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Looking back at the emergence of popular social networks, I’m quite convinced that much of their success happened not through incredible planning and foresight, but by accident and adaptation. Youtube was supposed to be a video-based HotorNot.com, Flickr was spawned off a MMORPG multiuser chat service with real-time photo exchange (called FlickrLive; I was there), and Twitter was meant to be a “livelier” Livejournal.com
As serendipitous as this may be, we can still take time to observe the tendencies of social networks. Explaining this at Buffalo PRSA back in February, Kate Torok kindly invited me to give a social media primer for her colleagues at Travers Collins & Company (TC&C) on Tuesday morning.
The night before, I spent some time examining their online network presence, by checking out their professional group blog TC&C insights, their twitter @TraversCollins, as well as their LinkedIn company profile page which neatly displays their employee roster.
By around 8.45am, twenty-two friendly faces had descended around me at the TC&C conference room. Surveying the room, I was delighted to know that they all had experience with twitter as well as Google Reader. Soon after, I noticed that John Pitts @Pitts88 and @schoenorn tweeted in while I presented. I wished more of them did the same, so we’d have a backchannel for sustaining post-session discussion.
Since Travers Collins & Company is an all-rounded communication agency handling advertising, public relations as well as investor relations, I showcased my Phelps vs. Kellogg’s case study (as seen at Buffalo PRSA), with a few extensions towards user engagement and social media tracking tools.
Technology actually comes last
I kicked off the session by showing an explosion of social web services out there. While there are @#^$-tons of social networking platforms already available, I reinforced the idea that that strategy should always come before tools. A better way to understand this, would be to see Forrester’s POST (People, Objectives, Strategy, Technology) method where, ironic to many, the technology component comes last in the online social engagement effort.
Listening actually comes first
For organization embarking on the social web journey, there’s the temptation to broadcast and focus on getting as much eyeballs as possible. I’d argue that this method simply bootstraps traditional communication limitations onto the new media of social networks, which actually offers us new ways of engaging individuals. Instead, I’d recommend listening as the primary method of engagement. It’s the most natural (and respectful) way to start a conversation, create strong relationships and build advocacy. Particularly since we live in a much noisier online environment today, someone who actually takes the time to listen becomes a big deal. We’re more receptive of people who empathize with us.
For instance: For the past week, I’ve been trying to resolve a “delivered” package via UPS… the problem being, I never received it. Checking between the shipper and UPS, it seems that someone “took” the package left at my door. It’s strange since I usually get InfoNotices whenever I miss a delivery.
While I might have to file a police report, along comes @ThomasAtUPS offering an ear. It’s obvious that he watches “UPS” related tweets. While he couldn’t do anything to help me then, it’s nice to know that I have a real person inside UPS to rely on, instead of talking to random service reps over the phone. Think about it: Never before in communication history have organizations ever been afforded such precise omniscience and omnipresence over their namesake as today.
Media Monitoring the Social Web
From my previous internship with PR agency, Weber Shandwick Worldwide, I had first-hand experience with the tedious aspect of mass media monitoring. Add the surveillance of social networks, and what could be relatively interesting can quickly turn into pure drudgery. Thankfully, with more news and conversations being shared online, I showed that it is getting easier for us to track what mainstream media as well as individual users are saying about particular ideas. At the basic level, there are free tracking tools on the web such as Google Alerts and SocialMention. On the higher level, there are intelligence gathering services which would index the raw keyword search results into measures of online sentiment (e.g. ScoutLabs, JamiQ).
Taking online tracking even further, the ability to predict future events might no longer be stuck in the realm of science fiction. Horizon scanning, as defined by UK government scientific advisors, involves “the systematic examination of potential threats, opportunities and likely future developments, which are at the margins of current thinking and planning. Horizon scanning may explore novel and unexpected issues, as well as persistent problems or trends” (Sept 2004). While governments have long realized the value of horizon scanning, a recent example included the fairly accurate prediction of the H1N1 flu epidemic by Northwestern University and Indiana University (New York Times, May 2009). Imagine if we had such predictive powers to watch over our interests.
History of Individual-Authority Relationships
Beyond listening, organizations can also engage and enlist users/fans in a more proactive way. I shared a historic overview of the stages of relationships and interactions individuals have had with organizations, going from Ladder of Citizen Participation (Sherry Arnstein, 1969), to Forrester Research’s Social Technographics reports (Charlene Li, 2008). I also highlighted Mike Arauz’s infamous “Spectrum of Online Friendship” to illustrate the idea of friending in the online space, and how such friends could be measured in terms of personal investment.
Where do we find the time?
Towards the end of my presentation, most of the questions pertained to finding the time for social media. There might never be enough time, let alone people, to manage multiple client accounts and their relevant social media endeavors. The short answer is that we should come upon the social web as natural extensions for our cause. Once again, the technology should come last, as it should aid, not detract from, the larger strategy of our cause.
One possible and quite commonly cited workaround which participants suggested included paying bloggers to write about their clients. First and foremost, there’s the danger of turning blog campaigns into nothing more than the act of shilling, or worst case scenario, astroturfing. I warned that with so many pairs of eyes on the Internet, it would almost be unavoidable for someone spot or even whistle-blow such an affair online, thereby damaging the client’s reputation.
I suggested looking for alternative ways to encouraging participation. This includes looking for the experts or influencers in fields relevant to the campaign, then approaching them with information which would be of interest to them. If it’s worthwhile, sponsoring bloggers for a period of time would be a better idea than simply paying for blog posts (e.g. PayPerPost), so long as bloggers know to be honest by disclosing their sponsorship in the post. A good example given by Courtney Quattrini (correct me if I’m wrong) was how she noticed that rapper 50 Cent had his ghost-twitterers sign off with initials, so fans wouldn’t feel short-changed thinking that it’s actually him tweeting. For most fans, it’s simply about the principle of showing respect.
From Communicating to Socializing
Finally, I got to sit-down with TC&C’s social media team, consisting of Kathy Burns, Alyssa Mayer, Caitlin Waas, and Courtney Quattrini. This four-woman team manages TC&C’s blog and twitter account. They are also responsible for advising colleagues and clients on the inclusion of social media practices into their communication mix. They wanted me to be brutally honest with how they could improve in the social web front. For new entrants to social media, I could think of three quick points for them to consider:
1. Link, and Link Widely
While TC&C’s company blog was professionally written, with individual writers’ personality showing through, I noted that great content might not be enough to be noticed. I believe that being on the web, we would really have to link and cite others as widely as possible, not simply to make an educated case, but to recognize other personalities online. Done modestly, most professional bloggers would see inbound links to their site, and might even reciprocate with a comment or a link back as well. It’s a conversation starter.
2. Riding the Brain Waves
As Malcolm Gladwell once noted, there are essentially two kinds of geniuses out there: The Precocious (or born genius) and the Late Bloomer. He noted that while being born genius is amazing in itself, it is far more efficient to consider developing many more late bloomers. In effect, not all of us might be able to create a sensation on our own, but many more of us know how to ride it and hopefully learn from it. Done in moderation, understanding the ebb and flow of conversations online and participating in them would be a way for new comers be introduced in new social circles. The idea is not to write simply in void, but to situate our own personality and creations in a common space with others. It’s a give and take situations, and humility can be a powerful, recognizable virtue. Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh made sense when he said that “People relate to people, not companies“.
3. The Perpetual Beta
Most organizations might get hooked on the idea that they have to look perfect right from the start. Those of us in the web world know that unlike the mainstream media where you publish once and disseminate, the web is more like an organic space where ideas survive by being continuously adaptive. Unlike traditional media, the web is a space where you can actually hold multiple conversations. Understanding this means shifting the paradigm of communications towards the idea where speed and humility rules over perfectionism and authority. I’d even argue that imperfection gives people the sense that you’re as human as them, which is why some of the more interesting bloggers are those who share their best and worst of times. It’s the journey tells the story, not simply the success. On a related note, there’s an interesting documentary being produced by Melissa Pierce called “Life in Perpetual Beta” which I hope to catch.
Telling it like it is…
I don’t profess to be a social media expert, so these are brief heartfelt thoughts I have to share. There are many more developed ideas worth exploring from many others worth following, but I do hope these points provide a rough guide on how to think about the social web. The bottomline is that we can’t simply bootstrap traditional communication practices onto the social web if we wish to make the best from it. We’re going back to basics, working with real people who share our interests, so we ought to make our adventures a mutual investment.