Responding to the whole social media thing is not easy. On the one hand, it can seem can seem big and intimidating, demanding a whole re-think of the way an organisation communicates. Yet on the other, some of the easier or more accessible things that could be done, such as starting to put information on YouTube, creating a Facebook page or a blog just don’t seem to generate the interest or numbers that are going to shift the needle or start to compare with the effectiveness and reach of your current marketing and communications.
Both positions hold true. We are witnessing a truly revolutionary shift in the nature of media that will ultimately have profound implications. However, we are only at the start of this revolution and one of the defining characteristics of most revolutions is that people over-estimate their importance in the short-term but under-estimate their impact in the long-term. Therefore the best way to respond to the social media revolution is to not rush into the latest thing – but to recognise that it is still important to start the journey. Be the tortoise rather than the hare, but none-the-less be in the race rather than on the sidelines.
The best way of doing this is to address four areas.
1. Uncovering your digital identity
Corporate communications agencies make the valid point that you cannot choose whether or not to have a corporate identity – you can only choose how to manage and control it. The same could be said of a digital identity. Every organisation (and individual) already has one of these. It may not yet be important or substantial – but in five years time it will be. Understanding your digital identity is therefore critical and this involves knowing what information about you is “out there”, who is picking it up, what people are saying about you, and what groups or networks are relevant to you.
There are many ways to do this. The most expensive is to hire the services of a digital monitoring agency, of which there are now many. The cheapest is to make someone in your organisation your in-house analyst – showing them how to use the free monitoring and search tools available and giving them the brief to keep their ear to the ground. Somewhere between the two is to hire an agency or individual who is already familiar with the on-line environment and task them with doing an initial analysis to prepare the ground for setting up your own monitoring thereafter.
One thing to bear in mind is that the extent to which you use an outside organisation or function to keep you in touch with “the conversation” is a measure of the extent to which you are not actually involved in “the conversation”. Thus while it is quite acceptable to use external monitoring to get you going, it is the equivalent of water wings – something that ultimately you should be looking to reduce your reliance on.
2. Creating a credible story
Having a story is not something specific to social media. The concept of defining and describing your organisation as a story and using this as the basis for communication is becoming increasingly popular as brands and businesses recognise that getting consumers or customer to buy-into the story is the key to getting them to buy the product. A story is a far more useful and flexible tool to plan communications than a proposition – because stories are broad and engaging and you can have a conversation from them, whereas propositions are narrow and focused and only help you shape focused mass communication (advertising).
However, having a credible story is especially important in order to start shaping your digital identity. The social media environment is a bit like a club with a defined dress and entry code. If you try to get in wearing your old marketing clothes – based on hype, promotional-speak and hard sell – you either won’t be let in or will rapidly thrown-out or isolated. The clothes and behaviours you need to adopt have to be rooted in realism, credibility, transparency and proven values, opinions and facts. Who and what lies behind a product or service are as important as what the product or service is or delivers.
Sitting down and enshrining this in a story – probably expressed on one page – is an incredibly important exercise and one where you may want to commission some help – either from your existing agencies or other external consultants. It is often difficult to have the necessary degree of realism if you try and do this entirely yourself – especially since an effective story may not have the same level of superficial attraction that previous propositions or statements of visions and values might have had.
3. Start creating “off-site” digital content
In the old days (i.e. six years ago) if you wanted to guarantee that you could reach large numbers of people, you had to spend your way to them , buying media or spending on other forms of distribution – direct mail, printed material etc. One of the big changes of social media / web 2.0 is that distribution, for many forms of content, has now become free.
This presents the opportunity, and also the need, to spend more money making media and less money buying media. It also provides the freedom to produce content that is much more niche and editorial in nature and also cheaper. Ultimately this is going to move to a point where organisations and brands become their own content channels or hubs – run in a similar way to newsrooms.
For most organisations this is still some way off and it is not yet time to ditch the traditional advertising, direct mail, PR and sales promotion mix of communications. However, it is important to recognise the value in starting to become familiar in producing content that works in the social media space. There is probably a lot of existing information you have which could be re-purposed and placed into the new digital channels helping to build your digital footprint but also acting as digital bait, helping people discover your organisation or brand. Likewise, there are probably some relatively low budget steps you could take to develop content specifically for digital placement. Every organisation should have a YouTube channel – even if the only video you have on it is a shot of your office, factory, shop or showroom with a graphic overlaid which describes your business. It will cost zero to do this – except about an hour of time – but with suitable tags applied it is effective digital bait that is out there helping people discover your organisation.
The most important thing to understand about this is that your website is no longer “where it is at” when it comes to digital content. A video that lives in YouTube is for more discoverable than a video that is locked into your website. Websites are much more about launching information into the social media space and, once out there, the individual bits of digital content can go to work finding an audience – especially if supported by some basic techniques to aid in their discovery by the audiences and networks you wish to target. (Creating digital discovery is essentially the new PR). For every bit of information that you think is potentially relevant to your stakeholders your motto should be “get it a link (i.e. a URL), get it tagged, get it up there and get it working for you”.
(Check this out from Electrolux – a simple blog format with links to latest news and YouTube and Flickr content)
4. Create a space to enagage with your stakeholders
Ultimately, the biggest change brought about by social media is going to lie in the area of relationships. It is easy to underestimate the extent to which the relationships between individuals and institutions have been based around a very restricted number of highly controlled mass channels. Trust has been generated largely on the basis of institutions constructing a reputation, based on statements of values, methods of operation and claims of efficacy. The increasing ability of individuals to use social media to interrogate and expose every aspect of institutional activity means that any gap between the stated “institutional” basis for trust and the reality can be exposed and become highly visible and damaging. Social media is far more about channels people will use to reach you, rather than channels you can use to target them.
Anyone with a Skype account can digitally capture any telephone conversation. This can then be released into cyber-space attracting its own audience and potentially creating havoc, if its interest is sufficient. Many organisations, most famously AOL, have discovered how damaging this can be.
This is but one example of how every citizen or consumer can assume the power of an investigative journalist and how every single touchpoint between an individual and an institution has the potential to become a consumer generated ad. (See this for a fantastic example of a consumer mashing together a real customer service call into a video and spoof website about Cingular and his exploding speakers). An organisation will not be able to see itself as having a wall around it, with defined and controlled windows through which it can communicate. Rather it will have to operate as though it has a porous membrane around it.
Learning how to deal with this is a challenge, to put it mildly. We are not yet at the point where the walls have come down, but they are starting to get pretty leaky. The only way to deal with this is not to try and attempt to manage all the leaks, but to work out how to have a much more receptive relationship with your stakeholders. One of the best examples of an organisation doing this is Dell. Having experienced the fire of being digitally outed, via the blogger Jeff Jarvis and his “Dell Hell” experiences, Dell took on board all the valid issues his experience raised and then went on to find ways of engaging their customers, actively seeking their input via the creation of IdeaStorm which allows people to suggest and then rate and comment on improvements to Dell’s business. (Here are Jarvis’s original Dell Hell posts – and here is a good summary of the whole story, including Dell’s turn-around).
Ultimately, the most important thing to remember about this whole transparency issue is that trust is shifting from institutions to visible processes. And if your reputation is constructed around creating “institutionalised trust” you are highly vulnerable. Simply put, people will no longer take or trust what you say about yourself (your institutional claims to trust) at face value (even if it it true) – they will need to be able to understand the processes that guarantee this. The best way to do this is to create the opportunity for them to become part of this process. It is worth remembering that your harshest critic and most loyal customer or supporter are often the same person – provide them a channel for this energy and it is far more likely to be directed in a mutually positive direction. And a good way to do this – as Dell has discovered – is to create social media channels or spaces that facilitate this.
Make a start on these areas now – and you will have ticked the social media box for the time being. You will be in the race, but most importantly, you will have established a process of learning and gaining experience that will help you manage whatever the future may bring.