Today KRC is launching a new INSIGHT series – an ongoing series of interviews with experts in the digital and social media space.  For our first installment we interviewed Jennifer Golbeck, director of the Human-Computer Interaction Lab and an associate professor at the University of Maryland.

Jennifer is a leader in social media research and a pioneer in the field of social data analytics. She brings together emerging concepts in the fields of computer science and sociology as a way to infer information about relationships and trust. In addition to her work at the University of Maryland, she’s a contributor for Slate and The Atlantic, and appears frequently on NPR talk radio.

We asked Jen about both digital media and about digital analytics.  The following is an abridge version of our discussion with Jen around digital media.  The next installment will focus on our conversation around analytics.

Jennifer Golbeck

Jennifer Golbeck

How did you get interested in digital and social analytics?

I was interested in complex systems, which is kind of how anything interacts from traffic patterns to social insects and kind of landed on people interacting online. And I started doing that work at a graduate student site as social media started becoming a thing on the web. So kind of social interaction became my focus, and I have a really interdisciplinary background.

What would you say are some of the best examples you’ve seen of the power of social and digital media leveraged most effectively?

I think there are some great cases of that being done right, and Twitter is one of the places that you really see it. So like one of my favorites recently is at Honda. They’ve got commercials now where they have different eighties action figures hiding in the car and talking.  Those are TV commercials, and one of them is Skeletor from the He-Man cartoon that we saw growing up. And so they had a twenty-four-hour period where Skeletor hijacks the Honda Twitter account and was posting pictures of himself and talking about how he wanted to get He-Man and throwing in a couple of other Honda things. So it wasn’t straight-up advertising like “oh, let me tell you about how interesting my products are.” It was this very kind of funny way of using Twitter, in the way that any regular person would use it, and it happened to be Skeletor pretend hijacking this account. And I just thought it was this great example.

What are some of the biggest mistakes you see organizations or individuals make in how they use digital or social media?

If you remember when the last Batman movie came out and there was this mass shooting in a theater in Aurora, Colorado.  And it’s just a completely tragic, violent, awful thing. And Aurora was one of the terms that was trending on Twitter. This online fashion company happened to make a dress, and the style of the dress was called Aurora. And they put out this tweet that says “oh, looks like everybody is talking about our new Aurora dress.” So they totally knew that they were jumping onto this trending topic that had nothing to do with their dress. So basically they were trying to make money off this national tragedy, and it created this huge negative uproar for them. They had to shut their account down for a while. And so it shows that you really can’t just say “oh, we want to get people looking at our content on social media.” You have to do it in the right way because you can offend and turn off and completely lose people from ever listening to anything you say if you do it in the wrong way like this company did.

What are some of the more surprising or underappreciated impacts that social and digital media are having on marketing communications today?

We now sort of expect companies to keep us updated through social media in ways that you never would have expected before. So [when] we had a snowstorm here in D.C., I found myself like, “it snowed during the day, but the roads looked kind of okay by the evening.” And we were thinking about if we wanted to go out to dinner, but we didn’t know what restaurants were open and closed. And I found myself just expecting that the restaurants would put out on Twitter or on their Facebook pages whether or not they were open. But I expected this kind of communication. And I think that’s something that a lot of businesses are doing effectively. You know that’s where people are going to find their information, not necessarily coming to your website.

What do you see as the next evolution of digital and social media in the longer term, say six to twelve months from now?

I think you’re going to see more and more businesses understanding that they need to invest money in doing social media right. That it’s not enough to just put up a Facebook page and have a Twitter account. Like that’s a very decades old way of doing it. You really need people who are up-to-date and engaged in those different platforms where people are spending their time. And so I think in the next six to twelve months, you’re going to continue seeing businesses start investing in people that know how to do that right so they can leverage the technologies better.

What do you see as the next evolution of digital and social media in the longer term, say two to five years from now?

So I’m starting to see, especially the younger crowd, moving to photo-based interaction and more kind of a similar social media thing like Snapchat or stuff that disappears. And it’s going to be interesting to see how businesses decide to leverage that. You know, I follow the Washington Capitals on Instagram or on Snapchat. So those are photos that go away. They have little kind of corporate Snapchat accounts. You know, they’re not doing a terrible job with it, but I’m never like really excited to see anything new that they’ve put up there. I think businesses haven’t really figured out how to use some of these new platforms. They’re just finally figuring out how to use Facebook and Twitter when it’s something that some of these people are kind of moving on to new stuff.

Do you have any recommendations for how businesses might be able to adapt to these new social media platforms?

I think human power is absolutely the answer here that you have to have at least a person if not a team of people who are dedicated to managing your social media presence. And those can’t just be your sales guys who are putting out messages on social media. They need to be people who are themselves personally, deeply engaged with and active users of all these different platforms, you know who are happy to have all these different apps, use them and try them and know the culture of how you communicate there and what people expect. And those people should be managing the kinds of things that your brand is doing because all the interesting stuff that companies do on social media clearly comes from people who are active users. The great stuff on Twitter is obviously designed by people who use Twitter all the time and get how to use it. So kind of big mistakes or even just like the really boring stuff that nobody looks at, that has no engagement that seems to come from like more traditional sales people who aren’t regular users. So I would say companies need to invest money in the new people young or not that can spend a lot of time engaged in social media so they can craft the right kind of message that fits in with the culture on these platforms until they figure out which platforms are the right ones for the company to use.