Monday, June 1st, 2009

More mess; less B.S. (or: Nine simple suggestions for using social media)

More mess; less B.S. (or: Nine simple suggestions for using social media)
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There are a lot of social media experts out there, and I’m not one of them. I don’t think your business needs a Facebook Page (actually, I say that they’re largely bunk); meanwhile, I feel that a lot of “blogger outreach” is an outright waste of time. In fact, I argue that you should probably ignore a lot of tools and features out there.

I often lament the hubbub around social media. It’s not that I question its necessity or importance; rather, I dislike how it’s upheld as the answer to all our problems. Nevertheless, our firm has experimented with social media a fair amount and as a result, we’ve gained some insights on the topic. As a result, I’m often asked to speak about social media. The following post is a summary of my talk at SEGD ’09 in San Diego last week.

If you haven’t already, you’re likely going to use social media in one form or another to promote your business. The following are a few easy things to keep in mind as you do so:

Advertise less

The traditional advertising model is one of interrupting things: The General Lee is mid air, Bo and Luke Duke might not make it… CUT! Your viewing is stopped for a Parkay commercial. Most of us didn’t really like being interrupted like that, and with a lot of the new tools out there (Media Center, Tivo, Front Row), we just don’t have to accept that sort of thing any longer.

I suggest you try to think about social media from a less ad-centric perspective. First of all, try to pull people into what you’re saying instead of pushing your message out to everyone. You might also find this easier if you think “narrowcasting” instead of broadcasting. For example, a company like Parkay might do better by creating a great resource for aspiring chefs rather than by blasting everyone with their message at a time of great importance. ;-)

Listen to what’s being said

A year ago my wife and I bought a minivan from Deer Lake Chrysler. It was a terrible experience, marked by threatening and unethical behavior (on their part). As a result, I posted about the incident here, and for several weeks following, the post ranked in the top five when one performed a Google search for the dealership. (I like to think that I saved a few people from their unscrupulous methods.)

Their dodgy business practices aside, the management of Deer Lake Chrysler could have turned this around. If they monitored what was being said they could have responded and tried to apologize, share their perspective, and maybe even remedy the situation. I doubt that they would have actually responded in such a fashion, but not doing so likely cost them some business.

It’s free to utilize a number of useful tools like Google Alerts, Backtype, and TweetBeep. So start doing it. Even if you do nothing else with social media, you need to listen to what people are saying about you and your company. Not doing so could prove costly.

Learn from it

At a talk about a year ago, one audience member stood up and asked a question. Her company wanted to use social media, but they were scared about what would happen if people said bad things about their products. As a result, she asked how they could minimize negative comments on the web about their products. In her search for a way to control the message, she missed the most basic solution: Fix your stuff.

Publicists used to try to “handle” situations, and many likely still do. Instead of doing this, I ask you to use this feedback to your advantage and learn from it. Have someone cursing about your product? Talk to them and find out why they’re so frustrated. In the past we used to pay for focus groups, now we get real-world feedback for free. Quite a bargain, isn’t it?

If you’re really lucky, you’ll find an angry mob. A lot of people are scared of these, but I think they’re wonderful. A focus group is working in a controlled setting. Angry mobs, however, come out naturally and invest the time in your company by telling you what they think. I figure it’s a pretty wise idea to take what they say to heart.

Define your purpose

It’s easy to become intoxicated by the litany of tools available to the marketer, “Should we use Twitter? Flickr? Feedburner? Facebook? Maybe we can create our own network on Ning, or a Drigg-site of some sort. Hey! I know, what about a widget or iPhone app?” There are lots of things you can do… so don’t.

Instead, try to put all of the tools out of your mind, and think about your purpose. I write very few blog posts here and generally avoid using images and videos. That doesn’t matter, because readers seem to enjoy the content: just straight-forward talk about things we (and they) are interested in. Could I use more neat widgets and things? Sure, but I don’t think they’d help. Sharing experiences and discussion is the important part–not employing every gadget imaginable.

One of my friends recently asked what he should do with his company’s Flickr feed and I was at a bit of a loss for what to say. I remarked that it might be the wrong way to look at the situation, but later thought of a good analogy: Imagine someone asking, “I just got a screwdriver… what should I fix?” Wouldn’t that be crazy? You shouldn’t get a tool and then look for a problem; instead, isolate a problem and then select the appropriate tools.

Speak human

People don’t care about companies. They care about the people in them and the things they do, but most people find it hard to love a company. I can’t think of another place where this is as well illustrated as it is in social media. Lots of old publicists think they can craft a press release or use fixed corporate language that can ensure a certain end-result, but it just doesn’t work like that.

Think small. If I need help with your product, I probably don’t want to talk to a person in a call center reading a script. Actually, the very best thing for me would probably be if I were able to talk to the person who actually put the thing together. So, drop the posturing and let me talk to that person. Few of us are looking to add “robots” to their lives. Why not just be a person who thinks, cares, and makes mistakes? (We can identify with those people.)

Have a personality

A lot of people get mad at me for being a bit of a loud mouth. Our projects and posts are sometimes cheeky, loud, and even obnoxious; but, they’re always honest, and often interesting. Some people think I’m an asshole, but I can’t control what other people think. (And I don’t want to.)

Social media is only interesting when it’s social. That means that we need the discussions, debates, and back-and-forth. In my opinion the only way you get to that is by being who you are and letting the chips fall as they may. Most people are pretty interesting once you strip off the layer of corporate varnish we all seem to wear.

We like Ze Frank’s videos because he’s mouthy and sharp; it doesn’t even matter that they’re generally pretty crappy looking. I love The Filthy Critic and his catty, profanity-laden movie reviews because he’s funny and sounds like the “real deal”. (He even goes as far as to call out other critics by featuring their questionable quotes under the catch-phrase, “Hey, Whore, How’s the Whoring?”)

I’m not proposing that you act like a jerk, but don’t let politeness get in the way of saying something you actually mean. Most people prefer that to corporate fluff.


In spite of all of the “experts” out there and the many grand claims around what they can do with social media, it’s actually not quite that clear. In fact, with the rate at which social media and trends change these days it’s pretty hard to establish any proven method for success.

So, give up on perfection and try some things out. Some will probably work out really well, and others will leave you with some scuffs on your knees. Get out there and play with the tools and see what works for you. You can’t control how people are going to react to your efforts and it’s hard to predict what will or will not work. That’s what’s driving so many big companies nuts. Even big budgets can’t guarantee a result.

These days there’s a lot of opportunity that comes with a little risk. (That seems like a pretty fair trade off, doesn’t it?) Get out there, toy with some things, change them when they don’t work, and be yourself. Do all of that and you’ll probably start to get a handle on the whole thing.

Give us the good stuff

A lot of people want to “go viral” but in reality they don’t. They just think it would be nice to get some free advertising by doing something quirky. Most of them aren’t prepared for if it did actually happen. It’s unlikely that their servers would handle the load, and even if they did, they would probably get a chuckle, but not a sale. The truth is that “viral” almost never happens, and when it does, it’s generally not as important as the long-term stuff.

So forget about “going viral”. In fact, never even say that word “viral” again… unless you have some kind of an itch that you need to see a doctor about, but that’s a whole other topic. Instead, make (and sometimes even give away) good stuff that has value to your audience.

A year ago we wrote a white paper on social media. It wasn’t anything overly complex or special–just a good resource for someone who wanted to get a handle on the topic. As a result, it was viewed by thousands, resulted in speaking engagements, brought in some interest in our work, and was even published in Advertising Age. (They didn’t ask us if they could have permission to do so, but, “copyright, shmopyright”.)

There’s a lot of stuff out there, but lots of it is crap. Actually, about 99.999% of isn’t worthy of being wiped off the bottom of your sneaker. All I want you to do is make something good. No big deal, right?

Avoid the quicksand

Social media is a quagmire, dude. Before you know it, you’ll be sucked in and twittering about your bowel movements or something equally asinine. A day spent on social media seems, in many ways poorly spent. These are great tools, but they’re just that. Don’t let them cloud your vision.

Remain focused on where you’re going and what you want to do. Establish goals that help you determine if you’re actually doing what you want, or in fact just getting sidelined by distraction. You can always walk away from social media if it’s not working, and for some it just doesn’t. Fact is: there are many ways to communicate with your audience and a lot of that that passé “old stuff” still works pretty well.

Bonus point: Surprise people

Every once in a while we’re all surprised by something that just goes further than we might have thought. It doesn’t have to be monumental and it doesn’t have to cost a lot. All it has to do is take us somewhere we didn’t think you’d take us.

Last year’s Warioland campaign caught me off guard, and still sticks in my mind. Similarly, Last Day Dream is a lovely short film that moved me. It’s easy to think about social media from an ego-centric standpoint, in which we amass as many “followers” as possible or do something funny for kicks. I suggest that we think about connecting with people in an authentic fashion instead of treating it like a digital popularity contest in which we “streak the campus” to make people look for a moment.

BTW – My new book is called “Speak Human” and you can reserve a copy here. (I’m probably bugging you by ending every blog post with a note about it. After I sell 5 million copies I promise to stop.)

Follow @karj to hear about these posts first.

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