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The Good the Bad and the Ugly: Social Media Successes and Nightmares

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By now you have probably heard some of the more infamous stories of the brave new woRed Wheel s.c.rld of social media. From Jeff Jarvis’s famous “Dell Sucks” blog post in 2005 to the Motrin-Mommy-Blogger fiasco of late 2008.  But what results—good and bad—can inform your own personal or corporate social media strategy? Here are some I thought worth a look.

The Good

Have you checked out Bill Marriott’s Blog “Marriott on the Move”?  http://www.blogs.marriott.com/ Of course his most recent postings have been about the Jakarta suicide bombings that took place at a Marriott hotel there. Communicating with customers in times of crisis is a crucial part of communicating your brand identity—in this case, that Marriott management is caring and on top of the situation as much as can be expected. Bill  also reads the blog aloud in an audio file beneath each post, which makes for a much more personal experience of the story. According to Kathleen Matthews, former news anchor-turned-Marriott marketing executive, $3 million in reservations have come in through his blog. How’s that for an ROI?

Charity: Water is a non-profit organization bringing clean and safe drinking water to people in developing nations. 100% of public donations directly fund water projects.  On 12 February 2009, 200+ international cities hosted a Twestival (Twitter + festival) to bring Twitter communities together to raise money for charity: water. The Twestival raised $250,000+ and brought worldwide public awareness to the global water crisis. They also provided a live feed of a well drilling project in Ethiopia paid for by the funds, so donors felt instantly connected to an outcome of their donations. Charity: Water also cleverly provides “Tweet the Facts” resource so folks on Twitter can easily publish content relevant to the charity (“Women in Africa spend 15-17 hrs/week collecting water”).  Charities have been among the first to realize the power of social media, so why not retrace their steps and raise awareness for charities and causes you support?

Zappos, the internet shoe emporium just purchased by Amazon, has 436 employees on Twitter.  (Full disclosure: I love shoes.) In a recent interview for the Progressive Women’s Leadership Blog in a post called “All atwitter,” CEO Tony Hsieh said “For Twitter, we don’t really view it as a marketing channel so much as a way to connect on a more personal level — whether it’s with our employees or our existing customers.” Zappos has always stood out for its unique company culture, with a high level of customer service and a personalized, informal style. The company offers Twitter classes for employees to learn how to Tweet, but it does not have any restrictive requirements. Again, CEO Hsieh told interviewer Stephen Spencer “We’re not really looking at short-term ROI in terms of sales,” Hsieh says. “We’re looking to form lifelong relationships with our customers, and we think Twitter helps us do this.”  The company has also used Twitter as a recruiting tool, because it helps prospective employees see what it’s like to work there.

The Bad

The Washington Post today carried a story (“Online — and in the Loop — With D.C. Police “ washingtonpost.com http://bit.ly/y8rlP ) about how police are using email listserves to connect to community, inform the public about crimes, and help solve them.  The U.S. Park Police are blogging at http://uspppressroom.blogspot.com/ . Meanwhile, on the west coast, Los Angeles police Lt. Rick Banks is quoted saying his unit is looking at Twitter as a new opportunity.  What does it all mean? Federal and state agencies are embracing social media as a tool for connecting with the communities they serve.  Some of these postings function more as press release outlets than places for real conversations to emerge (see http://www.usda.gov/blog/usda/ ).  At least it’s a start for more transparency and faster communication in government.

The Ugly

As great as social media is, there is a dark side. Consider this story from the Better Business Bureau about major job scams on Twitter.  The BBB wants job hunters to be aware of the following red flags when searching for a work-at-home job online:

  • The “job” is actually a money-making scheme and doesn’t provide actual employment.
  • The work-at-home scheme claims that you can make lots of money with little effort and no experience.
  • You have to pay money up front in order to be considered for the job or receive more information.
  • The exact same tweet touting the program is posted by many different Twitterers. The links in such tweets could lead you to scam sites or install malware onto your computer.

These are just a few tales to help you consider the good, the bad and the ugly ways that social media is changing our communications landscape.  Do you have a social media success story or nightmare? Please share!

Can Twitter Help Offset the Negative Brand Impact of Downsized Marketing?

In the last two weeks I’ve spoken with one VP of marketing whose job was completely eliminated at a major national nonprofit, and one marketing director at a mid-sized for-profit who confessed she had no time to do long-term strategic work since she was really functioning as communications director, and without any support staff.

Who hasn’t felt the pinch on long-term strategic thinking when short-term tactical communications work needs to get done? And why should we care?

I think we should care because organizations are likely to find that while they net some short-term savings with cuts to personnel and marketing budgets, their brand may take a bigger hit than they think in the long-term.  If all you’re doing is getting out your weekly customer e-newsletters and press releases, you may actually be suffering from internal bleeding without knowing it.  With tactics focused on short-term “get the word out” communications, organizations can be missing out on three key marketing strategies: attracting new customers/donors, retaining existing ones, and constantly establishing your brand as the best in class.

So, how to maintain a brand focus without all the people and budget to help?

Consider what some of the biggest firms are now doing: using Twitter as a tool to provide customer service.  USA Today reported this week that companies like Comcast, Pepsico and Whole Foods are using Twitter to provide customer service more quickly and successfully than 800 numbers and websites once did.  Pepsico went so far as to change its top customer service employee’s title to “Global Director of Digital and Social Media.”

Title changes aside, how can mid-sized for-profits and nonprofits use this technology to do more than put out 140-character press releases?

  1. If you are a school or university, consider tweeting to keep in touch with alumni on issues they care about.  But also tweet parents about important news–changes to the soccer game schedule, deadlines for scholarship apps, etc.  Letting them opt-in will make them feel they aren’t going to miss important news.
  2. If you are in the business of social change, keep donors up to date on the impact of their funding.
  3. If you are a government agency, keep stakeholders apprised of policy issues and where they stand, and any new information you have posted elsewhere about it to save them time fishing for it.
  4. If you are a for-profit, keep customers apprised of issues and information that could negatively or positively affect their business outcomes, so you can demonstrate your depth of knowledge in your field and your value.
  5. If you are a thought leader in your area of expertise, consider sharing what you know, what you are reading, and people worth watching. (For some reason, nonprofit leaders are particularly late adopters of this technology, and yet they have the most to benefit from one another and the least staff resources to pull in the information in other ways.)

Nothing replaces people and budget, but it looks like Twitter can offer some interesting opportunities to maintain a good brand presence in this downturn.

Is Social Media Worth My Professional Time?

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AmysLinkedInThis week I’ve had four people ask me this question. Two are lawyers in large, successful practices. One is an executive looking for work. One is a nonprofit professional. All are mid-40’s to early 50’s. My answer is a resounding “yes!” to all of them, with varying reasons why.   If you are already well-versed in social media, feel free to duck out of this post.  But if you or your boss is trying to decide whether it’s worth it, read on.

Some Facts to Consider…

Nielsen recently released these intriguing study results:

1. In February social network usage exceeded Web-based e-mail usage for the first time. Ever.

2. There are 87 percent more online social media users now than in 2003, with 883 percent more time devoted to those sites.

3. In April, Nielson also reported that the number of American users frequenting online video destinations has climbed 339 percent since 2003. Time spent on video sites has shot up almost 2,000 percent over the same period.

4. Unique visitors to Twitter increased 1,382 percent year-over-year, from 475,000 unique visitors in February 2008 to 7 million in February 2009, making it the fastest growing site in the Member Communities category for the month.

5.  And here’s one that might surprise you. The largest age group on Twitter right now is 35-49 year olds. Yep. 41% of Twitter-ers are in this group, representing almost 3 million users.

So …?

This data shows that many of the people you need to connect with aren’t just using social media, they are migrating to it in droves.  And just like you, they only have a limited amount of time, so that means they are using other networking tools less/differently.  For example, we have all heard the reports that many conferences have cancelled this year due to the economy.  But perhaps there’s also less interest in networking in this way when you can have an ongoing conversations with colleagues, fellow activists or customers through Facebook and Twitter? We’re also doing less in print. According to the US Department of Labor wage and salary outlook in the printing and related support activities industry is projected to “decline 22 percent over the 2006-16 period, compared with 11 percent growth projected for the economy as a whole.” This decrease reflects our increased use of computerized documents and sharing information via the internet and social media sources.

I’m Still Unconvinced. My Time is Too Valuable.

In fairness, you’re right. Social media can be a big Time Sucker. So you need a plan to manage that, both personally and organizationally, in much the same way you adjusted your work patterns when email and FedEx came along. And just as those inventions saved time in new ways, you will need to maximize the time you save in these new mediums.  Here are a few tips on incorporating social media into your professional communications strategy.

Five Tools for Getting What You Need From Social Media

1.   First, decide what you’re trying to accomplish. Are you reconnecting with classmates? Trying to reach new customers? Engaging other social activists in your cause? Increasing your visibility as an expert in your field? Promoting your new book or agency report? Trying to find a new job?  Each goal requires a slightly different strategy and time commitment. Having only the goal of finding out what everyone else is talking about is an acceptable starting point, but if you want to prove to yourself/your boss that you’ve gotten ROI, you need a more structured goal.

2.    Decide who you want to converse with. I use the term “converse” because social media is a conversation, not you blasting information to an “audience.” But you need to know who you’re looking for and where they are. For example, women over 55 are the fastest growing demographic on Facebook.  So if that’s who you need to reach, consider spending time there. Facebook is also a good way to cross-promote a book, podcast or blog, so consider it a part of your strategy, not your entire game plan.

3.    Decide what value you can bring to the conversation. Some of the best Twitterers are healthcare organizations, because they have a lot of already well-researched content and their goals are to make us all healthier.  See @childrenshealth and @redcross for good examples. My least favorite Twitterers are those who are too prolific, so that even their good content gets lost in their own clutter. Luckily the trend is moving away from people twittering about every move they make. With the exception of politicians and broadcast anchors.

4.    Figure out how much time you can commit each day/week/month. Start by looking at the time you already spend achieving the same goal through more traditional means. Perhaps you attend several professional networking events a month and four major conferences each year.  Take part of the time you would a lot to those and target the same goal through social media.

5.    Identify useful as well as negative content –that is, for content you value, but also content that might be de-valueing or diluting your brand. Use blog search tools like Technorati to conduct real-time searches for user-generated media (including blogs) by topics of interest to you or use Stumbleupon to both see and offer your own ratings of content you find useful. Remember that some good content tends to pop up in unexpected places, such as federal government blogs.  Here’s a useful one from the Dept. of Energy with tips for energy efficiency .

6.    Consider a Group Blog. If your firm or organization wants to put a toe in the water on blogging, consider identifying 5-20 people who could be regular contributors and rotate the job. Posts can be brief—even as little as a paragraph.  Be sure to post on the same day or days of the week, so that blog search and aggregating tools can find you.

7.    What Can You Bring to You-Tube? If you already have video content (and assuming you can acquire the right permissions), this is a no-brainer. But you may also be giving a workshop that you can have videotaped. Or consider asking your own stakeholders for user-generated content of their own. This works particularly well for nonprofit causes, where real people and real stories are so compelling.

8.    Use social networks to find people who can help you do your job better. Consider incorporating LinkedIn to your organization’s job posting strategy, as well as using it for your own professional networking. Linked In was founded before Facebook, but has taken off more recently due to improvements in its interface, the increased use of its professional forums, and the widgets that can bring additional content to your page (i.e. pull your blog into it, as it does on my page—shameless self-promotion moment here—at http://www.linkedin.com/in/amydelouise . If you are a job-seeker, as so many are in our economy, this is a great tool. Prospective employers can check out your page (which is essentially a resume), download your resume, and see recommendations you’ve received from bosses/clients.  As someone who employes others, I’ve found LinkedIn extremely useful when trying to find a good vendor or consultant for a project. I posted a query to my contacts and within seconds had 6 recommendations with national experience, all of whom I could then look up and contact via LinkedIn.

Okay, Okay, But How Do I Get Started?

Here’s your summer assignment:
Month 1. In the next 30 days, set up a Facebook page and a LinkedIn page.  Do at least a basic Google search for your company’s/organization’s/issue’s/expertise’s name. Index some blogs or websites that seem useful, or are saying hateful or incorrect things about your organization/issue. Use Technorati or Stumbleupon accounts to send you blogs on topics of professional interest to you so you don’t have to go search for them.
Month 2. Sign up for Twitter and follow 10 people you admire.  Could you say it better? Can you add value to this conversation? Could this be valuable to you/your organization/your customers, donors, or volunteers? You make the call.
Month 3. Get at least 5 recommendations for yourself on LinkedIn, and more if you are a job-seeker.  Join one Linked In discussion group. Join some Facebook causes that mean something to you.  Comment on one or two blogs related to your area of expertise.
Month 4. Summer’s over! Spend no more than 30 minutes a day checking your most useful blog and Twitter feeds.  Spend 30 minutes per weekend for the next four weekends cranking out a list of potential blog topics you could generate with help from colleagues (so you can decide if this is a go or no-go for a January launch).

If you have some more ideas to contribute, please do!