone

5. IP addresses appearing on just one of the 12 major blacklists had email deliverability 25 points below those not listed on any blacklists

6. Email lists with 10% or more unknown users get only 44% of their email delivered by ISPs

7. 17% of Americans create a new email address every 6 months (I’m Brits are no different)

8. 30% of subscribers change email addresses annually (journalists change jobs too)

9. If marketers optimized their emails for image blocking, ROI would increase 9+%

10. 84% of people 18-34 use an email preview pane

11. People who buy products marketed through email spend 138% more than people that do not receive email offers

12. 44% of email recipients made at least one purchase last year based on a promotional email

13. Subscribers below age 25 prefer SMS to email (does this apply to journalists under the age of 25?)

14. 35% of business professionals check email on a mobile device (journalists are business professionals too)

15. 80% of social network members have received unsolicited email or invites (are journalists on Twitter being solicited in a similar way?)

Julie Niehoff,  Regional Development Director with e-mail service provider Constant Contact recently came up with the the 2-2-2 Principle:

“When someone first gets your email, you have on average three seconds to get them to open it. The first second is spent on the From line, recognizing who sent the message. From there, you have just two more seconds to compel them to open your message with your subject line. That is why I came up

  • You have 2 seconds.
  • The first 2 words matter the most.
  • Answer the question “Why does this matter today?”

We’ve covered the fact that people spend about two seconds reading an email’s subject line. The other reality is that the first two or three words matter the most because sometimes that is all people read before deciding to open the message now or put it off until later. It’s important to front-load your subject line with the most compelling part of your message. (Note: most mobile devices, like Blackberries and iPhones, can only show 14 characters for the subject line.)

Given  all of the above, how many PRs are writing subject lines that are simply the press release headline? (And perhaps with the words “Press release” appended at the start – not only taking up subject line real estate, but helping the journalist to ignore it?)

In summary, if PR firms are going to continue using e-mail as part of their toolkit, it makes sense to start learning from best practices already established in the e-mail marketing arena.

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