Editor’s note: Mark Pannell is a freelance social media consultant and occasional Spoke troublemaker. Kind of like the little brother we're glad we never had. In his nearly 35 years on this planet, Mark has spent time in the music industry, managed big box retail stores, and most recently, guided social media strategy at a creative marketing agency. In 1996, Mark was dubbed "Minister of Propaganda" by the drummer of the Detroit rock band Sponge. He's spent the last 14 years living up to that moniker.
Social Media Rock Stars. Digital Media Evangelists. Social Engagement Gurus. No matter what self-assigned fancy title is applied, this role can be simplified down to two words: conversation starter. If I’m doing my job right, this very blog post should spurn its own conversation in the form of comments below.
At the dawn of the internet, millions were made on the ability to create a website. A thorough knowledge of HTML was akin to being an early investor in Google. Today, the superheroes of the web are individuals with the ability to… get this… talk to people.
An entire field of work sprouted up around a little blue bird and a scrawny millionaire. And many practitioners of the craft have a single, unifying battle cry: “You’re doing it wrong.” What they’re really saying is, “You’re doing it wrong. I know how to do it right. Let’s get down to brass tacks. Send a P.O. now!”
The business cards in my pocket read “Social Media Strategist.” Yes, I’ve ridden on the wings of a little blue bird and developed a violently allergic reaction to whales. I’m a proponent of social engagement. I’m also a very big critic of the craft.
This advantageous case of multiple personality disorder makes me stand back and assess my own strategies and beliefs. “You’re doing it wrong” is an arrogant mantra for elitists. Let’s try, “There are aspects of your social engagement strategy which could use some improvement. Let’s take a look at three of them.” Yeah, it doesn’t have the same ring. I’ll work on that.
One: Social Engagement Doesn’t Have a URL
Social engagement is an attitude. It doesn’t reside on Facebook, Twitter, or any other platform. It can exist there, but not as a standalone entity. In its purest form, it’s simply part of an organization’s culture. The company that we social media types all love to reference is Zappos. By now, I’m sure most of you have heard the “I Heart Zappos” story. It’s become the stuff of legends.
The tale that we all adore and have taken creative liberties with over the years is the Zaz LaMarr story. In short, Zaz ordered a pair of shoes from Zappos. She requested a return and meant to send them back, but her mother passed away in the interim. At the risk of making my own creative enhancements to the story, I’ll let Zaz tell the rest:
“In May we had ordered several pairs of shoes from Zappos for my mom. She’d lost a lot of weight, and her old shoes were all too big. She had a whole new wardrobe of clothes in pretty colors that fit, so I wanted her to have some pretty shoes that fit, too, when I took her up to Oregon to stay where her sister is. Out of seven pairs, only two fit. Not bad considering she’d never been this thin, so I was winging it, and the return shipping is free.
The rest were here waiting to be returned. Because of various circumstances – lost label, my mom being hospitalized and me being away, the shoes were never sent back. There’s a time limit on the return of 15 days. Remember this. When you do a return to them, they pay the shipping, but you have to get the shoes to UPS yourself. Remember this, also.
When I came home this last time, I had an email from Zappos asking about the shoes, since they hadn’t received them. I was just back and not ready to deal with that, so I replied that my mom had died but that I’d send the shoes as soon as I could. They emailed back that they had arranged with UPS to pick up the shoes, so I wouldn’t have to take the time to do it myself. I was so touched. That’s going against corporate policy.
Yesterday, when I came home from town, a florist delivery man was just leaving. It was a beautiful arrangement in a basket with white lilies and roses and carnations. Big and lush and fragrant. I opened the card, and it was from Zappos. I burst into tears. I’m a sucker for kindness, and if that isn’t one of the nicest things I’ve ever had happen to me, I don’t know what is.”
I can’t think of a better definition of social engagement than that story. There was a personal connection between a brand and a customer; a connection that transformed that customer into a brand advocate for life. Now, here’s the kicker: What social network was used to reach that customer?
Zappos is so well-known for their outstanding service and dedication to customer satisfaction, and the story above is so frequently associated with social media, that we forget that no social networks were involved.
Here’s something you might not know about Zappos: All new employees are required to go through a four week customer loyalty program. Two of those weeks are spent in a call center, working directly with their customers. At the end of the four week training period, new employees are offered $2,000 to quit—to walk away from the job, no strings attached. They want to ensure that their employees are there for the love of the job, not just the money. The success that Zappos has achieved in the social space is a reflection of their culture.
If Twitter and Facebook went the way of the dinosaur tomorrow, that level of engagement would persist. How many companies can say that? An effective social presence is not dependent upon any one platform or combination of platforms. It’s an extension of an organization’s culture, online and off.
Two: Viewing “Community” Realistically
Quite possibly the most overused word since the dawn of social media marketing, “community” has become an ambiguous term used to describe various groups of people. As a point of reference, let’s look at the definition of the word:
A social, religious, occupational, or other group sharing common characteristics or interests and perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some respect from the larger society within which it exists.
That sounds an awful lot like another word that gets thrown around often: demographic. Before this section gets written off as cynicism, let me point out that online social communities are a wonderful thing, even those built around a brand. Some organizations value their customers’ opinions, love to address issues head-on, and do a fantastic job of rewarding loyalty to the brand.
The danger of “community” comes from blurring the lines between a real community and your organization’s Facebook fan page. When was the last time a member of your company’s online community invited you to a neighborhood cookout? To their son’s bar mitzvah?
If Moneybags McGillicutty’s House of Widgets was given an absolute guarantee, beyond a reasonable doubt, that none of their Facebook fans (or “Likers” now, I guess) would ever buy one of their products again, how much longer would that community be actively managed?
Pretending that your presence in the social space isn’t a method to raise brand awareness and, ultimately, increase sales is not transparency; it’s delusional thinking. Going back to Zappos, they publicly share their revenue successes and repeat buyer statistics. Their social community understands that the company would very much like for them to buy shoes from Zappos.
Consumers are intelligent enough to know that their favorite brands on Facebook want them to purchase their products. Real transparency is rooted in honesty. I’m certainly not advocating the use of social networks solely as a broadcast advertising medium. Just accept and respect the fact that people know why you’re there.
Three: Grand Openings vs. Soft Openings
Recently, Lee Odden from the Online Marketing Blog reached out to 40 thought leaders in the industry to get their thoughts on Social Media Strategy Before Tactics. A wide range of opinions were offered and the piece spurred an offline discussion between me and Head Spoker, Gene Powell. Initially, I fought tooth and nail for the merits of strategy leading tactics. But my history in retail management bubbled to the surface and quickly swayed my opinion into Gene’s corner.
Retailers love grand openings. They make huge events out of them. There’s face painting for the kids, pseudo-celebrities signing autographs, outrageous deals, and frequent giveaways. They throw their doors open and welcome the community to come see what they have to offer.
Many companies approach their arrival in the social space the same way. They invest thousands of dollars on Facebook fan page tabs, launch traditional advertising campaigns to promote their new presence, and print the URL’s on anything that doesn’t move. If we build it, they will come.
Have you ever stopped by a new store a couple days before their grand opening? You might just find that they’re open. Experienced retailers understand the importance of a “soft opening.” They quietly open shop to a much smaller crowd. Sometimes it’s in the form of a “friends and family” event. Sometimes they invite other local businesses to visit first. And still others just open the doors and see what happens.
The soft opening is a way to determine just how ready their staff is to accommodate business, what customers think of the atmosphere, and what last minute tweaks need to be made before the gala event to come. Any business new to the social space could learn from the soft opening method. Allowing strategy to lead tactics is fine if you’re 100% confident that the strategy will be effective. But is that ever a guarantee?
What’s wrong with setting up a minimalist Twitter profile or Facebook fan page to observe how your community will interact? More importantly, how will you respond? This “soft opening” approach might just reveal some surprises before thousands of dollars are spent on strategy.
These types of discussions are often boiled down to, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” Is a massive strategy developed to attract thousands of fans and followers? Or is the community built on a grassroots campaign and the strategy developed around what was learned during that process? It’s not the most exciting option, but more businesses (and the gurus they hire) could benefit from following the latter approach. There’s always time for a grand opening later.
Four: There is no four.
Not long ago, a friend of mine posted a picture of his grandfather’s automotive repair shop from the 1940’s. His business was successful and he was respected within his community. The children in the neighborhood also knew that if their bicycles were broken, he would fix them. And he did it for free. Why? It was the right thing to do.
That same logic speaks volumes about a company in the digital era. The difference is that word travels exponentially faster and farther today than it did in the 1940’s. Understanding that social engagement is platform-agnostic, that your communities are your customers, and that there’s nothing wrong with gradually entering this space can have a positive long-term impact on the perception of your brand. And maybe, from time to time, forget about ROI for a moment and do things just because they’re the right thing to do.