Why Celebrities Matter Now

Celebrities sure have been stepping in it lately. A lot. In their attempts to connect with people around the world during the COVID-19 pandemic, many actors, musicians, and other public figures have come across as painfully tone-deaf. Finding examples is like shooting fish in a barrel. There was the cringeworthy “Imagine” singalong by a parade of out-of-touch (and out of tune) personalities. And David Geffen trying to relate to the masses by posting an Instagram image of his self-isolation on his $590 million superyacht. Or how about actress Evangeline Lilly blithely discussing on Instagram her disregard for social distancing (unwittingly predicting the social distancing backlash that would erupt among right-wing fringe groups in April)?

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And then there’s Madonna, in a category all her own. As if posting an Instagram video of herself immersed in rose-petal-covered bathwater were not enough, she also created bizarre, rambling Instagram “quarantine diaries” in which she pondered a burning spear making its way into her inner core before discussing the loss of people in her life due to COVID-19 while a jaunty oboe played in the background.

And that’s just scratching the surface of celebrity weirdness. It’s gotten so bad that we’re seeing a new genre of fairly in-depth news media analysis that might be best described as Celebrity Screwups in the Time of Coronavirus, including a major New York Times article, “Celebrity Culture Is Burning,” and a BBC piece, “Do Celebrities Still Matter in a Crisis?”

You Can’t Always Get What You Want

Yup, celebrities can be horrible. But for every miscue, many are using their power and visibility to help in some genuinely touching ways, especially when they stick to their knitting and uplift us with their talents. We saw an example of celebrities at their best during the multi-hour One World: Together at Home concert livestreamed on April 18 to benefit healthcare workers and others on the front lines of the pandemic. Several musicians ranging from Lizzo to Paul McCartney performed single-song sets from remote locations (you can view many of them here). And the performances were consistently moving. Lizzo’s powerful rendition of “A Change Is Gonna Come” offered hope.

The Rolling Stones’s “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” was an emotional moment that will endure for ages.

The musicians relied on their stagecraft to connect with people they could not even see. Consider the Rolling Stones, for example, appearing from four separate rooms. There was Mick Jagger, blowing us a kiss, his voice soaring above global sorrow. Ronnie, punching his fist in the air and exhorting us to sing — he could not see us, but he could feel us. There was Keith Richards, transcending the ravages of his life, smiling, lost in the moment of music, like some ancient blues man casting a spell. And Charlie Watts, grinning sheepishly as we all realized one of the world’s greatest drummers was playing air drums just like everyone else at home. The Stones have been on a journey with us during some painful times: wars, acts of terror, natural disasters, recessions, and now a global pandemic.

As of this writing, the concert has raised $127 million for various COVID-19 relief efforts, a testament to the power of celebrities to do good.

Words of Hope

But long before the event occurred, celebrities had already been connecting in personal and affecting ways. As the pandemic took hold, Matthew McConaughey offered encouragement with a convincing video. There was Ryan Reynolds, sarcastically poking fun at celebrity culture in a video exhorting people to stay at home. Or Dolly Parton, launching a series of children’s book read-alouds on YouTube.

And how about Dame Judi Dench, posting a delightfully goofy video of herself on Twitter urging us to “just keep laughing — that’s all we can do,” and John Krasinski, delvering good news from around the world through his own show on YouTube?

And I must give props to Ronnie Wood, who has taken to Instagram to speak to recovering alcoholics who, like himself, are facing struggles of their own as they are cut off from their sponsors.

In the Footsteps of Celebrities

In recent weeks, I’ve spent some time following their words and checking out their Instagram Live Q&As. Although I witnessed some boring misfires (John Mayer, I am looking at you), I’ve also seen some sparkling, warm moments. The other night the musician Weyes Blood hosted a Q&A via Instagram livestream, and I learned, among other things, that she’s a Scooby Doo fan.

“Scooby Doo, where the F — — are you?” she asked, accurately reading the room as she expressed what we have all been asking.

The poet Scarlett Sabet has hosted some Q&As on Instagram, too, from London somewhere, presumably her home. I realize that Scarlett Sabet is an award-winning poet. But many of us on that Q&A were hanging out with her virtually because she’s dating FREAKING JIMMY PAGE.

She was pretty nice and thoughtful during the Q&A, patiently handling questions from people whose Instagram handles are all variations of Led Zeppelin song names. I’m sure she realizes many of us were joining her Q&A hoping for a fleeting glimpse of Jimmy Page poking his head into the tiny phone frame or maybe playing a lick of “Black Dog” to keep things lively. At one point, I humbly posted a comment about the importance of creating art during hard times. Like everyone else’s little spurts of information, mine appeared on the Instagram screen for everyone to see. Lo and behold, she gave me a shout-out by name, even mentioning my handle.

Eventually she shut down her Q&A after a voice in the distance called her to dinner. The low murmur came so fast that I could not make out who it was. I pictured Page himself, sitting impatiently at the dinner table while pondering the possibility of re-issuing Coda as a 5.1 remix.

The Best of Times

Many famous musicians, bless their hearts, continue to perform concerts from their homes or, in the case of Neil Young, apparently from some distant planet. Dennis DeYoung, sitting at a piano, reintroduced us to the song “The Best of Times,” nearly 40 years after recording the tune with Styx. His voice, a little weathered by 73 years of living, still carried more emotional resonance than I would have dared to expect.

On March 22, Courtney Barnett hosted a three-hour benefit for Oxfam using the magic of Instagram Live — getting a jump on One World: Together at Home by a month. She brought in different musicians such as Sheryl Crow and Lukas Nelson from their homes. There was a homemade charm to the performances, and a lot of amusingly awkward “How do I use this phone?” moments as musicians navigated a performance without the help of their roadies.

And dang if those musicians weren’t kind of charming, too. At one point Barnett asked what all of us in Instagram-land were eating for dinner. I quickly posted “pizza” with an emoji. Her face lit up. “Pizza!” she smiled. For a hot second I could pretend that COURTNEY BARNETT KNOWS WHAT I AM EATING FOR DINNER AND APPROVES, knowing full well that probably 10,000 other people watching the livestream were posting the exact same answer with the same emoji.

There is nothing like a global pandemic to make us want to connect with each other. Most of us are doing that with our loved ones. But in our desire to connect, we’re finding some unexpected sources of connection with people we’ll never meet. In their own way, celebrities are connecting — sometimes in outrageously tone-deaf ways that belie their privilege, to be sure. But even their missteps add value by giving us a diversion from the onslaught of COVID-19 gloom and doom. We are in this for the long haul, my friends. Celebrities are not like you and me, but they are part of our lives. And I’d like to keep it that way.

Why #DeleteFacebook Is Dead

Facebook has big problems. But #DeleteFacebook isn’t one of them.

With a quarterly earnings announcement only days away, Facebook has weathered a slew of negative news mostly related to the company’s failure to respect the personal data of its 2.2 billion monthly users around the world. The Congressional appearance of CEO Mark Zuckerberg April 11-12 received mixed reviews. His prepared testimony, which laid out steps Facebook is taking to better protect user data, will probably not be compelling enough to prevent governmental regulation.

Adding to Facebook’s woes, Nielsen recently issued a report that Facebook users are spending less time on the platform, which, to be fair to Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg had predicted would happen earlier this year. Along with declining numbers, of course, is the rise of the #DeleteFacebook movement. According to a study by Tech.pinions, as many as 9 percent of Americans surveyed say they deleted their Facebook accounts, joining high-profile people such as Elon Musk and Steve Wozniak.

But I don’t think #DeleteFacebook is a threat to Facebook. Here’s why:

  • Most importantly: we need our Facebook friends. I already know of friends who said they were going to delete Facebook and even did so — but returned because they couldn’t bear being away from their network of Facebook friends. I know of users who were tempted to leave but ended up simply changing their privacy settings. The Facebook community (myself included) views Facebook from two different lenses: Facebook the business (viewed suspiciously) and Facebook the community — in other words, our friends and groups, where we share, listen, and connect, true to the company’s mission.
  • Deleting Facebook is difficult and not just because we’re attached to our Facebook friends. It’s literally difficult to untangle Facebook from all apps and sites we either log into with Facebook or give permission to interact with our data. Frankly, Facebook is too much of a utility for living our lives beyond the platform.

In a compelling April 14 column for the New York Times, “I Can’t Jump Ship from Facebook Yet,” Kathleen O’Brien, the parent of a 7-year-old with autism, summed up Continue reading

Content Master: The Morton Arboretum

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As the leaves of autumn give way to the bare branches of winter, the Morton Arboretum is a place of both refuge and inspiration. The preserve west of Chicago has a well-deserved reputation as a destination for hiking and bicycling amid the trees, ponds, and fields that comprise the 1,700-acre grounds. But the arboretum doesn’t assume that its reputation alone will attract visitors. To ensure that the natural playground remains top of mind amid the many digital and offline distractions vying for its patrons’ attention, the Morton Arboretum also happens to be a powerful content machine.

The arboretum’s content strategy is twofold: use digital to attract visitors, and offline content to support the organization’s mission of protecting and appreciating the natural world.

Visual Storytelling the Digital Way

The Morton Arboretum creates awareness and engagement by sharing content across the digital world where its patrons share their own content, on social spaces ranging from Facebook to Instagram, thus demonstrating that if you want to attract an audience, you need to be present where they live and search for things to do.

And the arboretum speaks the language of its audience: imagery. For instance, in October and November, the arboretum’s Instagram account offered an explosion of fall colors enticing the Instagram community to experience the bright red leaves of a sour gum or a golden yellow cork tree. The arboretum’s growing Pinterest community takes advantage of Pinterest’s organizational tools, with images organized under boards ranging from Gardening Ideas to Winter Trees. On YouTube, the arboretum offers more immersive tours that give potential visitors a taste of what they’ll find if they stop by. For instance, the arboretum recently posted a video tour of Illuminations, during which the grounds come alive with a festive light show at night. But YouTube is also a learning destination, offering how-to videos on topics such as tree pruning and watering plants and trees.

On Facebook, the arboretum also includes user-generated images, thus drawing from a broader palette of images and creating more engagement from its Facebook followers. Facebook and Twitter also act as sources of updates on the events that the arboretum offers around the year. In fact, its Facebook page is a textbook example of a how an organization can use a local page to generate awareness where people conduct searches for things to do nearby. The arboretum makes it easy for visitors to learn about events such as its Boo Breakfast for children, and the arboretum cross-promotes content on other social spaces, including TripAdvisor reviews. By being transparent and informative, the arboretum makes Facebook an important digital touch point that complements its website, which serves as its hub for learning more about things to do there. Patrons can also sign up for an email newsletter that curates content as frequently as needed.

A Learning Experience

The arboretum’s not-so-secret weapon for engaging its audience is educational content. Its website modestly claims that we engage students, families, teachers, and life-long learners to dig a little deeper into the science of trees,” which is putting things mildly. The arboretum is practically a year-round school, offering lectures, classes on topics such as nature art and photography, and opportunities to get involved in conservation. The arboretum does a masterful job segmenting educational content for different audiences. Here are just a few examples:

  • School groups: for grades PreK-5, the arboretum hosts classroom visits in which educational leaders provide courses such as plant investigation and the basics of trees. Its half- and full-day field trips offer deeper dives into nature for ages ranging from kindergarten to high school. Kindergarteners might learn about using the five senses to explore nature, whereas high schoolers can get involved into the maintenance of the park by acting as restoration stewards during their field trips.
  • Adult programs: the arboretum empowers adult visitors to enrich their understanding of nature and discover their inner artists. During chilly winter Saturday mornings, visitors can take winter bird walks, in which small groups discover the habits of the birds who winter at the arboretum. The Nature Artists’ Guild encourages patrons to express their artistic sides through paintings, drawings, and other creative endeavors — really a form of user generated content.

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Image source: The Morton Arboretum

One of my favorite arboretum activities is to immerse myself in learning at the Sterling Morton Library. The curved shelves full of neatly arranged books, comfortable chairs, and high ceiling create a welcoming environment to learn the old-school way: by burying your nose in books about the natural world the arboretum has vowed to protect. The library reminds me that a location need not provide blinking lights, video, and pulsating music to be immersive. The silence that invites quiet exploration of the mind is as immersive as sound.

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All the content has a purpose: to support the arboretum’s self-proclaimed role as “the champion of trees.” The exhibits, the classes, and the tours all ladder up to a mission to get everyday people involved in protecting the natural world. And the arboretum supports its mission in obvious ways, such as the Vanishing Acts traveling exhibit. Vanishing Acts: Trees Under Threat was developed with the Global Trees Campaign to raise awareness for threatened and endangered trees. What makes Vanishing Acts special is that you can take the exhibition with you. The exhibition is designed to be set up in public spaces appropriate for learning about tree conservation. As such, the arboretum offers a program to help others set up the exhibition, including a how-to guide for constructing the exhibit. Consider Vanishing Acts an old-school way of creating sharable content.

 Questions for Brands

  • Are you creating content that will engage your audience at a location level?
  • How well do you employ visual storytelling to share your brand?
  • Are you distributing that content where your customers are going to find it?
  • How well does your content support your mission?
  • How well do you involve your audience in the branded content you create?

Other Brands to Examine

  • Nordstrom, for its mastery of content on platforms such as Pinterest.
  • Starbucks, for capitalizing on social spaces to generate awareness for its stores.
  • Bass Pro Shops for providing activities such as 3D Archery
  • Weber Grill Restaurants for offering grilling classes and special events

For brick-and-mortar businesses, sharing meaningful content is increasingly essential to combat the ever-present threat of such as video games, Netflix, and apps that make it all too easy to remain planted on our sofas in the comfort of our homes. The Morton Arboretum can teach any brick-and-mortar business the power of immersive content.

Portions of this blog were adapted from a post I wrote for SIM Partners.

 

Why Kanye West Should Be Twitter’s CEO

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Twitter should ask Kanye West to be its CEO — or at least a member of its board.

In 72 hours, Kanye has done more to make Twitter relevant and compelling than anything its beleaguered executive team has done during the past year.

First came the #SWISH moment on January 24, when he tweeted a hand-scrawled image of the track list for his forthcoming album, Swish, with the words “So happy to be finished with the best album of all time.”

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The low-tech picture ignited a fire. His tweet about the long-awaited album was re-tweeted 160,000 times and liked 210,000 times. But more importantly, he and Twitter both gained positive coverage in media such as Forbes and The Wall Street Journalan incredible feat given that Twitter had announced mass executive departures the same day. For once, Twitter was not on the receiving end of doomsday coverage. Twitter rode Kanye’s coat tails and became relevant: one of the world’s biggest and controversial entertainers had chosen the platform to announce significant news.

And then things got weird for Kanye — and better for Twitter.

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Email and Referral Marketing: The Workhorse and Dark Horse for Customer Acquisition

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Digital long ago established itself as a channel for brand building and direct marketing. But what are the most popular digital tools for acquiring customers? According to my newly published report for Gigaom Research, the unsexy tactic of email marketing is a digital workhorse, popular for awareness building, and customer acquisition, conversion, and retention. And referral marketing, not used as widely as other tactics, provides an especially strong payoff for its practitioners. My report suggests to marketers that acquiring customers in the digital era is like creating a mosaic: to achieve a beautiful outcome, companies need to apply the right blend of tactics. For instance, brands should consider using social media and referral marketing to complement lists created for email campaigns.

The report, Workhorses and Dark Horses: Digital Tactics for Customer Acquisition, is based on a Gigaom survey of 300 U.S. digital marketers. We wanted to understand how they are using digital marketing tactics across the marketing funnel, spanning awareness, customer acquisition, conversion, and retention. Our survey affirms that digital marketing is being used consistently across the entire customer experience.

Marketers told us that social media, already well known as an awareness-building tool, is also particularly useful for customer retention. Content marketing is especially useful for awareness and retention. And email is consistently used across the entire marketing funnel.

Digital Marketing Spend Set to Increase

Here are the key findings of our survey:

  • Nearly 60 percent of companies plan to increase their digital marketing spend in 2014.
  • Email marketing is the digital workhorse, deemed the most effective (relative to other digital tactics) for building awareness, acquisition, retention, and conversion. In fact, 56 percent of respondents identified email as being the most effective at retention, several points ahead of the second-most-effective tactic.
  • Social spending is set to increase, but we discern some buying on faith with social. More marketers plan to spend more on social media marketing than any other digital tactic. But when we asked marketers to describe their perceptions of social media marketing, more marketers agreed with the statement “It is difficult to prove ROI for social media marketing” than with any other statement.
  • Referral marketing is a digital marketing dark horse. Only 39 percent of marketers use it regularly, but 43 percent of those who do use it acquire more than 35 percent of their new customers with it. These numbers are double the percentage of marketers who report such acquisition rates using email. Brands that invest in referral can gain a competitive advantage over those investing elsewhere.

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Ford: Crisis Management Done Right

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Corporations are fond of saying “Our people make a difference.” Sometimes your people make all the difference to your brand, as Ford has shown through the way it has weathered a painful and highly visible PR crisis.

As has been well documented by now, over the weekend, news outlets such as Buzzfeed and Business Insider got wind of offensive advertising mock-ups created to promote the Ford Figo in India. The various mock-ups, depicting women (including caricatures of the Kardashian sisters) bound and gagged in the trunk of a Ford Figo, unleashed a firestorm of criticism.

If you’re Ford, what do you do? This is a situation where having the right people to represent your brand makes all the difference.

As reported by PR Daily, Ford quickly mobilized a global team over the weekend to address the problem. Facts needed to be gathered — and quickly. A response was required — and post-haste. And the company needed to strike the right tone however it replied. The right people needed to be on board to exercise judgment under tremendous pressure.

Here was an especially tricky challenge: Ford needed to tell its side of the story while at the same time not come across like the brand was trying to pooh-pooh the offensive ad mock-ups. As it turns out, Ford did have a story to tell: the brand was really the victim here, not the perpetrator. The ads were created without Ford’s consent by JWT India, a unit of Ford agency WPP. And, contrary to what Buzzfeed reported, the mock-ups were not ads — they were ideas (and obviously bad ones) that JWT India had unwisely posted on a public site.

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The New CEO Job Requirement: Social Media

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The sad results are in: 70 percent of all CEOs have no presence on social networks. And John Mackey of Whole Foods is the only CEO of a Fortune 500 firm who maintains his own blog — yeah, the same John Mackey who stepped in it by comparing Obamacare to facism in an interview with NPR. Hey: it’s time for CEOs to rethink their approach to social — or should I say get an approach since I doubt they think about social very much. Social media is a job requirement for the CEO.

In 2012, George Colony, CEO of Forrester Research (and an excellent blogger), delivered a presentation about why CEOs don’t use social media, and the reasons apply today: a general aversion to risk, lack of time, a generational bias against social, and the existence of regulatory constraints (as Netflix CEO Reed Hastings recently reminded us). Those constraints are understandable — but CEOs need to get over them. The fact is, CEOs need social media. Social helps CEOs better understand their market, their customers, their employees, and their own brands. Even better, social can help CEOs run their companies more effectively. An IBM study says that brands without social CEOs are less competitive, and according to Social Media Today, eight out of 10 employees want to work for social CEOs.

Recently, I sat down with Jermaine Dupri, to discuss how social media helps him be a better CEO of So So Def Recordings. As you might know, Dupri blew up the So So Def Recordings website and replaced it with his own social media community, Global 14. Dupri and I published the outcome of our conversation as a byline in Fast Company, available here. The byline discusses five ways social helps him run So So Def, an example being the way Global 14 gives him insight into up-and-coming musical talent. We also cite other CEOs who use social media effectively, such as Richard Branson, whose use of platforms like Twitter humanizes the Virgin brand.

If you are a CEO (or aspire to operate at that level), I hope our byline helps you embrace social, even if all you have time for is the occasional tweet. Just don’t blow off social.

Taking a Vacation from Digital

For a week this summer I took a vacation from digital, and I’ve never been happier. My wife Jan, daughter Marion, and I visited our friends Kevin and Robert in their home outside Quebec City for nine days, and incredibly enough, we managed to stay offline almost the entire time. We wrote, read, explored streams and hiked through the walled city of Quebec. To document how it felt to be truly liberated from technology, I kept a journal scrawled in pen on blank typing paper. What follows are excerpts from my personal journey. This is not my typical blog post commenting on technology, marketing, and entertainment. But I hope it conveys a commentary in its own way about the value of unplugging and focusing on the people who bring joy to your life:

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Your employee, your advocate

Josh Bernoff and Ted Schadler got it right. In their 2010 book Empowered, they argued the case for companies unleashing their employees as brand advocates especially through social media. (And they continue to discuss employee empowerment on their blog.) Progressive companies understand that building the corporate brand and investing in employee brands need not be mutually exclusive activities. Fortunately my employer iCrossing is one of those companies, as illustrated in two recently published blog posts about the value of employees as brand advocates.

In “How CMOs Can Empower Employees with Social Media Guidelines,” published April 4 on the iCrossing Great Finds blog, I discuss how social media guidelines can support, not restrict, employees as thought leaders and brand ambassadors. I cite the example of how iCrossing tripled the volume of employee blog contributions and boosted visits to our Great Finds blog by 74 percent in one year by helping employees find their social voices with guidelines (which we recently published). Our approach is to go beyond the predictable guideline do’s and don’ts and provide ideas for how employees can use social to speak to our audience of CMOs.

Meantime, in an April 6 Great Finds post, my colleague Nick Roshon asserts that “If Brands Are Publishers, Employees Are Authors” His post focuses on tools that brands and employees can employ to boost authorship authority (especially at a time when search engines like Google are increasingly rewarding content authority).

Nick asserts that CMOs need to “build up their employees as authors of thought leadership . . . Because Google and Bing are already rewarding content authors by making them more visible to search. As Google and Bing embrace technologies that reward the most prolific and authoritative content creators, CMOs that encourage employees to create thought leadership will build more visible and connected brands.

In other words: you can either ride a wave in the direction it is going or someone else will.

How do you empower your employees?

Want customers? Invest in social media

 

If you aren’t generating leads through social media, it’s time to rethink your marketing game plan. That’s a major takeaway from The 2012 State of Inbound Marketing, a new report from marketing software provider HubSpot. Among the report’s conclusions: 62 percent of companies say that social media has become more important as a source of leads in the past six months. And 81 percent of businesses rate their company blogs as useful, important, or critical.

Based on response from nearly 1,000 executives, The 2012 State of Inbound Marketing assesses how businesses use inbound marketing – or tactics such as social media, content publishing, and search engine optimization that are designed to “pull” prospects and customers toward your business. Why the focus on inbound marketing? Because brands that invest in inbound marketing report a 61-percent lower cost per lead than those that focus on outbound marketing tactics such as telemarketing or trade shows, according to HubSpot.

Moreover, inbound channels produce higher quality leads: leads from SEO have a 14.6 percent close rate, compared to a 1.7 percent close rate for leads from outbound marketing sources.

One of the major findings of the report is the impact of social media and company blogs on lead generation According to the report, “The use of social media and company blogs not only gets your company better brand exposure, but it also generates leads that result in real customer acquisition. LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter are becoming more useful ways to acquire customers with significant growth in 2012. Similarly, company blogs continue to be strong performers as 57% of companies have acquired a customer from that channel.”

Other major takeaways:

  • More marketing dollars are going to social: the average budget spent on company blogs and social media has increased from 9 percent to 21 percent in 2012.
  • Company blogs usually lead to customer acquisition: nearly six out of 10 companies with a blog have acquired a customer from their blog.
  • Frequent blogging makes an impact: 70 percent of companies that blog at least two-to-three times per week have acquired a new customer from their blog. Only 43 percent of companies that blog less than monthly have acquired a new customer from blogging.
  • Facebook delivers customers in the business-to-consumer world: 77 percent of B2C companies say they have acquired a customer through Facebook.
  • LinkedIn delivers results for business-to-business companies: 65 percent of B2B companies have acquired a customer through LinkedIn.

The message is clear: social media is more than a brand-building tool. Social media delivers customers. For more information, check out this blog post from HubSpot. In addition, on March 1 at 1:00 p.m. EST, HubSpot will discuss the report via a webinar – register here. Let me know what you think of the report.