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.


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.

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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.

Dave Fleet
EVP Digital at Edelman. Husband and dad of two. Cycling nut; bookworm; videogamer; Britnadian. Opinions are mine, not my employer's.