Thursday, April 22, 2010

Sitting on the Social Media Fence?

It is a major understatement to call the social media landscape immense. Millions of people, even in conservative estimates, use Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and the many other types of social networking sites. Facebook's user-base alone currently outnumbers that of the entire United States. Inevitably, those kind of crowds are going to draw the attention of businesses looking to get their brand message across, as well as "experts" who proclaim they know best about how to do that.

While we don't claim to be "experts" on this matter (and we highly doubt there are as many true experts in the social media world as some would have you think), we're often asked by many clients about whether or not Facebook and Twitter are worth their time.

Much like the media itself, there are a lot of answers and solutions and just as many pitfalls. Social Media in general isn't something you will win instant success with. Like any marketing strategy, it takes dedication and hard work to leverage properly. A lot of fans and followers doesn't mean they all buy your product, however the ones you do convince and keep will most likely become loyal customers.

To Tweet, or Not to Tweet
Before we get too ahead of ourselves and into tips on how to use social media, it's a good idea to take a step back and consider this question: Should you even be using social media to broadcast your message in the first place? The world it lives in is far from stable, always shifting and always moving. As a result, it's a bad idea to invest all your efforts into it.

One thing that many people overlook is the fact that they're audience may not even be using social media sources. If you're targeting people 65+, let's say, you're talking about only 3% of the social media landscape. The meat of the population tends to be in the late 20's to early 40's area. Also, from personal experience, people who inhabit offices and have access to the internet for long periods of time are the most active. Construction workers, police officers, young children and the Amish might not be the ideal social media target audience.

These mediums provide a unique opportunity for brands. Instead of the traditional one-way road of advertisements and television, social media gives us a two way road. You actually talk and engage with people. As such, having someone that's both autonomous to managing your Facebook or Twitter account will be ideal. If you work in a company or organization where twelve people need to approve every small piece of communication you will find that the process will be highly inefficient and probably, detrimental to your brand.

Also, if you don't have someone with enough time to keep an eye on things, this idea might not be for you. There's a happy medium with social media: Update too much and people could find you a nuisance or, worse, spam. Update too little or too sparsely, and people won't think you're relevant enough to follow your accounts. Making a few updates and spacing your messages throughout a day is the ideal. Realize that this doesn't really count when you get into a discussion with a user, as the more engaged directly with people you are, the better.

Learning How to Swim After You Dive In
Pit-falls aside (which could be another blog post entirely), there are a few common denominators that bind many of the successful brands that make use of social media together. Successful brands tend to do three things well: they keep a strong brand "personality" and voice; are responsive to questions, comments and feedback; and point users to related industry news and discussion.

Top importance on the list is your brand's voice. The things you want to update about and discuss should all reflect your brand's "personality." A great example of this is Starbucks Coffee (@Starbucks). Starbucks was an early adopter of both Twitter and Facebook and currently one of the most successful uses. Through both its Twitter account as well as it's Facebook account, Starbucks makes a note to create a friendly feeling between itself and its followers by both providing exclusive deals, events and information about everything from its stores to how to brew better cups of coffee. They also actively re-tweet and showcase the things that their fans send them—be that photos, nice messages or pieces of advice. This portrays Starbucks' "personality" as a company that cares as much about its fans as selling coffee.

As stated earlier, Facebook and Twitter are two-ways streets of communication between and brand and audience. This makes responding to questions and feedback (sometimes especially negative feedback) quickly and expertly. Nothing will make an angry customer even more angry than thinking that you are avoiding their complaint. Probably the best example is the way that Xbox Live (headed by @majornelson) and video game developer (maker of the immensely popular Modern Warefare 2) Infinity Ward (found at @fourzerotwo) respond to the gamers that inform them about issues. From people cheating in games to reporting major bugs and flaws that need to be fixed, both Twitter accounts are highly active and responsive. Recently, I went to a panel with both Major Nelson and Robert Bowling (AKA @fourzerotwo) and they both stressed the fact that often Twitter is the first source of news when something goes wrong, making it an integral part of damage control.

Of course, not all conversation will be of the negative kind. Often, opening discourse with the people you are trying to reach in a positive way is what keeps them most loyal. The Museum of Modern Art (@moma) does this by talking about and linking to many current industry artists and events. Though MoMA will keep it's followers informed about happening at the museum, they also make sure to link to topics generally related to the art world at large or, in some instances, creating brand new ones. They also mention other artists' and musicians' events and news, which in-turn ends up spreading to their followers and fans and creating a ripple effect. By talking about the things that their audience find interest in, and not just itself, MoMA gives the impression that it is in the loop about what people care about.

Sharpen that Machete, There's a Lot More Jungle Left
This is by no means the end all, be all methods to success in the social world, but it's a start. With something as ever-changing as the web new rules are made and broken. Because of this, you need to flow with social media and not rail against it. Working against how these tools were intended can at best annoy people and at worst turn them off of your brand permanently.

It will take a lot of updates, tweets, links and conversation to gain a good amount of followers... however it could only take one mistake to lose all of them.

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