First let me confess that I am very much a newcomer to this exciting world of Social Media. That having been said, I find myself being drawn in to this kind of vortex of small talk with perfect strangers that is both mind numbing and disturbingly interesting all at the same time. I felt honoured at being contacted by the Dalai Lama (until I found out was a hoax) and being LOL’d at for a witty comment during a live blog on our Prime Minister’s rescue package. The strangest experience of all, is the growing sense of friendship I have with people I have never met. I had to check myself this morning as I was eagerly opening Tweetdeck. I was doing this to catch the latest Tweets and was anticipating how some of my new found “friends” might respond to some of the posted comments. I don’t even know these people. I “followed” them because they looked interesting or someone recommended them. Now I am imagining that I know what they will say and how they think! Strange times indeed.
For those that don’t know, I make my living in advertising and have run a reasonably successful agency in Sydney for the last 21 years. I am exploring Social Media, not as a new channel to exploit (true). Rather I see it as an outcome of the internet revolution that we, as an agency, can use to enhance the way we derive insights for our clients. Our quest is to build a “Community of Insightful Minds” TM. The experience so far has been enlightening to say the least. I am more convinced than ever that Social Media has the potential to change the way we do business forever or as the authors of the Cluetrain Manifesto said “the end of business as usual”.
The reason for putting pen to paper was a directive by one of our clients recently to “activate the Social Media channel” as part of a new campaign. As I thought about how we might respond to this it occurred to me that such a directive showed an absolute ignorance of what Social Media is all about. My response will go something like this …
Social Media is not a channel. It is a conversation. Channels by definition are means of moving things in a pre-determined manner. Mass media such as television, radio, magazines, websites are all channels. They have fixed parameters and for the most part are one way communication streams. They are very efficient for telling people what you want them to hear. That is not a conversation. One way to understand Social Media is to imagine a community hall filled with hundreds, thousands or even millions of people all talking about anything. Some are talking about themselves to others, some are showing off, some are yelling abuse, others are soothing relationships, a few are soliciting favours and some are just eavesdropping. Some of these conversations are one-on-one but with a hundred people listening in, while others involve thousands of people all chipping in with an opinion but still managing to keep a conversation thread going. Close your eyes and imagine it. It is happening right now all over the world as we speak.
Now, imagine yourself entering that room and all you want to do is get them to buy your soft drink. Simple enough idea, what do you think your chances are? So far, my early observations are that very few companies are even involved in the Social Media world and sadly, only a handful of them are even close to getting it right. There appears to be four strategies at play by companies. SLAP it, SPAM it, SCAM it or SMARt it. These are my terms and will certainly be challenged by those more informed than myself.
SLAPPING – Imagine the community hall again, you decide to get their attention by taking over the loudspeaker and asking them all to be quiet while you tell them all something important (to you). Ever had that experience, it doesn’t go down all that well in big groups. The moment they suspect a pitch they all start talking again and good luck at trying to regain their attention. Even worse, many of the private conversations are now about you and how rude you were. Many will be asking who let you in and some will choose to punish you by never buying your soft drink again. Some of them will share this with others and it may all get out of control very quickly. We aren’t seeing a lot of SLAPPING yet but how long will it be before the media companies that own most of the big sites start selling targeted lists to advertisers. That will spawn a whole new industry and totally miss the point of why Social Media users use these sites. Once again the advertising world will revert to its comfort zone i.e. one way communication. I for one, am not looking forward to this “advance” in marketing.
SPAMMING – I love SPAMMERS simply for their audacity. If only we could harness this and put to some good use for civilisation. SPAMMERS are different to SLAPPERS in one important aspect. SPAMMERS obtain their lists by fraud and deception whereas SLAPPERS at least purchase their list from a legitimate source. It astounds me that any sane person could create and execute endless campaigns for cheap loans and erectile dysfunction and worse still that enough sane people respond to this drivel to keep it going. Imagine my disappointment when I found out that some of my new friends (followers) on Twitter weren’t friends at all and were actually trying to sell me some of this shit. Believe it or not, there are people out there in the funny world of “How To” books who are making a small fortune telling others how to do this stuff. Even more astounding is that some reputable companies engage in this practice and believe that this is “Activating the Social Media Channel”. It is not. It is the worst form of one way dialogue. It leaves the community feeling violated and used. Sadly, we can expect more and more of this mindless trash over time.
SCAMMERS – I am yet to see a Nigerian Letter on Twitter but I am sure they exist. That is not the sort of scam that I am referring to here. What I am referring to is the blatant attempt by some companies lately (under directions from their marketing agencies) to use Social Media to seed a lie in order to obtain vast amounts of editorial. In many cases it has worked. But what has it achieved? One recent example was the Witchery “Man in a Jacket” campaign. The end result of the Witchery scandal was they doubled their visits to the website. Mmmm. So, if I redefine this, they entered a community conversation uninvited, lied to the members of that community about something, obtained masses of media coverage, all to send the general public to their website to have a one way conversation. Don’t you see the irony in this? What do you think the community now think about Witchery? How much harder will it be to open a sincere conversation with that community in the future? What did they actually gain apart from the obvious? In my opinion, SCAMMING is a form of consumer abuse. I am convinced that companies who continue to treat participants in Social Media as gullible fools who will guarantee them a free ride to media fame, will ultimately suffer a backlash. Angry consumers are not good for any balance sheet.
SMARTING – This is my acronym and I know it’s clumsy. It stands for Social Media Act Responsibly. It is an instruction to those who intend to peddle their wares in the community hall to tread carefully and to respect the audience. I am no expert here. I have no campaigns to hang my hat on and no experience to speak of. My comments come from a mix of listening, observing and good old common sense. There is a lot to be gained for companies who are active in the Social Media community as opposed to Activating the Channel! The former is a conversation the latter is an instruction. Indulge me for a moment and let’s imagine being in that community hall again. How on earth can you begin to influence such a diverse, opinionated vast population? The answer is relatively simple, by joining the community. That means you come into the conversation on their terms. You leave your pitches, policies, security, and pre-conceived ideas at the door. You learn to talk in their language. The great thing is they will help you learn and point you to new and interesting people and conversations. You’ll settle in pretty quick as long as you remain engaged and honest. The next thing to do is to make a commitment to the community. They don’t expect you to be in on every conversation but they do expect you to be there when they need you. Spend your idle time listening and learning. Then, when the opportunity arises, do something extraordinary for one of the community. Talk to them, solve a problem, admit a mistake or maybe introduce them to your company’s charity foundation. Start by changing one person’s opinion of your company. Do it one at a time, over and over again. Now watch what happens. Communities are a powerful force and the internet operates at lightning speed.
Good news won’t necessarily make headlines in the media but it will build customer loyalty. More importantly it builds ambassadors for your brand and brand ambassadors are the pinnacle of marketing success. I watched BigPond operate in the Social Media community during the recent Victorian Bushfires and it was an excellent example on what to do right it this channel. They were caring, responsive, practical and timely in everything that they did. Did they sell even one new internet connection through this? I doubt it. What they did do, however, was change a lot of people’s perceptions about a big company being in touch with its community. I hope they publish a case study some day because I am certain it will serve as a great example of being active in Social Media rather than “Activating the Social Media channel” .