October 6, 2011
Social Conversations — Effective Social Media Strategy Calls For Better Lemonade Stands and Fewer Ice Cream TrucksBy Janet Tyler, President, Airfoil Public Relations
Public relations practitioners who work in the technology arena frequently have tended to bury themselves in data, demos and deadlines that have turned their relationships with their audiences inward. By pulling in facts about a product, inputting releases and backgrounders on it, and bringing in a string of friendly reporters, we've been able to reach target audiences basically with our heads down. Social media, however, demand that we look outward (in more ways than one).
When developed effectively, social networks bring us face to face, if only virtually, with the contacts we wish to nurture — and rarely are these reporters. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube and other social sites are putting the "public" back in public relations, requiring us to meet new people, create or join new communities, and communicate with those who use our product (today's real reviewers). To do our job effectively in the era of social media, we must, of course, engage. But we also must understand that engaging with the public requires different sensibilities and different measures from those to which technology practitioners may be accustomed.
Strategy and social media
The way we reconsider our communications in a social world begins with how we set strategies. It's important that practitioners not view social media communications as a strategy in and of itself. Public relations pros should be no more inclined to create a separate "social media strategy" than they would a "broadcast media strategy" or a "print media strategy." The marketing and communications strategy for a company or client must be established first. Social media simply are another way to roll out the strategy, albeit a way that requires somewhat more listening, understanding and effort than other methods.
In setting a strategy, public relations practitioners need to evaluate their social media audiences just as carefully as they would delve into the interests, previous work and background of the reporters they target for conventional media relations programs. Engagement requires a solid understanding of the individuals and groups who populate social networks, so that the social media program may clearly focus on the networks where the overall strategy will be most effective and where word of mouth is likely to be most impactful.
Success in selecting the right audiences among social networks, with the right techniques to stimulate the right kinds of conversations, occurs when social media aligns with the communications strategy. One company's strategy may focus on keeping its industry-leading products on top, while another company may seek to create a brand-new category for its latest technology. In the first instance, the strategy might demand social media conversations with business executives who are happy, long-time customers and who already celebrate the company's products (an automobile or a golf club). The latter situation, on the other hand, may require reaching out to students who could use the product but don't yet understand its value (e.g., a tablet computer, a gesture-based video gaming system). The conversations with these two audiences most likely would require targeting very different social media niches.
Building a lemonade stand
While we in public relations are well acquainted with creating strategies and targeting audiences, our biggest pitfall in the social media environment has been execution. After a century of reaching out to mass media, many of us have found it difficult to truly engage in one-to-one and one-to-group conversations around the company's messaging. Too often, we speak at our audience, rather than with them. In social networks, our conventional methods sound like an ice cream truck trundling down the street, blasting out annoying music that discourages any conversation within half a mile of the messenger.
Instead, we should be setting up a local lemonade stand — our handle — and enticing neighbors in the network to stop by, chat for a while, try a sample, tell their friends and offer us their opinions on what we could do to make our recipe even better. And residents in different social neighborhoods may prefer different flavors of our product. Our message needs to be customized to each niche. That's the way to create the influencers and evangelists who control our brands today.
Perhaps the biggest adjustment we need to make in our thinking is the realization that, in social media, expressing our point of view is just the beginning of the communication process, not the end. The relationship between a business and its followers changes rapidly throughout a given day, week or month as followers add their comments, repost our point of view in different channels or organize groups supporting or opposing our efforts. Social media, then, demand that we constantly refresh the conversation, listening to the attitudes of our neighbors in this online society, evaluating their responses and moving the conversation forward.
We may be trained to measure traditional media in terms of quantity and quality over the duration of a campaign. With social media, measurement must be perpetual and evaluated based on the power of influencers. Moreover, measurement is best done in real time, when the communicator has the ability to influence the conversation.
In short, we need to keep our heads up and our eyes, ears and minds open when managing our message in social media. It's not an activity to be executed from a template or to be patterned on your last success. Every communications venture into social media is a new conversation that must pursue its own path toward consensus, support and a loyal following.