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Archive for December 12th, 2008

Before you get all wrapped up in social media strategy talk, stop what you’re doing and take a deep breath. That’s right. Chill. SocMed will still be there when you’re done with our little minute of zen. Go ahead. Close your eyes. Breathe. Breathe deeper. Let the air fillllllll your lungs. Yesssss. Good. Now let it out slowly. Rock on. Do this for as long as you like, then read on.

First, let me just state the obvious: You’re probably over-thinking this whole social media thing. If you’ve hired an “expert” social media consultant, chances are that he or she is making a big deal out of what should otherwise be a very simple thing. (So simple that most American teenagers are at the wheel of personal social media portfolios that would make most Fortune 100 companies grit their teeth with envy. More on that in Monday’s juicy follow-up post.)

Don’t fall for the hype and the weird lingo and the hip factor. You are getting waaaaay ahead of yourself already, and that is completely unnecessary. Relax. Social media is simple. You just need to slow things down a little. Take a step back. Don’t think of it as something new. Don’t think of it in terms of Twitter and Facebook and Plurk. Don’t confuse tools with strategy. Don’t confuse objectives with human connections. Don’t confuse tactics with simple dialogue.

That’s right, breathe.

Before you start posting on Twitter, before you start creating online communities on Ning and building fan pages on Facebook, go back to the basics. Understand who you are as a company. As a brand. As a collection of people united by a common cause. Understand what you stand for, and stand for it. Loudly. THAT is the essence of a brand. YOUR brand. Some might call it “the elevator pitch.” That 30-second explanation of who you are. Nike. Apple. Volkswagen. Whole Foods. You.

“We make the fastest, baddest, loudest motorcycles in the world.”

“We have the best coffee on the East Coast AND we donate 100% of our post-tax profits to charity.”

“We make dictionaries for the blind.”

“We’re the best design firm in history.”

Reconnect with yourself before you even try to reconnect with your audience. Reconnect with your employees. With your staff. Articulate your sense of purpose clearly. Get them onboard. Get them jazzed about what you – what they – stand for. (Hint: Find something more relevant and engaging than your promises to Wall Street or your tired old mission statement.) Make something happen. Create an internal movement. A cause your staff can rally behind.

Then, in everything you do, from website design and press releases to product launches customer service training, take a page from Tom Asacker‘s book of wisdom:

Be passionate about your story.

Be obsessed with the details.

Experience the real world of your audience.

And make a difference in people’s lives.

William James wrote:

I am done with great things and big plans, great institutions and big successes. I am for those tiny, invisible loving human forces that work from individual to individual, creeping through the crannies of the world like so many rootlets, or the capillary oozing water, yet which, if given time, will rend the hardest monuments of human pride.

This is the process that will prepare you for the world of social media. Meetings in board rooms with social media “experts” won’t alone do it. Droning conference calls with consultants won’t either. Hiring the COO’s nephew to create a blog and post stuff to Twitter also won’t get you very far if you aren’t truly ready.

Before you even come knocking on social media’s doorstep, you need to have your house in order and your head on straight. You need to come prepared. Your identity has to be crystal clear to you and everyone around you. Your objectives have to be clear. Your business processes have to be in synch with the vision you have for yourself. Once you’ve reached this point, then and only then are you ready to effectively tackle a social media strategy.

Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton used to say, “Whenever you get confused, go to the store. The customer has all the answers.” Like most guys of his generation, Sam understood that common sense trumped almost everything else in business. All the fancy tools and the technology and the fads. All noise if you aren’t grounded in reality. If you can’t focus on what matters: relationships.

How many CEOs and other business leaders today actually spend time personally listening to their customers? (Isn’t it much easier to pay market research firms instead? They’ll do phone and email surveys and whatnot. They’ll set up elaborate focus groups. They’ll hand you a 40-page report! Yay!)  Fact: The more layers you put between users/customers and a company’s leadership, the more detached decision-makers are from the insights they need to make good business decisions… and the worse their companies perform. Look at Wall Street. Look at Detroit. Look at the businesses across the street.

Another thing to consider: More often than not, market research firms end up asking the same wrong questions to an increasingly jaded audience. Talk about laws of diminishing returns.

The reality of today’s world/marketplace is this: Your questions are irrelevant. Your questionnaire’s format is irrelevant. Your canned dialogue isn’t sticking. As a result, your market research metrics are wrong. You are making decisions based on irrelevant data and erroneous assumptions.

Sam Walton had the right idea: Just go to the store. Watch your customers. Listen to them. Mingle with them. Chat them up. Before you know it, they’ll open up. They’ll tell you everything you want to know. You won’t even have to cook up questions for them. By virtue of being there, inside their own brand experience with them, what needs to be done next will naturally come to you.

If you want to physically do this, bravo. Leave the suit and the ass-kissers at the office, throw on some jeans, and go mingle. It will pay off, I promise.

If you can’t (too many things on your plate) then consider social media as the next best option. (Even if you can, SocMed strategies can help you be in more than one place at once, so use them.) Should you start a blog? Maybe. Maybe not. It depends on who you have onboard who can really drive that project, what you want to accomplish, how open you are willing to be, etc. Over 80% of the public has a negative opinion of corporate blogs, so you may be better off not having one at all than having a bad one. (If you want a blog, you have to commit to being one of the rare companies who does blogging right.)  With or without a blog, should you have someone monitor what is being said about your company on other blogs? Absolutely. This is probably the most important element of social media: Listening.  Before you start talking, before you start responding or having conversations, LISTEN.  (It isn’t spying, don’t worry.) Find out what people are saying an writing about you. Find out what you are doing well, and not so well. SEARCH is your friend, so use it. Start taking notes. Learn how to truly see your company through the public’s eye, without the filter of a firm or agency whose retainer depends on not upsetting you, no matter what they find out.

Once you’re ready to engage the public, your public, then start getting involved with platforms like Ning, Twitter, Facebook, etc. If you find that communities have already formed around your brand, introduce yourself to them and offer to give them support. DO NOT SUE THEM for using your logo without permission (as Ford tried to do this month), and don’t ever interfere with their affairs. Be polite. Be responsive. Be friendly. Be respectful. Be helpful. Always. No exceptions.

Understanding what Social Media tools and platforms to use and how is important, don’t get me wrong, but don’t put all of your focus into the vehicle without first understanding both the road and the destination – if indeed there is a destination, as you may find yourself on a very long and fascinating journey once you get behind the wheel.

Social Media involvement, in a nutshell, can and should be seen simply as an extension of your relationship with your customers and the public at large. Either you want true engagement or you don’t. If you don’t, then ignore this post and go back to doing what you have been doing for the last decade. If it works for you, great.  If you do, however, if you crave that feedback, that flux, that love, that relationship, then welcome to a whole new era of communications, collaboration, public relations and brand relevance.

Do the inner work first though. Read this post again if you need to. And if you have any comments or questions, as usual, you can either drop me a note in the comment section or reach me directly via email, Twitter, facebook or whatever other means of communications are at your disposal. (I still remember some Morse code.)

Have a great weekend, everyone. And seriously… Relax! 😀

Photo by Christopher Wray-McCann

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