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THE SOCIAL MEDIA STRATEGISTBuild a Successful Program from the Inside Out
By CHRISTOPHER BARGER
McGraw-HillCopyright © 2012 Christopher Barger
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE LAY OF THE LAND
The world of social media and Internet communities has been called "the Wild West" so often by so many observers (usually those who aren't directly involved in social media, by the way) that it's become an accepted truth. While I don't think the analogy is 100 percent on target, it's used widely enough that I'll stick with it, drawing a few parallels to make a point.
The most important asset for survival in an Old West town was knowing the lay of the land. A sheriff in the Wild West—at least the one of popular imagination—had to know every foot of his county, know the country like the back of his hand, and understand the unwritten rules of a society that allegedly had no rules. If he did, he was able to keep some order. Maybe he didn't control everything, but at least there was a sense that the law was upheld and that the good people of the town didn't have to live in fear of outlaw gangs.
The analogy pretty much holds true in the modern "Wild West" of social media: if you have a lay of the land and understand its nooks, crannies, and unwritten rules, you can master some elements of this "Wild West" and maintain some semblance of order.
So before we do anything else, let's go through the lay of the social media land, as it were. In this chapter, we'll get an understanding of this new environment and the basic rules of survival within it. Once you've got that down, we'll move on to what you need to build a successful social media program.
Social Media Is About People, Not Technology
It can often seem as if the world of social media exists because of the development of inexpensive (or free) and simple publishing tools, like WordPress, or the emergence of Facebook or Twitter. The social media "gurusphere" and big businesses and brands often develop a fascination with the latest bright and shiny object—be it location-based services like Foursquare or Gowalla, influence measurement tools like Klout, or emerging community networks like Quora or Google+—and rush to identify their "strategy" for utilizing each tool. The problem with over-focusing on the technologies and platforms is that it misses the point. The phenomenon most people think of as "social media" is merely enabled by technology, not created by it.
"Social media" is an environment in which the barriers to publication have crumbled, making anyone with an Internet connection a potential publisher and trusted source of information. Whether about events or products, it's an environment where traditional sources of information, such as the "traditional media," the government, or a company or organization, are less trusted or viewed with skepticism or cynicism. It sometimes baffles some of my longtime PR colleagues that anyone in an audience might consider "Joe Blogger" to be as credible a source of news as a major publication or as credible a source of company information as the company itself. But in many cases, that's where we are. Decrying it or arguing that it shouldn't be does not make the environment any less open.
In the social media environment, real connections with real people are not only possible but also in many cases more greatly valued than the official voice of a company. Organizational voices (e.g., "Acme Company announced today that ...") are less trusted and less important, and the voices of real people—even those representing a brand—carry much more weight. In this environment, audiences are looking to connect with a person, not a logo. What you say is still important, but who says it is at least equally important, that is, a brand's message is only as credible in these environments as the people from the brand who communicate it. The "social" is always more important than the "media" and always will be. Facebook and Twitter and blogs and podcasts and YouTube may empower these dynamics, but they don't cause them. If you build a social media program thinking that you simply need to shift your attention to these new media without shifting your tactics or approaches, you're going to fail. Few people want to be marketed to in these channels, at least in the traditional sense. They're looking to interact—with real people who just happen to work for that brand—and they want to be listened to. When someone goes onto Twitter or a brand's Facebook page or blog, she doesn't just want whatever information the brand wants to push today; she can get that from traditional sources. She wants her questions answered, she wants her complaints or comments addressed, and she wants to know that her voice has been heard by the brand. That two-way dynamic is the most important aspect of social media, and if you've not grasped that, then it won't matter which platforms you're on or how quickly you got there. Audiences reward brands and organizations that join social networks or platforms to talk with people and increasingly ignore those that are there only to talk at them.
For Businesses Using Social Media, Social Media Is Still a Business Tool
Businesses and organizations can't use the tools in the same way that individual users do—and the social media community must understand this. Organizational social media is done with purpose, for a purpose.
The individual connections and relationships made within social networks on behalf of organizations and brands don't happen because the brands want to appear more approachable or more human. Those are nice side effects. But make no mistake: as unromantic as it sounds, businesses and organizations get into social media because they want customers (or potential customers) to eventually buy their products, feel better about having purchased their products, and have problems with their products resolved more efficiently, and they want to get insight on what might make a customer more likely to buy those products in the future. "The conversation" and "engagement" are just means to that end. Nonprofits should have similar goals: involvement in social media is a means to spread information and raise awareness about their cause, increase membership, drive a certain action from members, or raise money.
Before you start your social media program, you must know what your organization is looking to achieve or accomplish. Like any other business initiative, your social media program should have identifiable goals and objectives. Build those goals and objectives rather than just engaging in undirected "social media activity."
It's easy to get caught up in the "Kumbaya" talk about "the conversation" and the idea of relationships. But in a business context, those conversations and relationships are meant to lead somewhere. Richard Binhammer, who's one of the main architects of Dell's success in social media, puts it this way: "No company can afford not to be very close to its customers; social media is a viable, valuable tool within your arsenal for this whether you're talking B2B or B2C."
While the conversational and sometimes uncontrolled nature of these media may seem unfamiliar or even frivolous, there is often real business value to even the most casual of interactions. Even a seemingly trivial conversation on Twitter or an occasional blog post that seems to have nothing to do with brand positioning or messaging can be a step in the direction that eventually yields the bottom-line results that the organization is looking for.
Social Media Does Not Change Your Business, Nor Is It a Panacea for All That Ails You
Social media is a fantastic tool for building relationships with audiences and customers, improving customer service, raising awareness of a product or service, and sometimes even helping to sell that product or service. But it is not a set of magic beans that turn chicken poop into chicken salad. If your product is not satisfactory to customers, the best social media program in the world is not going to disguise that reality.
In fact, social media can serve to amplify flaws in your product. If your customer service processes limit what your agents are able to do for customers, then putting a handful or even all of your customer service team on Facebook and Twitter isn't going to improve your customer service ratings. In fact, it will just give your customers one more access point to lousy customer service that frustrates them and makes them feel uncared for.
Social media also is not an elixir that magically changes your company's culture overnight. The existence of hammers and nails doesn't mean that the non-mechanically inclined (like me!) go out and start building things; if it's not something that's in you, the existence of a tool doesn't suddenly infuse you with it. If your culture isn't disposed toward open conversation and genuinely hearing your customers or the audiences you're targeting, Facebook and Twitter don't suddenly turn you into Zappos; social media tools are as useless to you as a hammer is to a horse. As Richard Binhammer from Dell puts it, "If you don't have a culture that wants to listen with big ears, social media won't change that."
My first experience with social media in a big organization was at IBM in the mid-2000s. We got a lot of credit—I think deservedly so—for the enthusiasm with which IBM embraced the emergence of blogs and empowered its employees to get involved in blogging. But it didn't happen in a vacuum. Mike Wing, IBM's vice president of strategic and executive communications, is quick to point out that IBM's enthusiasm for the openness of blogging was consistent with a longer-term evolution of its culture. From the emergence of an employee-driven and employee-written intranet to the "jams" (targeted, focused brainstorming sessions that welcomed all ideas and criticism) IBM conducted in the years before blogging took off, Mike recalls, IBM was on a gradual progression toward a culture of open dialogue and employee empowerment. "The extent to which social media is embraced depends on what the organization is ready for," he says. It wasn't that social media changed IBM's culture and was a revolutionary step; IBM's culture made the adoption of social media—and the initiatives that resulted that won us so much acclaim—that much easier and likely to succeed.
Mike also points out that technologies and platforms are rarely so complicated that they can't be adopted by a big organization. Instead, it is not complexity but management's attitude that is the key, he says; according to Mike, the most important social media platform is the level of management's comfort with and trust in its employees. In other words, if your organization's leadership is uncomfortable with the idea of giving up some control to audiences external and internal, social media is going to have a rough time gaining traction there. If, on the other hand, your management and culture are open to change and the input of employees and customers, social media is merely an extension of that approach and won't be entirely disruptive.
Because of some of the hype that surrounds social media, a set of perhaps unrealistic expectations for what it can do for an organization has developed. It can amplify your marketing and communications programs and deepen customer relationships. But it cannot make you something you're not, and it won't make you what your culture doesn't allow it to be. A great social media program should—and will—feel like a natural extension of a great company. If your company's culture is stiff and controlled and your products aren't all that great, then your social media program will likely feel stiff, controlling, and false, and your program just won't be all that successful. You're best advised to go about fixing your culture before worrying about launching a social media program.
You Don't Have Control Anymore—Get Used to It
The idea of letting an audience dictate the direction or topic of a conversation is scary enough to make some companies wonder whether they really want to get fully involved in social media. Twitter, with its rapid-fire, real-time pace, open nature, and seeming randomness of trending topics, can seem like an uncontrolled free-for-all to a nervous executive unused to public criticism. The idea of allowing user-generated content on a company's Facebook page or website often draws warnings from multiple corners in an organization. As a PR rep for a major national brand has told me, "Our execs know that the critics are out there on the Web; they just don't think we should provide them a platform to bash us." My friend's company is not alone. From legal concerns about an organization's liability for what a customer might leave on the company website to concerns about impact on the brand if disparaging comments appear on a page designed to get customers to want to buy, this desire to assert control over conversations about the brand is pervasive enough to be familiar to most social media evangelists within corporate settings.
In social media, the audience directs the conversation, and everyday customers are often thought of as equally reliable as or even more reliable than a brand when it comes to information about that brand. When a company tries to reassert control over a conversation happening online, its efforts are often met with scorn, anger, or charges that it "just doesn't get it."
So why would any executive in her right mind want her brand to engage in social media? Why get involved if you can't control the content or conversations that are taking place about your product? Because you already lost control a long time ago—of conversations about your brand, the way your messages are received, and the way your brand is perceived. The ability of anyone and everyone to air an opinion—not to mention the larger breakdown of authority and trust in Western society, especially in America—means that audiences long ago stopped taking your word for how good your product is, what your brand stands for, or whether your news is truly relevant.
They also stopped putting as much stock as you do in what the traditional media has to say about you or your products. Have you checked a trust survey recently? About the only entities that finish below "corporate America" are politicians and the media. We in marketing and communications invest so much effort into influencing traditional media that we sometimes forget that the audience doesn't put as much stock in these media as we do.
The fact of the matter is, people have been talking about us like this and mistrusting us and counteracting our messaging for a long time now; the social Web just amplified this and made it easier for them to share their perceptions. But marketers are kidding themselves if they think they can go back to the days when they were the most trusted source of information about their own brands or organizations or the days when having relationships with a few reporters at a handful of key outlets meant that they could control how a brand was represented and perceived by the public. Those days are long gone; get over it.
The good news is that while you can't control online conversations, you can influence them. The more you're involved, the more relationships you build, the more questions you've answered candidly, and the more times you've stood there and taken criticism, the more audiences are going to see you as an equal and valued partner in their community, and the more they'll give you the benefit of the doubt or be willing to hear your position or side on things. Plus, your responses end up showing up in searches on the topic; if you're not out there to counter unfair or inaccurate statements about your brand, the only thing Google or Bing will turn up is your critics. There's a saying that you shouldn't let perfect be the enemy of good; in social media, you shouldn't let control be the enemy of influence. Avoiding a social media presence unless or until you can control it is self-delusional and also misses a tremendous opportunity to actually influence people in the directions you want them to go.
Your Organization Is Now a Media Outlet
With all the fuss and fascination about the emergence of bloggers as influencers or the launch of some new tool, channel, or platform that's attracting lots of users, it's sometimes easy to focus so much on who's influential in which platform or whose blog we want to be mentioned in that we can overlook one of the most fundamental benefits of the social Web to big business: the ability to develop and publish content just like everyone else.
The fact is that these tools really do provide big brands the same opportunities as individuals to publish content and opinion inexpensively. It used to be that in order to get a big publicity hit, an organization's media relations team would have to pitch the idea to big publications and hope something would click. After the Net emerged, media relations started aiming to land placements on popular websites for their content. But whether the clip appeared in print, on
Excerpted from THE SOCIAL MEDIA STRATEGIST by CHRISTOPHER BARGER Copyright © 2012 by Christopher Barger. Excerpted by permission of McGraw-Hill. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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