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.

Comments & Trackbacks

  1. Able Parris says:

    Eric, great post!

    People tend to over-complicate these things. You've done a good job of explaining why we shouldn't.

    One question: I want to be certified as a Social Media Guru. Do you offer courses? ;)


  2. I am in fact offering such certifications! Just send a good single-malt scotch and a SASE to:

    smashLAB 403 - 318 Homer Street, Vancouver, BC Canada V6B 2V2

    We'll have your certification mailed to you within moments. (Forgive us if we're too drunk to write legibly.)

  3. Erin Kurtz says:

    Excellent thoughts. Your message of honest and appropriate engagement is an important one and overdue for adoption by the social media quick-fix-seekers.

  4. As always, a wealth of information that's full of common sense.

    Funny thing is, I tell my clients the same suggestions about social media, and they don't care for my negative criticism. So they go off and waste their time anyway.

  5. David Airey says:

    Sign me up for that course, Eric. I bought some rum for you, but drank it.

    Don't mark me down, though. Think of it as practice for when the viral action makes me a celebrity.

  6. David Yeiser says:

    Great post as always, I love the screwdriver analogy! A quick question, how much did you market your white paper on social media? Did you pass it around Digg, do press releases, etc.? Or did it grow just based on your existing readership?


  7. We didn't really do anything that out of the ordinary in promoting it. If memory serves we blogged, tweeted and shared it on Facebook, alongside emailing it out to some people we know. It seemed to show up in a number of places after that, but largely from other people sharing it.

  8. John Bottom says:

    Great summary. And I guess by putting out good blog stuff like this (and getting people like Guy K to tweet about you) you're proof that social media can work. As long as I find my way to good material through all the crap out there, I can say that social media works for me too.

  9. UberDragon says:

    Very well said - straight and to the point. I hope those looking to bring their company into the online social world pay attention to this article and read everything in it!

  10. That was a smack-your-head-duh! moment when you mentioned the user groups and feedback under Learn From It. Of course! That makes so much sense and it's a great point to make to companies who are concerned about "bad" publicity. And really, we're just going back to the way marketing used to be done: socially, by word-of-mouth recommendations. Only now we can connect with the world, instead of just our neighbors. I think it's awesome; it keeps businesses—and the people who run them—pretty honest.

  11. I love this post so much I seriously want to marry it and have its babies.

  12. Dovya says:

    Awesome post! I'll be forwarding to many (many) people.

  13. A very interesting and well-written post.

    At the risk of appearing as a shameless promoter of my own blog (which I basically am, god help me), I thought you and your readers might actually enjoy the following:

    The Flight Centre recently handled some (quite frankly) defamatory remarks I made about the Face of their company on twitter - in a surprising and ultimately positive way.

  14. Well said! Know thy problem before throwing screwdrivers at it. If you miss it hurts or damages something. Goals of accomplishments what you need, how to accomplish then execute and engage! Thanks. Do you mind if I quote you -- copywrite!

  15. Feel free to quote. :-)

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  17. Matt Powell says:

    I totally agree.

    One thought - I think the "screwdriver mistake" is largely caused by the sudden explosion of new tools and their viability as communication channels. I'm hoping that as people become more familiar with the tools, they will begin seeing them as a means to and end rather than an end unto themselves.

  18. Rory O'Brien says:

    Hear, hear! I like the cut of your jib.
    Hopefully these ideas find their way into the minds of company executives and save us from even more nauseating brand & advertising experiences.

  19. Another great post Eric. Again, your insight, analogies and ability to describe your experiences in a "human" tone make it easier for me to get your message and generate ideas of how to apply it myself.

  20. s says:

    This is good up to a point - I think you assume everyone online is like you; informative, interactive, social.

    Not true.

    I doubt the car dealership cares what you think - and I also don't think it hurt their bottom line.

    Also regarding paid focus-groups and real world feedback: real world feedback comes from people with the impetus to respond and interact. And again, not everyone has the personality for that. Focus groups are still required for real research on most products, except maybe digital ones. Everything else, you still need a wider variety of participants.

  21. Are you implying that online customer reviews don't matter, or simply that one negative comment isn't enough to move the needle?

    On your second point, how many effective data ever came from a focus group? ;-)

    (I'm all for research, but have yet to find focus groups particularly enlightening. )

  22. Lisa says:

    Excellent Eric!! We seem to forget that all these tools are really just that... tools. Use the right tool for the job!

  23. Jen Halloran says:

    Just re-read this for the third time; I've kept the tab open since yesterday. It's a brilliant piece of writing from the get-go; love your provocative opening statement.

    "In the past we used to pay for focus groups, now we get real-world feedback for free." In a previous life, I conducted focus groups (or, rather, hired people to conduct them for me while I watched from behind the one-way glass); even then, the results were always skewed. We'd have given anything for some 'real-world feedback' back then. (Even money.)

  24. Eric,

    Bravo...real world talk for real companies. And nary a social media cliche in the whole post!


  25. Thanks to all of you for the kind words--really nice to hear that it's useful. :-)

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  27. Glenn Hilton says:

    "A day spent on social media seems, in many ways poorly spent". I suppose it could if you had no rhyme or reason to how you spent it. But if you are listening to the right people and interact in the right way it actually can be time very well spent.

  28. Great work - I read a ton of these every day and this is the one I will now forward on to any businesses attempting to dive in to the Social Media waters.. because it covers it all (and is the most readable) - Thanks.

    One request: if you would add some sociable / sharing links to these articles it would be easier to pass them on..

  29. Those links are right above the comment area. We haven't included all services, but have hit the major ones: Digg, Reddit, StumbleUpon, Twitter and Facebook.

  30. Andrea says:

    Great post, especially the screwdriver analogy. Question: The college I work for has started a twitter page, and I especially love using Twitter to listen to what people are saying. The good or bad news, however, is there is literally zero people talking about us. I have found that few people in our area have started using Twitter. Do we just sit around and wait for them to catch on? or is there a way to engage our audience ourselves?

  31. I suppose it all comes down to what you wish to achieve with it. Do you want to help people out? Build your brand? Become a conduit for discussions? Remove barriers between students and administration? Use it as a recruitment tool?

    It's challenging for me to give you any meaningful counsel without really understanding your objectives, expectations, and the nature of your school. Twitter could be a great tool for you; on the flip-side, perhaps you don't need to use it at all.

    There's likely a way to engage your audience--there almost always is. The questions come down to who this audience is, and what the purpose of said engagement is.

  32. Erin Anne says:

    (I think) I most appreciate the "Focus Group vs Free Public Feedback" insight.

    Coca Cola used paid focus groups by the bucket-load before they unveiled their "New Coke." Customers didn't have social media tools to use back then, but still found ways to punish them severely for the switch.

    Turned out the free feedback from the public was far more valuable: Ignoring it would have been the last thing that company ever did.

  33. A gem post on social media that I discovered after long long time :), excellent insights and as you said & I often tell people is to focus on the need of social engagement is the first and most important factor for brands than just using some tools like Twitter, FB, Ning etc to mark themselves as social organizations because everybody else is using it.

    Brands first need to give thought to the need of their social engagement so it boils down to why?, how? and where? questions to identify and understand a strategy.

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  35. Brooke vmf says:

    Fantastic points! I often find myself frustrated by people's excessive use of social media, so much so that I don't want anything to do with it at all.

    You've managed to put things very simply in a way that makes me feel more comfortable with the tools, and more likely to give strong reasons for why other people should 'just calm down already'!

    Anyhow, I'm sharing your post on Facebook for sure! :D

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  37. Amanda says:

    Eric - very nicely stated. I read the entire post twice so far, while recalling the handful of "social media" plans and activities I've been involved with for some clients. Your words of wisdom would have been incredibly useful at the beginning stages of the projects (which ultimately did not garner the results we or the client were expecting). I've shared via Facebook and I will keep a copy of your post with me now for all brainstorms and meetings... for that moment when the proposed use of a social media tool is not necessarily appropriate.

    Thanks for helping guide your readers in the right direction...

  38. Robert Lane says:

    Great insight. It's easy to get sucked into the social media. It can take huge chunks out of your day if you allow.

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  41. Leigh Rubio says:

    I feel as though a weight has been lifted off my shoulders! Thanks for your great insight - it makes my head spin to think of HAVING to be involved in all of these layers of social media. It will help me focus more on which avenues will build my business in an authentic and real way, without driving me crazy...

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