25 September 2009

Not Weird Science: Social Media in One Word

by Freddy J. Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango

Back when social tech meant more than tweets...

Back when geeks created more than networking platforms…

So let’s trip back to 1876, the year the telephone was invented… Hmmm… something’s missing here… and I’m not talking about Starbucks on every corner…

Oh, I know: there’s no one here calling themselves a “Phone Guru,” “Phone Visionary” or some other phone-y title. There aren’t “Phone-ups” in every major city to discuss telephone best practices. There aren’t even “call me” Fridays or “favorite hymn” Mondays. Geez, how primitive were these people? How did they survive without memes? The telephone was one revolutionary, bad-ass, disruptive technology — certainly, 19th century Americans needed “thought leaders” to teach them how to leverage and monetize it… no?

Flash forward to today’s Twittermania. Twitter is arguably a giant leap backward from telephones: conversations aren’t free flowing, and every statement is limited to 140 measly characters. Even the telegraph wasn’t that limited. Twitter is truly a simple platform — and yet you can’t throw a (biz) stone these days without hitting a self-proclaimed Twitter expert, guru, visionary, or thought leader. (Note: people who call themselves gurus, visionaries or thought leaders, aren’t.)

These masters of the Twitterverse convene in Tweetups, start every other word with the letters “tw,” establish arbitrary Twitter rules and customs, even hire Tony Freakshow Robbins for inspiration. I’m not joking — but just for kicks, here’s a definition of “tweetup” you might enjoy (via SteveBonus at Urban Dictionary):

A gathering of nerds attempting social contact, likely for the first time. Usually disintegrates into everyone running to the nearest computer to type to one another.

All harmless fun, right? Kind of like Dungeons & Dragons for people over 14. Some of the attendees might even meet a tweeter of the opposite sex and produce little tweetlings. Pass the cigars, everyone’s happy.

Social Snake Oil

The problem arises when faux experts start charging corporations for their wizardly wisdom, as noted by Olivier Blanchard in his BrandBuilder post, “Calling foul on bogus Social Media experts. Again.” These snake oil hucksters, as Blanchard describes them, concoct arcane methodologies and frameworks to make social media appear far more complicated than it really is. Blanchard delves into other atrocities — atwocities? — with such delicious invective and scathing examples that you should read his article just to feel his rage.

My point is to simply debunk any notion that social media requires experts of any title. It’s not a weird science; it’s just another form of communication.

Now I teach social media to undergraduates and MBA students, and I help clients plan social media campaigns. And, yes, there are technical factoids to learn, such as limiting tweets to 120 characters to facilitate retweeting. I also teach applicable business principles and communications skills along the way. But if you’re already a competent writer, and are savvy enough to know not to spam, flame, or do anything else embarrassing online, then almost everything you need to know about social media can be gleaned from various free sites, such as Mashable.

My job is to read all those boring recipes, remove the fat, then spice ’em up for consumption. In addition, I make sure my students and clients apply fundamental marketing strategies to social media — nothing terribly esoteric. Indeed, the primary theme of what I teach is based on one word: Value.

Crashing the Virtual Party

OK, I hear my detractors uttering a FAIL wail…

“Value? That’s what you made us read nearly 600 words to find out? Value?! What, you couldn’t have expressed that in a 140-character tweet?”

That’s certainly what I’d say if this were some other marketer’s blog. But hear me out and you’ll see why I dig “value” as a guiding term…

First, you need to determine which social medium offers the most value to you. You don’t have to do them all. As I noted in an earlier post on Twitter, social media are just like different colors of crayons: just because a certain color exists doesn’t mean you have to use it. I help my clients choose social media by honestly assessing the resources at their disposal — are they good writers? would they come across well on video? do they have money to hire talent? — and then asking what they want to achieve and how much time they’re willing to invest. Social media might not cost money to use at a basic level, but doing it right is incredibly time consuming.

Once you make your choice of medium, ask two value-based questions:

  1. What do I want out of it?
  2. What do my potential customers want out of it?

Yes, all businesses need to make money, and that means sales. But if you want immediate sales, don’t bother with social media. That’s not some deeply guarded secret — it’s in the name: social media. Think of it as a big raging virtual cocktail party: People are there to socialize, to share thoughts and opinions and funny cat videos. They’re there to meet new people and to promote themselves. They’re not there to shop. (Note: I’m not referring to shopping sites with social features, like Yelp.) If you crash a party and start shouting, “Hey, buddy, you want to buy this?” you already know what kind of reaction you’ll get.

So unless you’re Dell with a long-established brand, and you’ve got a bunch of refurbished computers you want to unload at a discount price, don’t think sales. Pick something else you value. Some options:

  1. You want to meet people, too. Maybe someday your new connections (call them friends, fans, followers or the f-word of your choice) will be customers. Or they’ll refer customers to you. Or they might help you find office space, talented employees, or tickets to a Lakers’ game. Just don’t scare ’em off with a sales pitch. Let them come to you when it’s time to buy.
  2. You want to hear their thoughts and ideas — particularly their negative ones about you. That way you can nip any damaging gossip in the bud by fixing the problem through words or actions. Ideally, your new connections will also have good ideas for you or about business in general.
  3. You want to promote yourself. Social media offers continuous opportunities to build your brand. Again, there’s no weird science here. Just put yourself in the shoes of your fellow partier. What could be more boorish or boring than someone who spends the entire party talking about himself?

Rather, think of what your audience might actually value:

  • Loot: Obviously, your business can offer special prizes or deals to your followers — and I mean real deals, not just a free initial consultation or 10% discount. And this doesn’t necessarily require giving away your product or service. These days, a great deal can simply be a job. Know of any openings in your organization or industry? Tell your followers first. Similarly, if you have legit ideas for making money, share those, too — but not the get-rich-quick-by-working-from-home spam. There’s already far too much of that everywhere.
  • Links: You can also share links to stories about your industry — but do read ’em first to make sure they’re worth reading. Also, if you’re at an interesting event, or meet someone interesting in your industry, share your experience and insights.
  • Laughs: At the least, be funny. These days, everyone can use a smile. Yes, you gotta stay professional — save the raunch for your poker buddies — but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a sense of humor. You can share videos, images, and other funny items that you’ve found online that are a) appropriate for your audience, and b) ideally related to your business. Indeed, poking fun at your own industry is one way to curry favor.

What don’t people care about? Do I have to say? Spend just one day in social media and you’ll quickly discover what kills brain cells: Posts about lunch. About being tired. About traffic. About going to the gym. About airports. About flight plans. About the weather. About videogame scores. About wifi availability. About where that person is at this very second….

Just thinking about it makes me want to find a wall with a target symbol at about forehead level.

So really — seriously, absolutely — before posting anything, think about what value it offers to your audience.

Sounds obvious, right? But I’m amazed at all the “social media experts” who spout banalities on a regular basis, as if anyone beyond their immediate family would care that they’re going to lunch right now — and even their immediate family is thinking of unfollowing them.

There’s already too much static in social media. In the early days of the Web, Wired Magazine used to talk about the signal-to-noise ratio online. Now they’ve given up. The battle’s lost. Noise has won. So if you can increase the signal — which means offering items of value every single time you post — you’ll stand out. Trust me. Despite all the conventions and conferences, all the books and blogs, noise is still the modus operandi of social media. That’s why all the search engines are feverishly racing to see who can do the best job of finding the signal.

So increase the signal by offering value. The rest is easy.

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches graduate-level marketing communication courses at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

One Response

  1. Great article. Beware the self-proclaimed guru. Be a student always. There are many great advancements in media and communications. Experience and evaluation always trumps, so combine knowledge of the new with the background of what came before – then act. Humbly.

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