Back in the beginning of this century (he, he, he, I just had to use that phrase), working at washingtonpost.com as their online discussion moderator, I experienced the early days of two-way Website communications. Previously, Arapnet, listserves and the rudimentary message board technology depicted in the social media classic “The Well,” were the only conversational forms of online interactivity.
For a major international media presence like The Washington Post (as washingtonpost.com) to begin to roll out ways for readers to respond to the news online, almost on their own terms, was a big deal. Editors, writers, producers, and legal were all at the table of conversation, shaping how and why we were opening this gateway. It wasn’t easy, but it was fun and it was instructive.
For six years I moderated as readers chimed in on everything from Elian Gonzales to Monica Lewinsky, 9/11 to the Iraq war, the Mideast conflict to religious fundamentalism, the Florida election debacle to gay marriage and more. Civility was not always the norm, yet thoughtful, insightful posts were often contributed, and the way readers participated, what they wanted from the experience, was as much a part of the conversation as the content they contributed. From there, our washingtonpost.com teams were able to fashion new interfaces that allowed for a more and more seamless world between the “owner” of a site and those who played in its sandbox. Post.com remains a leader in online interactivity, creating a synergistic culture of mutually-driven and substantial content governed by a common denominator: the news.
Look Ma, no hands
Fast forward to the future, where blogs and comment boxes on websites are nearly ubiquitous and the engines of social media drive interaction norms. On the surface it looks so easy. But the heady desire for businesses to plunge into this territory, adopting Facebook, Twitter, and other social media simply because “everybody is doing it” is not enough.
While social media policies are on everybody’s lips right now, its worth remembering that such policies are themselves a representation of precise and thoughtful background work by industry leaders and legal teams. Simply cribbing social media policy ideas from others, rolling it out to company members, and calling it a day wont do. To have a truly meaningful understanding of why your business is adopting social media, how you will use it, its business possibilities and its limits, requires much more from leadership. Taking the time to get it right is key.
You’ve got a job to do
Recently a big deal was made when Steve Jobs started occasionally responding personally to e-mails that otherwise would have come from customer service at Apple. His message: I’m accessible. Across the spectrum, business leaders are pulling back the curtain and in the process, further eroding the barriers to access that defined traditional business structures. But while Jobs can do this with the finesse of a seasoned interactivity guru, other business leaders shouldn’t simply imagine that installing Tweet Deck and pushing go is all it takes. Your marketing person should know the ins and outs of social media, its advantages and its perils, like the back of his or her hand, treading lightly and setting a personal example of either online savvy or online restraint (or both) depending on the nature of the business.
With social media, everybody is watching. If you have a top position at a firm, or are otherwise a key representative of its works, professionalism in your communications becomes even more crucial. Constant guidance from a marketing person with an understanding of both technology and the subtleties of messaging, including the role of spokespersons for the organization, is a must-do. Though its long, this New York Times magazine piece can help get marketing persons up to speed. Titled “The Web Means the End of Forgetting,” the 8-page primer on the downside of running one’s virtual mouth helps describe the dangers of social media, dangers businesses shouldn’t ignore. The short version: Google is forever so watch what you say.
Holistic marketing and the local piece
I’ll have more tips and thoughts on social media in the future, but for now I’ll leave you with two key elements that every business venture should keep in mind.
- Done right, social media offers a powerful leveraging force in building business awareness and driving conversions, though not necessarily of sales. Employ its tactics, sure, but do so as one piece of a much more holistic marketing program. If your top people are spending all day tweeting, its a sure bet that they’re not getting other work done. True business success depends on its essentials. Don’t forget that Excel sheet, those sales reports, your own trends, to keep the business on solid ground. In the end, social media marketing should depend on your customers doing much of the work. Make your product shine, seed the social networks, tend the garden a bit, but let it bloom through the power of your customer as an ally.
- Face to face is the original social networking. An interesting thing is happening at precisely the moment that social media is hitting its hyperstride: Everybody is “going local.” Particularly as energy prices increase, and economic recession drags on, what your business does at the local level remains crucial. All the tweets in the world aren’t likely to bring customers from Tokyo to try your mouth watering fried green tomatoes if you’re located in, well, Staunton, Va., even if they did “like” you on Facebook. The market density of distance customers for products that can only be delivered locally is essentially shallow. There are dangerous illusions in the online world, however effective it is otherwise. Know the difference. If you haven’t got a local buy in, or you think its safe to let your local buy in coast on autopilot, its time to rethink. Your local strategy has to be as strong if not stronger than your online strategy.
Social media looks intuitive because it is. And on the personal level, that’s fine. For business, however, its about strategic tactics and thoughtful implementation. Stay ahead of the game by knowing what you’re getting into.