Sunday, January 17, 2010

Social Media Mania

You can't watch television, listen to the radio or sit at your computer for more than 2 minutes without an invitation to "follow us on Facebook and Twitter!" Individuals (over 350 million individuals) have been on board with social media from the beginning, but businesses have been a little slower to recognize the social media platform as a valuable business tool. If your business hasn't committed to integrating social media into your business plan as a means to reach and serve your customers, you may just miss the boat!

Change at the Speed of Light

Futurist and innovation expert Jim Carroll made the comment at NRPA’s 2009 Congress that, in the technology arena, over half of what today’s college freshman learn will be obsolete by the time they graduate. That made me think of my own technology transformation (albeit over a 20 year period) from my college days in the ‘80s when “social media” amounted to saving a favorite joke on a 5 ¼ inch floppy disk and giving it to a friend so the next time he or she went to the computer lab (no one had their own PCs) they could pop it in and laugh at it… to the Blogging, Tweeting, web-surfing techno-geek I’m proud to be today.

Fun Fact
Although mainframe-based inter-office email was used as early as 1965, the World Wide Web was publicly launched in April of 1993 facilitating email as a global communication tool

Today’s Social Media is certainly more than just having the technology to email that favorite joke and have your friend instantly receive it and even send back a quick “LOL” all in a matter of seconds, but a buffet of digital opportunities to connect with people around the world in real time. “Social Media” itself has changed so rapidly since the phrase was coined in 2004 that the original Wikipedia definition posted in July of 2006 has had over 500 revisions to date.

So what is Social Media?

The description I like best comes from Brian Solis, author of “The Future of Communications - A
Manifesto for Integrating Social Media into Marketing." Solis said, “Social Media is, at its most basic sense, a shift in how people discover, read, and share news and information and content. It's a fusion of sociology and technology, transforming monologue (one to many) into dialog (many to many.)”

From a business perspective, the social media mediums of Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Blogging, top the list in popularity, accompanied by a comprehensive website to tie them all together, of course. Why not just create a website that does all that? You have to meet people where they are to bring them where you want them to be. You can’t just stand in the middle of your shiny new digital island and say, “Huh? Why isn’t everyone here with me?” You need build a bridge and a create a motive to cross over to the island. That’s where social media comes in.

Island Vacationers... 10 or 10,000?

Your company’s website is like a digital island – the question is… is it an uninhabited wasteland that your organization is about to starve to death on because no one knows it’s there? Or is it the inviting “go-to” vacation spot for weary web travelers looking for the just the information, product, services and events you have to offer? Social Media platforms can provide and facilitate a lot for a business, but where you really want people is at your website because it's where you have the greatest amount of control of your audience. You can't keep them focused on you with 349,999,999 other Facebookers competing for their attention.

Building the Bridge

There are a lot of social media tools out there and it’s important use the right ones to accomplish your goals… which begs the question, what are your goals? Driving members to your services? Driving citizens to your events? Connecting the community with each other? Collecting a pool of professionals to use as a resource? Collecting a pool of advocates to mobilize?

It’s important to choose the right tool for the job. Up until five years ago, email was virtually the only “bridge” available to drive people to your website - ten years ago, it was considered cutting edge to send emails with hyperlinks to your customers/members – but now, with everyone experiencing “email overload” at home and at work, it’s critical we change our approach.

Email is slowly being replaced as a communication tool and social media is moving in and taking over. College students are more likely to use Facebook to communicate important, timely information than email. But there's a business impact as well. If you are relying exclusively on email to reach out to your customers, you're losing business.

There’s a clear consensus that Facebook and Twitter are “must haves” in building your social media bridge, followed closely by LinkedIn, and Blogs and they each reach a different audience for different purposes.

Twitter, launched in 2006, is the latest and greatest sensation in social media. Described as a “microblog,” Twitter had over 44.5 million users as of August of 2009. The beauty of Twitter is that is has the capability of tying many of the other technologies together in applications like TweetDeck, sharing website links, pictures, videos and your single “Tweet” has the potential of reaching all 44.5 million users (whether they are following you or not) through RTs (Re-Tweeting) or keyword searches. Of course, the key to build a solid base of followers who will see your message directly.

Facebook, although often said in the same breath with Twitter, is really a different vehicle. Facebook has been available to the general public for about the same time (public launch in September 2006) but it’s student-only roots from 2004 have helped build a user base of over 350 million. Unlike Twitter, you have to “friend” someone on Facebook (and be accepted as a friend back) in order to be in their network and participate in group discussions. With a “community feel,” Facebook is much better at facilitating a real connection between people and true two-way dialog (whereas Twitter tends to be a little more one-way and less personal because it’s so public) and creates energy and engagement easily.

Like every medium, it has its place and drawbacks. Most people began using Facebook on the personal front so they have their friends, family and neighbors in their network. If a person is “friending” your company as an end-user, it probably okay to mix it up, but from business to business or within a field of professionals, this may be more problematic.

LinkedIn, although it’s been around twice as long (launched in May of 2003) has just a few more users than Twitter at 55 million, but has a much narrower, business-focused community of users. Where Facebook and Twitter are great vehicles to connect with the community and customers you serve and want to engage, LinkedIn is a place where professionals with common interests can connect with each other and exchange ideas related to the job on discussion boards. Although building a LinkedIn profile is unlikely to lead to more traffic/visitors/revenue in a direct way, if it facilitates the exchange of innovative ideas by professional peers leading to new programs or services that do result in new revenue generating programs, well you’d be missing out if you didn’t include it on your social media buffet.

Blogging reached mainstream status by 2004, but had its roots in “online diaries” about a decade earlier. The Blog has a solid place in social media because of its flexibility and capacity for interactivity. Blogs reach people in a different way than the others mediums, so it’s got to be used in concert with, not instead of. Blogs also have a great capacity for editorial, feedback and customer participation and engagement and can be a real value in balancing the “push-pull” of communication and provide some relief from the email epidemic by incorporating RSS feed capability.

Creating the Motive

The goal, remember, was to use social media as a bridge to lead people across to your digital island (or website). Why would they want to that? Perhaps they don’t. But you want them to do that because, as mentioned before, it's where you have the greatest amount of control of your audience and customer attention.

Creating the motive to move from your Facebook Fan page to your organization’s website is all about making sure that what you’re offering is something the people actually want. Easier said than done, I know, but here’s another opportunity to utilize the social media tools to find out what they want. The feedback you get may not always be positive, but people will appreciate that they've been provided with a venue to connect with you in an authentic way.

The Journey of a Thousand Miles

If you’re not already engaging with social media, you have to take that first step and just jump in. Don’t worry so much about “which one is best for us” at this point. At the rate that technology changes, there will be ten new social media platforms to choose from before you’ve figured out the first one you’ve decided on so you can’t afford to do a 10 page ROI study to figure it out. Take the first step now.

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