If you go social, commit to it

May 24, 2010 by Dave Haynes

Icons from Phoke

How many companies in this sector have blogs, Twitter accounts, Facebook fan pages, YouTube channels and other vehicles used to market in new ways and create a dialogue with their customers?


How many are any good?


If you are going to get into the social media thing as a new way of starting a conversation and relationship with customers and wannabe customers, your company has to absolutely commit to it.

We’ve all run into executives at companies who say things like, “Yeah, we’ve got a, uhhh, Twitter …” These are not clueless people, but they’ve unfortunately invested only milliseconds of thought and planning into their company’s social media plan, so pretty much all they know is that they’re doing … something.

I fall squarely on the side of being a social media advocate. I don’t embrace all of it and some of it I don’t quite get … like sites where people show off what they just bought. But it is a huge part of how I build and drive business, and it costs me next to nothing other than time. It’s that time, though, that has to be steadily invested by myself, and by anyone else going down that road.

It should be part of your marketing and communications plan, and that means you need to have some sense of what you want to get out of it and what you need,  realistically, to put into it to make the effort worthwhile.

There are piles of largely orphaned blogs, Twitter accounts and other related efforts that started with great enthusiasm but got lost in the daily shuffle of getting everything else done. Dozens of digital signage blogs out there have been launched by software, hardware and network companies, but very few are worth bookmarking and revisiting. The content is not refreshed enough, and what is there is not all that useful to readers.

Blogs are NOT a good mechanism for telling the world about version 3.7 of your software, or final plans for your booth at some trade show. Or that Marjie in accounting just had a kid. And she’s a cutie!!!

Good blogs in this or really any sector advance knowledge and provide insight into what’s going on, and what it means. I’m not a big fan of overused phrases, but it really is about thought leadership. That leadership keeps readers coming back for more, and sees those readers transformed into fans.

The gold standards for company blogs are ones done by Bill Gerba of Wirespring and Ken Goldberg at Real Digital Media. There are probably a few others, but these ones come immediately to mind. These guys, both of them CEOs, don’t overtly pitch their pots and pans. They rarely. in fact, even mention their own companies. Instead, they take the time – albeit periodically – to add to the overall body of knowledge, or more in Goldberg’s case, take a piece of news and give it some context and real meaning.

I’ve never asked either why they write, but it’s a safe guess that they felt a need and also saw an opportunity. Neither company spends much on marketing – and probably a fraction of what some of their rivals spend – but they have elevated the profile of their respective  companies and laid it down that the guys in charge of these companies really “know” the business.

That’s invaluable when it comes down to competing in a sector where there is little to differentiate between products based on price or capabilities. A decision can come down to intangibles like respect and appreciation.

The same commitment and understanding holds for other social media efforts. Just having a Twitter account is not a strategy. You have to work it, understanding the nuances of things like hash tags and lists, and injecting yourself into a community of common interest and trust.

Though there are people playing a numbers game of seeing how many people they can have following them, it’s really more about following and being followed by others who share common interests. I stop following people if they have nothing interesting to say. I stop if all they do is pitch what they have or boast. I stop if they endlessly thank every person who “retweets” some post they did. Enough!!!

I do follow people from companies who I trust are pointing me to blog posts and news stories they’ve seen and think I should read. You start to develop a circle of people you know think the same way, and will lead you to stuff that’s worth reading or seeing.

I do business with people and companies I’d never heard of and found just because they put up stuff I found useful, and prompted me to figure out who they were. I definitely know others have found me the same way.

This is a visual medium, and nowhere near enough companies use powerful, free or inexpensive tools like YouTube, Flickr, Vimeo, SlideShare and scores of others that let companies better show what you are doing and drive people to your website and marketing material. I am stunned by how many companies make announcements that don’t even include a photo of the work – be it an installation, new software release or gadget.

And then there’s the current mother of all social tools, Facebook.

Though known and used mostly to keep up with friends, many, many companies also have a strong presence on Facebook that allows them to carry their brand message and material – like videos – to their fan and user base.  Perhaps the most compelling argument is one particular number – 400 million. That’s how many active users are out there, and just like it’s a good business principle to follow the money, the same holds to follow the people.

There’s stuff I am not even touching and other people out there, like my Preset Group colleague David Weinfeld,who are way more current and knowledgeable about what’s going on. Find them and learn from them.

So what do I think companies can do?

As stated earlier, if you are going to use social media – and you need to – commitment is key. Don’t get into it until you have a plan, and a strategy that allocates at least some resources and time to the effort.

Very large companies have the budgets to hire and designate people to manage and drive their social media efforts. But this is a sector still dominated by start-ups and VC or boot-strapped funds, so full-time bodies put to this job are not in the cards anytime soon.

But you can make someone the internal champion, who can at least be charged with thinking about this and driving efforts. In smaller companies, there’s a lot of bright people with different ideas. They can all chip in a little, when they can, to build up something that has a little substance and steady energy to it.

Social also needs to be be part of the process, so that when something good and interesting comes along, it’s not just a press release. It’s a blog post, a white paper, a video, a photo gallery and Tweets — all with connective tissue.

A lot of social is about writing, and many or most people think they have little or no capacity to string words together into worthy paragraphs and posts. I find a lot of people are better writers than they realize, and just need a little coaching or encouragement. My own advice is to relax, and have a written conversation. Don’t try to be impressive.

If there is no one capable, there are still ways to do this.

If you can’t provide your own thought leadership, figure out what you want to build the discussion around and invite your business clients and partners to contribute. There is not, as far as I have seen, any site with a persistent discussion around successful selling in digital out of home. Guys like Rob Gorrie of Adcentricity have written a lot, but he’s one voice. And kinda busy. So there’s just one angle. And there are many.

Or find an individual or company that can build a social foundation for your company and drive the conversation. There’s nothing new about ghost-writing, and good people can assume your voice and reflect your ideas without forcing the C-level people to re-allocate too much of their finite time.

Just remember that whatever you do, you have to stick with it and you have to earn your readers and following by providing value.

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