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Customers Don’t Want Ads, They Want a Conversation…Just Not the Conversations You Want to Have

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Somehow I don’t think these are the conversations consumers are looking for from brands

Fast Company just published another article discussing how customers are no longer satisfied just with good products and services or low prices – they want collaboration and conversation from brands. In another Fast Company article from January, they state that “brands, marketers believe, ought to start acting less like things and more like people, and they should engage traditional humans, their consumers, in dialogue.” IBM’s Global CEO Study found that 88% of CEOs said “getting closer to customers” was the top priority for their business over the next five years. Amazon has 200 books in their “social media for business” category all using the same cliches – have two-way conversations, engage with your customers, be more human, etc.

Finally! Social media is going to change the way business works. Brands will come down from their ivory towers and customers will have actual input into the products and services they purchase. Brands win! Customers win! Social media saves the day! Unfortunately, the “conversations” most brands are trying to have with their customers aren’t exactly the ones so often described in these books, presentations, studies, and blog posts. Rather than co-collaborating on new products, discussing the strengths and weaknesses of current ones, sharing new ideas, and having conversations about corporate issues, brands are asking begging and groveling for likes, shares, and comments. Brands have become that annoying insecure friend who always tries just a little too hard and is constantly looking for affirmation from those around them.

“I texted you 8 times last night but you never texted me back? Are we still friends?

“Pleeeeease come over and hang out tonight…please??”

“I was just calling to see if you got my email asking if you wanted to go out tonight. If you come out, I’ll buy the drinks. You in?”

Ummmm…sure – just don’t forget you offered to buy. Unfortunately, this is the relationship most brands have with their customers in social media – “please please please like me!! If you do, I’ll give you some free stuff.” They beg you to like, comment, and share pictures of cats, ask questions like “what’s your favorite number?” and jump on the bandwagon of whatever trend they can find (side note: the Condescending Corporate Brand Facebook page is one of my new guilty pleasures). Somehow, I don’t think these are the types of conversations that Fact Company, Harvard Business Review, and IBM had in mind. For most customers, liking a brand in social media isn’t about engagement or conversations. It’s about transactions. If you give me something (coupons, discounts), I’ll put up with your annoying habits (spamming my social media feeds). Instead of using social media to rethink the typical business-to-consumer relationship, they’ve just moved their same old business practices and metrics to a new medium. Instead of actually building mutually beneficial relationships with you know, actual people, marketers have reduced social media to a series of algorithms, likes, and clicks. Harvard Business Review conducted a study last year that should be required reading for every brand marketer and social media guru. In it, they debunked three common social media marketing best practices –

  1. Most consumers want to have relationships with your brand (no, they don’t)
  2. Interactions build relationships (not these interactions)
  3. The more interactions, the better (please, make them stop)

You should go read the whole post, but if you don’t, at least heed this piece of advice when managing your brand’s social media efforts –

“Instead of relentlessly demanding more consumer attention, treat the attention you do win as precious. Then ask yourself a simple question of any new marketing efforts: is this campaign/email/microsite/print ad/etc. going to reduce the cognitive overload consumers feel as they shop my category? If the answer is “no” or “not sure,” go back to the drawing board. When it comes to interacting with your customers, more isn’t better.”

What kinds of conversations is your brand having with its customers? Are you bastardizing social media by begging for likes and shares  instead of deriving some value from them? Brands have all these tools at their disposal to tap into the hearts and minds of their most important stakeholders – their customers – and yet most let that power waste away with pictures of cats and Call Me Maybe videos. Be the better brand. Instead of asking for a like, be the brand people actually like.

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Social Media Lessons from a Two-Year Old

What a difference a few years can make. For the last few months, I think I’ve spent more time talking people out of using social media than talking them into it. The pendulum has swung the other way, especially in the marketing industry. Everyone wants to be everywhere. Tumblr, Pinterest, Twitter Facebook, Vine, Foursquare, Klout – you name it, they want it. And not only do they want it, they want eleventy-billion fans/followers/likes/comments/minions/+1s too. Brands seem to be at war in some sort of social media arms race and there’s no end in sight. As I was sitting at home the other night looking over a proposed Instagram initiative focused on encouraging users to take pictures of the company’s products and use a special hashtag , I received some advice from a social media expert I had never consulted before.

My social media expert

My Two-Year Old Daughter, AKA my Social Media Expert

After listening to me tell my wife about the idea in the presentation, my daughter Annabelle looked up at me and said, “why, Daddy?”

Me (dummy): “Well, because they want people to share pictures with their friends.”

Annabelle (social media expert): “What pictures? Like of kitties or doggies? I like kitties.”

Me: “Well, not quite. More like pictures of their products”

Annabelle: “Why?”

Me: “Because they want their customers to take pictures of their products and share them with their friends.”

Annabelle: “Why would they do that Daddy?”

Me: “….”

Well OK then. Aside from considering setting aside some budget to hire a new (very) junior freelancer, I realized that my two-year old asked a question that everyone else seemed to have failed to ask – why? Why would someone share that?

Too many people get caught up in all the hype and hyperbole surrounding social media that they lose sight of what’s really important. Instead of using social media to achieve actual business goals like sales, attendance, or customer satisfaction, they chase numbers like fans, followers, mentions, or likes because those big numbers sound awesome in presentations. Social media becomes the end in and of itself, rather than the means.

As you develop social media strategies and tactics, take some advice from a two-year-old and ask “why?” But don’t stop there. Ask all the questions – ask who, what, when, where, and how too. Force everyone to stay focused on the business objectives, not the big numbers that sounds great in presentations. Following Annabelle’s lead, I’ve come up with a few questions that I now ask my teams all the time –

  • Why would anyone share this?
  • What’s in it for the customer?
  • What does success look like?
  • Why are we dedicating resources to this instead of that?
  • How will this help us sell more products/services?
  • What happens if we don’t do this?
  • How does this fit with our company DNA?
  • What happens when…?
  • Who’s responsible for…?

And the next time you’re listening to some social media expert drone on about some new social media tactic, try acting like a two-year-old and ask a bunch of questions. You might be surprised to discover that no one else has bothered to ask the simplest question of all – why?

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Set Your New Social Media Manager Up For Success

You wouldn't hire Jonathan Ive and put him in a cubicle with an underpowered Lenovo laptop, would you? 

You wouldn't sign Peyton Manning to run the triple-option offense, would you? 

You wouldn't hire Tony Stark but tell him he's not allowed using your tools, would you?

Then why do organizations continue to hire social media specialists, managers, and coordinators, but then handcuff them with outdated policies, processes, and technology? 

I've seen it time and time again – an organization realizes they don't have the talent, resources, or bandwidth to manage their social media efforts so they go out and hire someone. These gurus, ninjas, strategists, and rockstars often come into this new organization with high expectations ("oh, you're the new social guy? Boy do we need your help!"), low resources ("you're all we could get approved for this year"), and an unclear place on the org chart ("well, you'll technically report to me, but you'll be working with Suzie down the hall most of the time as well as being a dotted line to Tom in Marketing").

Not only that, once they get to their desk, they realize that Twitter and Facebook are blocked, their company-issued Blackberry is prohibited from downloading any apps, and even when they do complete all the request forms to gain access, they're told that any and all social media content needs to be approved by legal and compliance. They've got the experience, the skills, and the knowledge to do the job, but they've been handcuffed by their own organization's legacy practices. 

Before going out and hiring that person to handle your social media, take some time to set them up for success.  

Provide a clear job description. Are you looking for someone to be a community manager for online communities that already exist or do you need someone to create those communities? Are you looking for someone to come in and join the marketing team or are you looking for someone to help you integrate social media across the entire enterprise? Do you need a social media manager to simply create and post content or do you need an experienced community manager who can build an integrated strategy that will increase sales, retention, etc.? Are you looking for a do-er or a change agent? As the hiring manager, you have to have to be able to articulate what exactly you need this person to do because the skillsets required to be the day-to-day community manager are substantially different from those needed to create an enterprise-wide social strategy. If you aren't sure what you need, you probably need someone with to help you figure that out, and that's going to require someone more experienced than you think.

Update your processes. If you're going to hire someone to manage your online communities, be a brand advocate, increase brand awareness and interact with customers, make sure they're actually, you know, allowed to do that. You can't expect someone to succeed in this role if your process requires every post, Tweet, and status update to be approved by the Legal team. If your newly hired social media manager is unable to respond to customer service inquiries because "those are handled by the folks over in customer service, not us," you're setting yourself up to fail. Using social media successfully is fundamentally different from every other approval process at most organizations. If you aren't sure what processes need to be updated or how to even do that, refer back to #1 and hire someone with the skills and experience to make those kinds of changes. 

Have an end goal. What does success look like? How will you determine if he/she is doing a good job? Will that be determined by the number of fans, followers, comments, members? Or by sales, lead generation, and traffic? Maybe it will be based on their ability to create and implement a strategy? Whatever it is, make sure that your new hire understands what is expected of him or her.  

Make technology an enabler, not a roadblock. This should go without saying, but make sure that your social media manager actually has access to social media. An easy way to start this new relationship off on the wrong foot is by forcing your new hire to complete request forms to access to Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. 

Brush up on social media yourself. You're going to have to evaluate this person's performance and you can't do that effectively if you still think you don't need to understand Twitter because "you're too old." If you're going to be managing someone who's responsible for social media, you better know a little about it yourself. Look at similar organizations and see what they're doing. Keep up with industry trends. Ask your new hire to meet with you each week and help educate you if you need to. You can't effectively manage someone if you don't understand what they're working on. 

Be their advocate. Your social media manager is likely going to have to work with people from across the organization, many of whom will have more experience and tenure than they do. They're going to need to quickly establish respect with their colleagues and the easiest way for them to do that is when you make the introductions, highlight their work in leadership meetings, and give them the top cover to do their jobs. Don't hire them and walk away. Stay involved and keep them motivated. 

You can’t half-ass your social media efforts. If you’re going to make the investment in the time, people, and resources to use social media, make the investment in getting yourself and your organization ready to make the most out of this new talent. Spend a few more weeks now setting him/her up for success or spend a lot more time later trying to find another social media manager to replace the first one who quit after two months. 

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Start Your Community With Role Models, Not Influencers

I just finished reading this article in last month's Fast Company where the CEO of Pinterest, Ben Silbermann, discusses how Pinterest got started, where it's at today, and what its future may hold. In it, they highlight some of the ways in which Pinterest defied best practices when they first started – they didn't include any leaderboards, they didn't highlight the most popular pinners, they used an infinite scroll layout instead of pushing for more clicks and pageviews, and most interesting to me, their first community members weren't "influencers" with high Klout scores. They were role models who would care for the community as if it were their own.

"In Pinterest’s early days, Silbermann gave out his cell-phone number, attended blogger meet-ups, and personally composed weekly emails that were sent out to Pinterest’s tiny, but growing, community. "It’s like you’ve built this little city with nobody inside of it yet," he says. "And you want to fill it up with the right kinds of people who are going to teach future people what they should be doing when they move in." Most Silicon Valley types look at early users as viral marketers; Silbermann saw them as role models. (Until recently, Pinterest’s welcome email advised users to "pin carefully" because "your pins set the tone for the community." The site bans nudity and discourages users from posting images of too-skinny models, otherwise known as "thinspiration," after the phenomenon became a problem.)"

What if PR and social media community managers stopped worrying about targeting the influencers with the most Klout, the highest PeerIndex score, or the highest Empire Avenue share price, and instead worried about identifying the people who are best equipped to create and maintain a healthy community? What if we looked for qualities like good taste, helpfulness, and compassion instead of followers, pageviews, and likes? What if we focused our efforts on the people who will become the community leaders, rather than simply the people with the loudest mouths?

If what we're doing is truly building online communities, shouldn't we first recruit the people who will actually be you know, building that sense of community and modeling the behaviors you want to see from all members?

One of Pinterest's first and most active members wasn't a social media influencer. She's the founder's mom. Silbermann's tactic of starting his community with role models isn't new. This is a tactic that I've used when building online communities behind corporate firewalls. In those closed communities, the first members weren't the VPs or the corporate comms people – the people with the most influence – they were the people who were most passionate about the community. These individuals felt a deep sense of responsibility for the success of the community. They shared the same goals and philosophies. They were the ones who modeled the behaviors that we wanted the rest of the community to emulate. They were the ones who would tell the boss he was wrong so that it would be ok for others to do the same. They may have only brought in 50 new people, but that wasn't their purpose. They were recruited because they were the ones to create that strong sense of community among the current members so that when new members joined, they joined a community with an established culture and purpose.

Now, if your goal is to simply get a million Facebook likes or sign up two million users to your branded community, then by all means, pay Lil Wayne to Tweet your URL to his 8 million followers and watch the numbers stack up. You can trot out your pageviews and member numbers to your boss all you want. Just don't expect those thousands of people to actually do what you want them to do. On the other hand, if you're looking to build a vibrant community of brand advocates who will buy your products, share your messages with their networks, give you honest, constructive feedback and build other brand advocates, then you should instead look for people who will model those behaviors. These people may not have the biggest names or the most "influence," but they're the ones who will create the foundation for what your community will be.

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