Social Media Outreach Won’t Work For Everyone

Here’s something to consider: engaging in “the conversation” won’t be right for every organization, at least at first.

Facebook isn’t a panacea for your company. Blogging may not change everyone’s perceptions of you. Twitter could be a light-year away from where you are now and, believe it or not, it may not be where you want to go right now.

Blasphemy!

No, I’m not pulling a complete 180 and saying companies shouldn’t engage using these new tools. I’m saying that companies (and we, as consultants) need to take a long, hard, considered look at their organization before engaging online.

How’s your culture?

Joe Thornley gives a great presentation on the steps companies should go through when engaging in social media. One of the early steps: take a hard look at your culture.

Shouting at people doesn't workIf your organizational culture is resistant to change, activities are rigidly controlled and everything goes through 1001 layers of approval, you’re going to find it very difficult to engage effectively online. If your blog posts will be written in bureaubabble by a committee, don’t bother.

Do you really want a conversation with people? I mean genuinely want to have a conversation; not just pay lip service to it. People can smell a fake from a long way away. If you do want this level of engagement then great. If you don’t, maybe you should just listen and learn.

If you try to leap into a two-way dialogue without this kind of critical analysis, you’re likely to engage in a way that irritates people, and you’ll create another way to piss people off. All you’re likely to succeed in doing is amplifying the voices of your dissatisfied customers.

As Valeria Maltoni wrote earlier this month, “Other customers and prospects now have the opportunity to evaluate whether they’d do business with you on the basis of your behavior.”

The road is bumpy

Head in the sand If you’re going to engage online, you need to work in a culture that is open to feedback from customers. What’s more, where it’s appropriate, you need to be open to making changes based on that.

This isn’t a smooth road, especially if you’ve had your head in the sand about your problems so far. You need to be willing to take your lumps when you get things wrong, along with the praise you’ll receive when you get things right.

People who write negative things about you aren’t necessarily trolls. Yes, trolls are out there, but the odds are high that the people writing about you are also regular customers who passionate enough about what you do (or the need you fill) that they feel the need to write about it.

When you start to think this way, you can start to see trends in the conversations; trends that can lead you to genuine problems in your company.

Be open to feedback, fix those problems and, in time, you’ll be ready to start reaching-out to people.

Remember: you’ve probably spent years ignoring what people are saying online. Another few months of not engaging while you learn and prepare within your organization won’t hurt.

Baby steps

If you’re not ready to engage yet, my advice would likely be (all other things being equal) to listen and learn from what your customers are saying:

  • Who is talking about you?
  • Where are they talking about you?
  • What do they like?
  • What do they hate?

As you go through this process, you can do two things:

  • Flag the problems that people talk about and advocate for their resolution. Is your customer service ineffective? Is the product unreliable or (heaven forbid) unsafe? Become an agent of change within your organization like Frank Eliason from Comcast on Twitter.
  • Begin to compile the case within your organization for engaging effectively.
    • I’m not suggesting you should aim to run amok without any oversight, but you need some level of autonomy and flexibility is necessary. Without any autonomy you’ll find yourself responding to comments, blog posts, Twitter messages etc. days after they were posted, at which point you’ll be (a) mocked and (b) too late to have any influence on the conversation.

</end rant>

Social media isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to your problems. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you it is.

If your own house isn’t in order or if you try to talk to people in the way you’re used to talking to them, you could be in for a world of hurt.

As Hugh MacLeod tactfully put it:

If you talked to people the way advertising talked to people, they'd punch you in the face.

However, if you use social media tools thoughtfully, appropriately and in the right situations, they can be effective.

  • Do you have a spy cam on me or something? 😉 This is the same conversation I’ve had with about a half dozen people in the past five days. I’m fearing “Baby Steps” will be the next term in social media bingo. Just kidding. This is an excellent post and right on the money.

  • I think that considering your company culture beforehand is excellent advice. It’s frustrating to see new brands get involved and not really connect with people that love what they do or their legal department doesn’t understand.

    It *can* be done very well if companies are willing to open up.

    If companies were to look at the best practices method of doing things and could follow that path, that’s a clear indication that they should try to me, because the best practices point to really having a conversation.

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  • Ken

    Well put! As a consultant to the U.S. Navy, I deal with one of the most tradition-based cultures around. Words like “Twitter” mean laughter to this group and they still are not quite sure they need this World Wide Web “thing”.

  • Great post, Dave! You’re definitely right to point out that corporate culture often limits a company’s ability to engage in social media outreach.

    In fact, I’m beginning to think that maybe this is the point where the “tool” analogy gets spread too thin. More than a tool, lately I’ve begun using the “instrument” analogy to describe social media communication. In the right hands, social media outreach is beautiful music… in others it’s a painful cacophony of noise.

  • Shannon – oooh I like that! I may have to use that analogy in the future.

  • hey dave
    pretty cool points. i am a filmmaker who has been exposing issues around social causes before there was even such thing as social media. the only way people would see my work was if it was on television or they were at a festival that it was playing at. now that social media offers me a way to not only broadcast my work but have people discuss it, I have found a new audience and also engaged new subjects. some corporations in their wishes to become transparent and create a dialogue with their consumers are using social media to reach their customers in a way that they have never done before. they are also needing to find a new way to talk to people and as you pointed out – advertising language doesnt work. neither does spin. neither does gimmick. this is a new playing field where people actually are admitting that they have no idea what will work. thats not saying they are not trying. they just have no way to gauge whether or not its going to be effective until they try it. sometimes it involves high risk. the consumer and web user is way more sophisticated and we can all see through intentions that are motivated by other means then just reaching out. it is important that the main ingredient of any social media “strategy” involves honesty, heart, and above all “no bullshit”. i am doing a very interesting project, as you know, with Molson where they have given me access to their strategies of advertising, their legal department, their employees and their top echelon. they have open their doors to a documentary filmmaker (me) to allow me to show a transparency in their operations that I’m not sure any corporation has done before. because the subject I am researching is “who is responsible for resposnible drinking messages?”, and “how does a beer comapny meet those responsibilities?” is a very sensitive subject to both the beer company and to society, you would think that their was a bit of caution when opening their doors? yes their is. infact I am sure they are all a lot nervous every time they see me going through their halls. well, they are less nervous now as they are getting used to it. but their excitement and enthusiasm for being so open and innovative overrides their concerns as the greater cause is about both getting a responsible choices message out ther and being a leader for other corporations in the need for transparency and using the benefits of social media to its full extent in reaching the public. i hope that this “experiment” in social media opens new avenues for corporations and consumers to engage in discussions beyond brand awareness and selling product. Business is an opportunity to build community as well and at the same time as making a profit. social media is a good vehicle for both.

    Billie Mintz
    http://www.arcinstitute.net

  • Twitter Comment by @markvanbaale (Mark Van Baale)

    Why it is so important to make sure your company culture is ready to engage in social media: [link to post]

    http://twitter.com/markvanbaale/statuses/1100600111

    – Posted using Chat Catcher

  • This is as pertinent to the micro-business/solo-preneur, or accidental entrepreneur as it is to any other business. Those of us who are self-employed can easily be unconscious of the culture we work in. That this culture may be influenced by what side of the bed we got up on, the status of our bank accounts, or whether or not we’re having a bad hair day, the fact remains that we enter every conversation with a worldview.

    What’s more, accidental entrepreneurs can be resistant to real communication. We may believe that really listening to our customers/clients can only drain already limited resources. When we’re in love with our own good ideas, we can be remarkably stubborn, preferring to argue with the market rather than compromise our “vision.”

    The tiny business can benefit from a tremendous infusion of intelligence, encouragement, and support by truly engaging in social media communities. But David, as well as Goliath, will lose painfully if he follows a manipulative social media “strategy.”

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