Content: what content?

(This is a rather long post, so you can download it as a pdf to read in bed or in the bath.  If you stick with it I hope it will change the way you think about social media).

People are talking a lot about Engagement and Content at the moment.  These concepts are up there on the pedestal as examples of what you need to do when you are ‘doing’ social media.  “Content marketing is the new … err … marketing” people are saying.  And “we must use social channels to drive greater engagement with our consumers”. However, the real question is “what type of engagement and what type of content?”  A piece of content can be anything from a tweet, to an expensive piece of video – which makes generic exhortations about the importance of content largely meaningless until such time as we drill down an define exactly what type of content we are talking about.

Likewise with engagement.  At best this is a very hazy term.  It is a bit like the term Reform, something that inherently seems like a good thing, even if we don’t understand what it means, something which politicians are highly adept at exploiting.

So, of late, I have been on a mission to really get under the skin of Content and Engagement in relation to social media, because I have a suspicion that no-one really knows what they are talking about when they use these terms.

First the theory: it’s a bit bot boring, but it is very important.  Until the advent of social media, distributing information (media) was expensive.  This had two implications for anyone who wanted to spread information.  First, you had to keep the message short and snappy.  Second, you needed to get that message in front of all of the people you wanted to reach.  Your ability to tailor or segment a message was pretty restricted because it was either still quite expensive to reach a tailored group, or because the media or channels just didn’t exist to service small groups of people.  This conditioned the way in which we did marketing.  It was a reductive process – reduce your brand down to narrow proposition.  And it was a mass process – you needed to get the proposition (ad, key message, campaign) in front of lot of people, often repeatedly.

Then social media came along.  All of a sudden, distributing information became virtually free.  Therefore the problem that all of marketing had adapted itself to deal with, stopped being a problem.  And now that information was no longer locked-up in, and conditioned by, specific distribution channels – content could basically kiss media (distribution) goodbye.

The relevance of all of this is the critically important recognition that everything we have done in marketing and communications up until this point, has been adapted to a set of conditions that no longer exist, when you are in the social media space.  It is therefore reasonable to assume that, when you go into the social media space, if you are still doing what you used to do when you were in the traditional media space, it probably won’t work (or work very well).  It is a bit like the travelling across the land and the sea.  It is perfectly possible to travel across both, provided you understand the different.  Take a car into the ocean and no matter how well you may try and adapt it, it’s not going to work anywhere near as well as a boat.  Likewise, you can’t take a boat to the supermarket.

The theory therefore tells us that the type of content that we have been doing up until now is probably the wrong type of content for social media.  It would likewise suggest that how we defined the concept of engagement in the one-to-many mass marketing world won’t be relevant in the social world.

But that’s just the theory.  What about the reality?

The best way to understand the reality is take the trouble to look at what is going on in social media – how The People (defined as consumers, citizens or customers) are actually using it.  When you do this, you recognise that something in the order of 99.99 per cent of everything that is happening in this space concerns individuals making connections with other individuals, frequently within spaces that can be seen as a form of small community.  These people often already know each other, or have will have some form of potential or actual close connection as a result of a shared interest.  The bit of social media that relates to organisations ‘reaching out’ to individuals, or individuals contacting organisations is the 0.01 per cent.  The interesting thing is how few organisations have actually taken the trouble to study this reality.  Thus rather than use social media in a way which reflects how The People are actually using it, they focus on the tiny bit that accords with how they would wish to use social media – the bit that looks like, or can be understood as, a traditional media channel.

As a result we see organisations, for example, trying to use Facebook pages as a form of website.  The logic goes something like this: “We don’t really understand how You People are using Facebook and can’t work out what, if any, role we might have in all of this.  However, we do understand websites, so if we can make Facebook work like a website, we can then understand it and make it work for us.  Hurrah! Job done! Tick box! Pay digital agency!”  It is a way of super-imposing a desired reality (desired by brands, agencies and Facebook) on top of an actual reality – i.e. in reality, it’s a fantasy.

What would you say to a media agency that drew-up a media plan that ignored 99.99 per cent of the available audience?  Social media, of course, is not really a form of media, it is better understood as an infrastructure, but the point still holds.  Why choose not to use the infrastructure in a way which reflects how the people we want to engage with are actually using the infrastructure?

The answer is that to do this is awkward and difficult.  It involves breaking down what we have done to date and reconstructing it in a different form.  It is uncomfortable and disruptive and no-one likes disruption.  We all desperately want social media to be a new space within which all the old techniques will still work, with minimal adjustment (“we used to run promotions via advertising, so now let’s runs them in Twitter!  Hurrah! Job done! etc”).  There are also plenty of organisations with a vested interest in maintaining the comfortable fantasy, not least amongst them Facebook, Twitter and Google themselves, because they can only monetise themselves as a form of media or content platform, not as a form of infrastructure. (This isn’t strictly true, since they can create a viable business model as an infrastructure, but this kind of a model cannot justify the sky-high valuations to which these businesses now have to aspire).

So, what is the relevance of this for content and engagement.  Let’s look at content first and examine how The People are ‘doing’ content, because logically, this should inform the content that organisations should produce.  The theory tells us that this content won’t look like the type of content we have been accustomed to produce, but what about the reality?  Well, the reality is that the most valuable piece of content in the world tells you how to donate a car in Dallas.  Or more precisely, this piece of content is what the world’s leading social content manufacturer, Demand Media, worked out would generate the most revenue via associated advertising back in October 2009 (as highlighted in this excellent Wired article).   This wasn’t something that Demand Media derived via a lengthy or complex piece of research, it just happened to be the piece of content that its algorithms defined as the most valuable at that particular time.  Today, the answer will be different.  Demand Media doesn’t have an agenda other than making money by producing content.  It doesn’t have any editorial or subject considerations, it simply has a set of algorithms which tell it which bits of content to make in order to garner the most associated advertising revenue. It is not a newspaper or TV station, its content doesn’t live in a place or on a site, it lives only in search.  But the content that it makes, therefore, is actually a very good indicator of what content is actually popular and actively circulating within the digital space.  And this content is simply the answers to questions, because this reflects what is really happening within social media.  People are asking each other questions: “how do I do this?”, “where do I get one of those?”, “what about this?”  These are very specific questions demanding very specific answers.  Critically, almost none of the content organisations are accustomed to producing is anywhere nearly relevant or specific enough to provide these answers, because, in accordance with the old rules of mass marketing, we produced single messages that were designed to be seen by lots of people at the same time.  We didn’t (couldn’t) produce highly tailored messages designed to be picked-up by very few people at any one time, albeit something which could attract a larger audience over an extended period of time.

Here is a practical illustration.  I have been doing some work with a large firm of lawyers.  Their digital approach to date had been, sensibly enough, aligned against a search strategy that assumed that people were looking for a large firm of reputable lawyers.  The problem, though, was that in the social space, no-one was asking this question.  There was no place where a conversation about the best large legal firms was actually happening.  But was happening was that people were asking questions about specific aspects of the law – either within defined communities or via Google.  Simply rocking-up to those places and trumpeting about what a great firm you were or what expertise you had, wasn’t going to work.  The only basis for establishing a credible presence in these spaces was by answering the questions people were asking.  Thus the strategy that we put in place was a process which allowed individual lawyers to start responding to these questions and, once you have created an answer to a popular question, you don’t need to keep repeating it, the answer becomes ‘socialised’ and thus remains current in all future conversations, even if the original creator is not actually present.

That is it really – content, in social media, has to be based around answering the questions people are asking.  It is no good rolling out swathes of traditional ‘look at me’ editorial, publishing huge amounts of stuff simply because you now can publish huge amounts of stuff.  We used to make 30 second ads.  Now we can make 30 minute ads, because the space we have is not limited by the need to rent an expensive distribution channel.  But that doesn’t mean we should make 30 minute ads – it would be better to make sixty 30 second answers.

It is strange how few organisations are taking the trouble to work out what questions people are asking for which their business can provide an answer.  Well, I guess it is not strange really, because this is not necessarily something we want to know about, either because providing the answers that are specific enough is not something we are set-up to do, or because the answers are not really sexy.  We would much prefer to continue to tell everyone how great we are, even if this is an answer to a question no-one ever asked.

This neatly takes us on to engagement.  I recently took a look at P&G’s UK and Ireland Facebook page for its Pampers brand.  Here it is.  It lands you on a custom built tab – i.e. a place which allows P&G to make the page look as much like a website, and as least like a Facebook page, as possible, except for the command to press the Like button, thus giving P&G a data capture opportunity.  I don’t support this approach, but let’s ignore that for the time being.  I then went to the more important place – the Wall.  (Update: this post was written pre the introduction of Facebook Timeline so the design is a little different now – however, the basic principle is the same).  This is important because the Wall allows you to get a sense of what is really happening around the page.  What was going on was quite interesting.  P&G were doing some bog-standard ‘Like harvesting’  – i.e. a post declaring “Click like if you would like an exclusive preview of something new and exciting from Pampers.” They were also doing other forms of data capture – running promotions to incentivise people to send them their email address.  But they were also doing stuff that was much more social.

  • Every Wednesday they convene a Pampers Coffee morning where people are encouraged to have a chat.  The last one of these gathered 108 comments or contributions.
  • They were hosting a webinar to discuss the issue of getting their baby a good night’s sleep.
  • They were also helping spread advice: “Hi everyone! Sarah, one of our mums, would like your advice.  Here 13 month LG screams really high pitched for no particular reason.  She wants to know how she can break this habit.  Has anyone else experienced this and what did you do?”  This gathered 63 responses.
  • They were also asking questions such as “What fun words does your LO ask or get mixed up can’t say properly?” (125 comments), or “What gets your baby excited?” (124 comments).

If you checked out Everyone’s posts, as distinct from the default Pampers’ posts, you could see that people were using the space as a place to ask each other questions – the issue of sleep again seemed to be the recurring theme.

All good stuff.  In many ways you could see this as text book usage of social media.  The brand was encouraging people to talk, it wasn’t pushing messages at them.  It was obeying the rules.  It was generating a good response – an average of 120+ responses on a post is pretty healthy.  It was perhaps being a little anti-social through its rather underhand data capture techniques and there is a possibility that the questions it was asking were linked to the nascent creation of future campaigns, either for Pampers or for other P&G brands.  But that is just a quibble really.

The big question though, the question that I suspect is increasingly going to be asked about social media, is So What?  How was all this engagement actually selling more Pampers?  While the levels of response Pampers was generating was quite large in a social context they were tiny in the context of the total number of actual or potential Pampers consumers.  There was also the question of relevance.  Most of the stuff they were talking about was of relevance to the ‘target audience’ as Pampers would define it, i.e. parents with babies.  But it wasn’t relevant to the product – i.e. nappies / diapers.  So both the quantity and quality of engagement they were generating was low.  For a nappy, manufacturer to host a conversation with a few hundred mothers about getting babies to sleep, isn’t going to move the needle on anything – because it is neither relevant nor achieving scale.  It was OK to do this sort of stuff, essentially sponsoring conversations, when you were doing it in a mass distribution environment where all your audience could see it.  But Facebook is not a mass distribution environment.  The fact that a conversation is happening in a social network doesn’t mean that any positive sentiment you are generating will magically spread throughout the network and thus reach a significant proportion of your target audience.  The very nature of social media, small groups of people connecting with each other, makes it a very difficult medium to use to spread messages to lots of people, unlike traditional media which was designed to do this in order to overcome the economics of expensive distribution.

There is an exception to this, of course, and that is the ability of social media to spread contagion.  It is a paradox really, that 99.99% of everything that happens in social media stays within the boundaries of small groups and conversations.  But very occasionally things can break out of these confines, and when they do, they can spread incredibly rapidly, at a scale and cost effectiveness far greater than could have been achieved with any traditional media network.  However, the fact that these viral effects appear to be relatively common should not fool us into believing that they are anything but highly exceptional.  The only reason they appear ubiquitous is because of the incredible explosion in the quantity of information that is now being produced.  Virals are a bit like successful rock bands: there appear to be a lot of them around, but for every one successful band there are thousands of wannabees who never make it.  None-the-less, despite the exceptional nature of contagious activity, it is tremendously seductive to brands.  There are two reasons for this.  First, there is an obvious appeal in generating what is seen as free media.  In the old world, we made an ad and then had to spend many times the cost of making that ad buying the media to distribute it.  Now, we can make something and it costs us nothing to distribute it.  This is the attraction that is cited by the likes of P&G when talking about their Old Spice campaign of 2010.  P&G sees this campaign as being a success because, for a relatively small additional outlay, it created 1.8 billion impressions.

The second, perhaps more important, reason that viral activity is seductive, is because of its’ comfortable familiarity.  In the old world, marketing was based around putting single things (campaigns, messages, ‘impressions’ as P&G put it) in front of lots of people.  Getting the numbers was critical to success.  In social media, you can’t get the numbers, except by becoming viral – hence the conclusion that viral is the way to go in social media.  It allows us to delay the recognition that the social digital space is very different and continue to persist with the same types of activities, thinking and behaviours we are familiar with from the world of traditional marketing.  The problem, of course, is that you can’t base a strategy on the quest for contagion, in the same way as it would be foolish to plan your life on the basis of becoming a successful rock musician.

The other problem with contagion is that it not necessarily social.  A while back I was asked to speak at a beauty and cosmetics conference and therefore did some research into examples of usage of social media in this sector.  Naturally, I looked into the assumed success of the P&G Old Spice campaign to try and understand how this was working and what benefit it was likely to bring to P&G.  The interesting thing that I uncovered was that, despite the fact that the stated aim of the campaign was to create conversation between men and women about male fragrance, a quick monitoring exercise revealed that none of this was happening.  The vast majority of the conversation was about the ad or activity associated with it, such as creating spoofs.  No-one was talking about the brand and the only way the brand had worked out to talk to consumers was by pretending to be the man in the ad.  It did this either directly – making more than a hundred video responses featuring Isaiah Mustafa standing in a bathroom – or via a Twitter and Facebook presence where ‘the brand’ assumed the voice and attitude of a cool, black, sports jock.   So, the brand got its ‘impressions’ and the conventional brand benefits likely to be associated with this, but didn’t create anything that could be seen as social or sustainable.  In fact, the pretence involved in hiding behind an advertising character could be seen as actively anti-social.  It was also unable to repeat the exercise – subsequent ads and builds on the campaign have all basically flopped in the social digital space.  Also, alongside the cute spoofs made by 11 year-old boys as a present for their mum, there was stuff like this, which happened to be number three in a Google search for “Old Spice ad spoof” at the time I was looking.

Thus P&G, via its Old Spice and Pampers activity, neatly illustrates the problem with engagement in social media when you approach it without embracing how and why social media is different.  You either end up doing anti-social in front of lots of people, with minimal guarantees of success, or you do social in front of small groups of people in a way which doesn’t scale or create any other form of commercial benefit.

I think I will say that again in bold and italics.  You either end up doing anti-social in front of lots of people, with minimal guarantees of success, or you do social in front of small groups of people in a way which doesn’t scale or create any other form of commercial benefit.

How, therefore, should we ‘do’ engagement in social media.  We need to recognise that the type of engagement that is associated with large numbers is different from the type of engagement you can create with small groups.  When you are seeking big numbers, you can only ever expect, on average, very low levels of interest and engagement.  This is fine if this is enough to make sufficiently large numbers of people just a little bit more receptive to your offering, versus your competitors’.  And if you want to do large numbers, you should do it in an environment best adapted to work this way – i.e. the traditional one-to-many mass media and marketing environment.  Social media doesn’t ‘do’ big numbers, except in very exceptional circumstances (viral).  This doesn’t mean that you abandon the quest for contagion, you just don’t bet the farm on it.  Likewise it doesn’t mean that you can’t graft social media elements onto traditional campaigns – but what will happen when you do this is that social media invariably ends-up as your measurement metric, it won’t be the principal engine of engagement.  As one marketing director recently said to me, “I think Facebook is great because it allows me to see how people are reacting to my latest ad”.  Just because your Facebook likes are going up, this isn’t necessarily down to anything you are doing in Facebook, it is just a reflection of how people are feeling about your brand.  Likewise, chasing likes for their own sake, is a waste of time, other than for data capture (which is not, I would suggest, an especially social or sustainable use of Facebook).

This takes us to small groups.  Funnily enough, through our experience in traditional marketing, we already know how to ‘do’ small groups.  We call them focus groups – i.e. small groups of people, representative of our target audience, with whom we can have a great deal of engagement.  Crucially, the type of engagement we seek from focus groups is advice on how to do things better.  We don’t try and sell to the focus group, or see it as a sampling opportunity, because we know we can’t create sufficient scale to make this worthwhile.  We understand that when dealing with small groups, we have to do something else other than just make them feel nice about us, if we are create any commercial benefit.  However, we haven’t been able to export this learning into the social media space.  We somehow believe that because the (focus) group is now in Facebook, any warmth we generate will magically spread across a significant segment of our audience.  It won’t.  It may spread a bit more than was the case in a conventional focus group, but not that much more.  Instead, we end up generating the sort of engagement that only ever creates a benefit at scale – but without the scale (as in P&G Pampers).

So how do you get a scale effect, when dealing with small numbers?  Specifically, how do you do this in social media?    You do this by either finding the small group of people who are prepared to go out of their way to do something for your brand, or by responding to those people who have something to say about your brand.  It is important to realise that the former will only ever be a small group, although you may be able to reach the majority of them, and the latter will be a small group at any particular time, albeit one which potentially constitutes the whole of the larger group.  Or to put it another way, all of your consumers may, at some point, have something to say to you, but only a very small group of your consumers will ever want to have a significant or sustained relationship with you.  You will never be able to have a significant relationship with all of your consumers (#Kevin Roberts, #Lovemarks, #Fantasy, #Sorry).  This doesn’t just apply in social media – it is a basic truth of marketing, albeit one we never had to deal with when we lived in the hot-house environment of the expensive one-to-many mass message.

Looking first at your enduringly small group.  These are the people who are your real fans, those for whom the otherwise usually silly marketing lexicon of “passion” and “loyalty” actually applies.  (If you look at my previous discussion with Jonathan Mildenhall from Coca Cola – these were defined by the Man with The Red Van with the Coke Logo painted on it).  Within traditional marketing we were not really able to do anything with these people.  It was great to have them, but like Facebook likes, they represented the end of a process, not the beginning of one.  Even if we could find ways of reaching out to them, what we could get them to do was relatively limited.  They were probably consuming our product or service at maximum level.  Even if we could up their rate of purchase, this group would never be big enough for this to create a measurable increase in sales.  We could try and get them to be ambassadors or advocates, but again, it was difficult to link this to a multiplier effect which would have an impact on either sales or brand reputation.  So we tended to try and turn the spotlight on them, often by putting some of them in an ad or using their endorsement in other marketing messages, or else we just said thanks and left it at that.  Often, we didn’t even say thanks.

But now, with social media, we start to have that multiplier or, perhaps more importantly, we have the power that comes from connection.  These people can stop being individual fans and become connected fans – and connected fans can be encouraged to do stuff, beyond just sharing their interest or “passion”.  One of the first, but still also one of the best, case studies of how to do this is Lego Mindstorms.  They got groups of their most devoted fans to start to design new products.  Connected fans can become your eyes, ears and innovators – simply because they will enjoy doing this sort of stuff.  I often say that social media is actually best understood as a way in which you can get people, whom you don’t pay, to help you run your business.  Another famous example is Dell’s Idea Storm community – a process that crowdsources innovation.

Dell have extended this idea much further with their Customer Certified Solutions programme – a process whereby customers solve each-others’ problems.  This example also highlights another fact, which is that despite all the money and attention given to b2c social media ‘campaigns’, social media often works much better in the b2b environment, simply because the levels of shared interest and importance of service are actually much higher in b2b.  For example, “I got thirsty, I wanted a Coke, I drank the Coke, I got on with my day”, versus “I got sued, I needed a lawyer, I won my case, my business survived”.  Within b2b you frequently find a much higher order of needs (or technically a lower of needs if you follow the Maslow approach) and also, many more things to actually talk about (which is also relevant to the content issue).

This isn’t to say you can’t use social media to create engagement in the b2c environment (as Lego showed), but it does indicate that a b2c brand may be better advised to focus on the other type of engagement – i.e. the group drawn from all of your consumers, but defined by their desire at any given time, to actually say something about your brand.  Rather inconveniently, what they usually want to say, or the conversations they might want to have, are rarely the type of conversations you might want to have with them, in public anyway.  I.e. they will be asking questions (those questions again) such as “why isn’t this working?” or “when is the service going to be fixed?” or “why can’t you do this?”

Here is another example.  At the moment I am doing some work with a large, international, media organisation.  One of their stated objectives for social media, was to increase the size of their Facebook fan base.  They also wanted to look at crisis management, specifically what to do when people wrote negative things on their Facebook pages.  What we have done is challenge and unpick these objectives, recognising that people putting negative things on your Facebook page is only a crisis if you are trying to make your Facebook page a website – i.e. a destination to which you want to drive the maximum number of people, to receive highly crafted, one-to-many mass messages about the brand.  If you set the page up as a place where people can come to critique your product (TV programmes in this instance), negative comments are not a crisis, they are indicative of successful customer service – provided that you deal with them correctly.

It is interesting to study how customer service and complaint work in social media.  In at least nine times out of 10, you will find that what starts as a vitriolic rant about a product or service, ends-up very amiably, even if the original problem wasn’t fixed.  Once people discover that they are not dealing with a remote, inflexible, arrogant, anti-social organisation, their whole perspective changes.  They re-appraise the whole terms of engagement that they have with that organisation, once they know that it is available to talk to them at the times and in the places of their own choosing (not at the times and places of the brand’s choosing).

Now, at this point, you may well say, “where is the scale effect in that – surely this is just the same as P&G Pampers having those chats about sleeping babies on Facebook, or what we already do with our customer service phone line”.  The answer can be told via this advertising fairy tale.  Imagine there was a creative director who came to you saying they had created an ad so overwhelmingly compelling, that only one single exposure to it was all that was required to totally transform a potential customers’ or consumers’ engagement with the brand.  But, there is a catch – this ad can only ever be seen by one person at a time, if more than one person sees it, it just turns into a lemon (a bit like Cinderella’s coach after midnight).  However, the good thing is that there are still hundreds, maybe thousands, of opportunities that occur every day, to get this ad in front of individual people.  At this point, you are likely to be thinking – wow, shame we can’t just buy a super-bowl slot and rule the world, but if I can reach 1,000 of my potential consumers or customers, every day, 365 days per year.  And if the value of exposure to this is perhaps 100 times more effective than a standard “impression”, this starts to look pretty interesting.

Of course, the “ad” in this fairy tale is actually a genuine customer service conversation.  The problem with customer service, up until the advent of social media, was that it wasn’t scalable.  It was locked up in certain distribution channels – email and phone lines.  These distribution channels conditioned, or restricted, what we understood customer service to be, in much the same way as traditional media channels restricted our understanding of what content was.  Customer service was something we needed to do as one of the things necessary to preserve brand reputation, but it was never, of itself, going to move the needle upwards on brand reputation.  Therefore, it became a marginal activity, not a front-line marketing or communications tool.  However, social media has liberated customer service from these channels.  However, as with all traditional techniques, this doesn’t mean that the way we ‘do’ customer service in social media is simply to drag our old approach and techniques into the new space.  What we can now understand is that there is a huge customer service space out there, but we were never able to access the opportunities it presented when we were restricted by the usage of certain channels.  This was because we just never got exposure to 99.99 per cent of those occasions when people had questions or issues about our brand, and the tiny bit we did get exposure to was crippled by its requirement to use particular channels and had no multiplier effect attached to it.

But social media now gives customer service the multiplier effect – and that effect, as per the creative directors’ fairy tale, is that one exposure is 100 times more powerful than an ‘impression’ and we can do it thousands of times every day.  OK, to do it thousands of times per day requires some resource, but not as much as a super-bowl slot costs.

So, just imagine, instead of P&G Pampers hosting conversations about crying babies, Pampers was able to say to all of its consumers “if you want to talk to us about anything to do with nappies or our product – we are there.  You can use whatever channel you want, you don’t have to come and “join a conversation on our Facebook page” or follow us on Twitter, just throw your issue out there and we will pick it up.”  If any brand were able to make that claim, just think about how your relationship with it would be changed.  In fact, it is such a compelling claim, that I might feel inclined to make an ad about it – which also highlights another important point.  Advertising (and all the rest of traditional one-to-many mass marketing) hasn’t stopped working because social media has arrived.  The two approaches are completely different.  Ultimately, the key to successful marketing and communications going forward is to figure out how the two can complement each other, rather than try and turn one into the other.  Social media will change traditional marketing by allowing it to become much more adapted to what it does well (single message in front of lots of people), in much the same way that radio allowed newspapers to focus on what works best in print and TV allowed radio to focus on the strengths of its own particular means of distribution (i.e. the ability to listen to one thing while doing something else).  To use my favourite analogy, traditional media is like a fireworks display and social media is like a bonfire.  The two can work well side by side, but don’t try putting your fireworks on your bonfire.

This post is now far too long.  So, just to sum up.

Social media is different, it has a different set of rules and solves a different set of problems.  We therefore have to use it in a way that reflects these differences rather than trying to make it work like traditional media.

The best way to figure out how to use it is to take your lead from how the people you want to reach are using it, rather than using it in the way that accords with how we are accustomed to using traditional media channels.

The content you make has to be based around understanding and answering the questions for which your brand provides an answer – high volume but also highly specific, there is no point in simply pumping out a greater volume of traditional ‘look at me’ type editorial.

Social media hardly ever gives you numbers, so viral should never be the strategy.  The only thing that has really gone viral is the concept of customer service.

There are only two ways to generate commercial benefit from engagement: you either do something very in-depth with the very small group of people who represent your real brand loyalists, or you engage with potentially all of your consumers or customers, but only on their terms when they have something they want to say to you.  You don’t force a conversation upon them.

Very few organisations seem to have embraced these points – even the likes of P&G – although, no doubt, P&G will think they have cracked social media, after all 1.8 billion impressions is pretty cool.  I think the reason for this is that embracing and acting upon these points is uncomfortable and disruptive.  It means unlearning what we have learnt, and there are also many players out there who want to keep us in a state of ignorance.  However, it could be that P&G is right and I am wrong – I guess only time will tell.

6 comments

  1. Robin Houghton

    Great post Richard, with so many thoughtful insights. You’re so right about having to unpick a client’s expectations and goals in this area. I still struggle to convince sales people of the value of building individual relationships or of nurturing ‘off topic’ conversations that appear to be high maintenance and low converting. I like your summary of “You either end up doing anti-social in front of lots of people, with minimal guarantees of success, or you do social in front of small groups of people in a way which doesn’t scale or create any other form of commercial benefit” and I also agree that transparent customer service is one of the most powerful (and least appreciated) aspects of ‘doing’ social media. Many thanks for this post.

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