Q&A with Shiv Singh, Global Social Media Lead for Interactive Ad Agency Razorfish

Shiv Singh is a vice president and the Global Social Media Lead for Razorfish, one of the world’s biggest interactive agencies and home to a long line of Fortune 500 clients, including Levis, McDonalds, Starwood Hotels and Victoria’s Secret.

Yesterday, before Singh caught a plane out of his headquarters in New York,  we discussed how Razorfish’s customers are approaching the explosive growth of social media and the new class of influencers born of the boom. Singh also shared some of his most recent data discoveries with me, what new techniques companies are using to boost customer engagement across social media, and why he thinks Twitter has some growing up to do.

You recently authored a comprehensive report on social media, after surveying 1,000 social network users between the ages of 18 and 55. What were the most surprising findings, in your view?

Many, really, but one is that TV and friends continue to rank extremely highly in terms of influence. Though we have all these different ad formats and so much going on in social media, people trust their friends and they trust TV ads.

What also stood out for me: even though people have a lot of conversations online, they rarely ask each other for advice online when making purchasing decisions. While niche sites are exceptions — sites for mothers, for example, where women seek out the advice of other moms — across the whole [social media] population, it’s after a consumer purchases something that they then share that information with their peer group, sometimes to suggest that their friends buy the same product.

Why do you think that is?

I think because a lot of people use social networks really to showcase who they are: Here’s what I’ve done, who I’m associated with, this is what I care about.

Also, in the second section of our report, instead of being survey driven, we took six months of actual conversation data from the Web and analyzed it. We also compared online conversation data with offline conversation data to track whether a brand was spoken about as positively or negatively offline as online. We found in most cases that the conversations were pretty consistent, but that there are exceptions. When it came to GM, for example, the online conversations about the company were more favorable by something like 30 percent.

Because people are more cautious about what they write than what they say?

That’s a big part of it. Increasingly, when we say something online, the feeling is that it stays there and nothing is truly private, so people are careful. When we talk offline, when we’re standing in front of a person, we trust it’s safe to take more extreme views on a subject.

Then how can advertisers get an accurate picture of how people feel? Doesn’t the fact that people are censoring themselves online concern your clients?

It worries them. but you’ll always be a little more worried about online sentiments because it’s closer to the point of purchase.

Your report breaks “influencers” into three categories: key influencers, who have huge followings and rarely know their audience personally; social influencers, those in a consumer’s social graph; and peer influencers, comprised of friends of family. How can brands get the most mileage out of each?

If you’re GM, your key influencers and what they write about you is concern number one. So a great key influencer in the auto industry is Edmunds.com; GM needs to have a strategy to engage with Edmunds and its writers. Other key influencers can be bloggers, and GM needs to ensure that they have the right information at hand.

You then have social influencers. If the engine of a GM car catches fire and someone who is very active on social networks happens to record the fire and shows his network the footage on YouTube, there’s a very different dynamic taking place. So brands need to know who talks about them online, what gets said, and how much of an impact all of it has on the brand.

In terms of peer influencers, brands need to understand that though I might be going out to buy a car, I’m making the decision about what to buy with my wife, an equal stakeholder. So if GM is trying to sell me a car, they’d better target their marketing to reach out to my wife as well.

In social media, people seem willing to engage with some brands in music and entertainment, but not others like financial services companies. How do you advise those clients on how not to come across as intrusive?

There’s so much hype around social media. I have a lot of clients that are getting themselves in a tizzy thinking they need to do a lot with it  right away. The advice I give them is basically, ‘people don’t want to talk about you. Don’t jump into social media when you may not have the permission to participate. Understand where you do have permission to participate before trying to do everything and be everywhere.’

What’s been one of your most successful social media campaigns so far?

Last year, we did a very exciting social media campaign with Levi’s. They were sponsoring the show “Project Runway” and we worked with them and created an online equivalent where people around the world could participate in a design contest around Levi’s jeans.

We marketed on social platforms and  we reached out to both fashion schools with a presence on social networks and to social influencers who were excited about the TV show. We would up with something like 4,000 clothing designs submitted, 30,000 or 40,000 judges, and hundreds of thousands of visitors. And Levi’s, which wasn’t doing well with women aged 18 to 34 beforehand, saw a significant lift in sales during that time.

Is that how you measure a campaign’s effectiveness, by sales numbers?

It really varies from campaign to campaign. Sometimes we’re looking for a direct lift in sales. In another case, a campaign may just be to raise brand awareness. Or sometimes it’s as simple as wanting to triple the number of fans we have on Facebook because we want to start marketing discounts and offers to them.

What are typical run-of-site CPMs that you’re seeing and how have those changed this year?

They’re social network-specific numbers, but they start as low as $2 or $3 and go as high as $15 or $16. We often work with Federated Media and advertise through blogs with their help. Then, in the case of Facebook, we rarely if ever run traditional skyscraper ad units but instead do its virtual gift program, which has different metrics associated with it. So what you’re buying there is the number of news feeds mentioned.

Can you elaborate on that program for readers who don’t know how it works?

Let’s take a big brand like Victoria’s Secret. They could create this fun little gift that 19-year-old girls to give each other, like a virtual heart saying, “best friend for life.” The company would buy 100,000 of these gifts; Facebook would then find 100,000 users that match the demographics of who Victoria’s Secret is targeting and say to them, “here is a free gift; you can give it to a friend of yours.” Users see that gift, they like it and share it, then it shows up in their friends’ news feeds that “Karen gave Sarah a gift, sponsored by Victoria’s Secret.”

I find the model a little creepy. I guess Facebook isn’t getting any complaints, though.

Well, whatever we do is in compliance with the social platform. We’re very sensitive to the fact that our clients are such premium brands. But yes, when users feel that their privacy is being invaded, Facebook gets a lot of complaints and it hasn’t gotten complaints about these virtual goods in users’ news feeds or I’m sure they’d end the practice, because it would hurt their brand, too. 

What are some of the newer techniques that companies are using to increase engagement across social media?

An interesting new trend are banner ads where you can type a message in it or review a product or retweet the ad unit itself.

What about social gaming, which has seen explosive growth in the last couple of years? Have advertisers grown interested in becoming a bigger part of the in-game experience?

Social games? That’s been a very interesting space. They are highly addictive but you see very sharp drop-offs in engagement. Really, the most successful examples of what we see is when the brand is a natural fit for a game or widget or application. So in a sports game, it makes sense for Adidas or Nike to advertise around it, or to have product placement. But it doesn’t make sense for a suitcase manufacturer.

What about advertising at the point at which people are buying more virtual currency and are being presented trial offers by companies like [newly acquired] Super Rewards and OfferpalPoint?

I haven’t see much of that. I don’t think they work as well as other online direct response campaign strategies. At least, we don’t do it.

Because that space is perceived as low-rent?

I’ll just say these are premium brands. They rarely look at doing stuff like that.

What’s the most interesting thing happening on Twitter?

Lots of things, from brands using it as a customer service tool to offering Twitter-only discounts and deals. We also use Twitter to announce new products and events.

What we like about Twitter is you can put up a website address in your Twitter status update and use tools to track how many people click on the link —  though the metrics that Twitter is giving marketers aren’t at the level of those they can get elsewhere on the Web, so we think Twitter still has a fair amount of growing up to do. They aren’t there yet.