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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Social Media as Signaling Strategy

So, so, so much ink has been spilled on the "proper use" of social media for business.

And as I continue to replace football season with my new pastime, reviewing friends' marketing books, I expect to be seriously schooled soon by some of the best. I have three books by amazing social media experts on my shelf. It could have been fifty, no doubt.

So much ink on such a new topic. As Mitch Joel has noted, not a single "social media expert" has put in the Gladwellian 10,000 hours in the field that would be a prerequisite to being a true virtuoso. (Translation: hire one of them and place too much faith in them, and they could be fishing what's left of your company's debris out of the Pacific.)

I'm not a social media "expert," but for now, I can still be right about this.

In this glut of commentary, how does anyone make an original statement? I think perhaps by going extreme. Imagine Zero Social Media Usage. Imagine generating business without it.

In Meatball Sundae, Seth Godin went the polite route. He warned companies that grafting social media sprinkles on top of your existing organization would create a disconnect at best.

But in real life, Seth's reality speaks volumes. He's got one of the most popular blogs in the world, and has published dozens of books, probably a dozen bestsellers. And he doesn't tweet. Number of followers, zero.

So let's think about that extreme position applied to your company.

What if you just didn't do social media at all, and kept on doing the things you know generate leads, partnerships, repeat business, etc.?

Like email. Like buying advertising. Like "good old fashioned" word of mouth. Like trade shows. Like hiring people who are respected, who act as shining beacons for your company (and yes they are allowed to use social media in their own way, which creates a 'signaling effect' I discuss below.) You're telling me you've got all those channels figured out and fully optimized?

I hear what you're saying to yourself. Other people are saying stuff about you in social media: it's a huge task to manage this! You need to manage your reputation, both reactively and proactively. OK, fair enough. You need to *monitor* social media, and you need to maintain a good reputation. It's starting to get more complicated. But most of that falls into place if the individuals in your company come with the right toolkit: they're inherently approachable and online-communication-savvy. My point earlier when I wrote about Google, Zappos, and the "New PR," was that you can't credibly develop a company-wide PR 2.0 strategy, because social media is inherently about people, not companies. It may be agonizing to think that everyone in your company had better "get" the new reputation management, from the CEO right down to the engineers or baristas. But that's the way it is. Nothing -- no social media usage -- is better than letting someone screw it up royally, or artificially doing it as a "company." Remember? You can still sell beer on TV and software at trade shows?

In case it isn't clear, then: you'd better get the right people on the bus. You can't fake "people". Your people will either be good or horrible at social media brand creation. If horrible, then zero social media use is preferable. What about using it to promote themselves over your company? Do you think you can legislate that in your company? Sure: you can make all the draconian rules you want, if you pay six figure salaries and have free range quail in the lunchroom. Or maybe not even then. Maybe that's a separate post about the Art of Letting Go, and on that I may just disagree with @MarkEvans. If you had the right people on the bus in the first place, though, they wouldn't embarrass you horribly with online oversharing and drama. That eventually turns into a firing offence in many companies, whether or not anyone admits it.

I know what you're saying #2: good social media mentions may help you rank well in search engines in the future. Sure, that's an extension of off-page factors (such as links) that search engines use to figure out how to rank your content, etc. True. Important and fundamental. And you don't get everyone falling all over themselves to tweet about you overnight. It's part of full engagement with your marketplace, and creating something unique and valuable.

I know what you're saying to yourself #3: what if we wake up two years from now and it turns out we really should be using social media to win new customers, or for some other reason? Won't we be screwed? It takes time to genuinely build those loyal follower lists. Aha. Now, you're making sense. You do need to figure out social media as a hedge against being completely left behind in two years.

Most companies today go through that reasoning, and then they do it wrong. They put logos on their avatars. They talk about their new low calorie beer, ostensibly to customers who have opted in to hear all about it! They diligently try to build really big follower lists, waiting patiently for the day they can broadcast their marketing messages to everyone. Bzzzzt! Wrong! Why not just buy ads?

That's not how Tony Hsieh did it.

So that gets us back to the main point: the most impressive corporate uses of social media have not been for outbound marketing. They've been to make the individuals who run the company look like they get it, and to make companies more like people: approachable.

(There's nothing new about that. Media was social before it was "social media.")

Like being good-looking, toting a new smartphone with the latest apps, refreshing your website design, or choosing a good office location, social media savvy signals to the world that you've developed enough mastery of the world to be able to conduct business or personal relationships without tripping over your own shoelaces or running short of breath.

There's one more thing it can do for you. Help you plug into knowledge and further your career: as an individual. Smarter, more connected individuals don't just help themselves. They help their companies.

So that's it: social media can help you look hot, or at least to seem approachable. And it can assist you in your ongoing research so you don't look clueless, since networking plus information in the digital age is research on steroids. It can strengthen your "personal" brand(s), and help you to run with the pack, savvy-wise.

But as for using it for outbound marketing? Save the spam for later. Or how about never.

My hypothesis is that a handful of our experts may say just that in their books. Kevin Ryan once said it off the cuff to a room full of 400 marketers, or so I hear. Let's see if any experts really do agree with this. Saturday morning, the fall reading session commences.

Edit: I did a search for the title of this post to see if there were any exact matches of it online. Turns out Google had already indexed it, and (like Twitter) can tell you it was published "four minutes ago." The immediacy of social media, and the rush of real-time search, is cool too. Question though: did it make either of us money, or did I just waste my time posting this screen shot?

But seriously, that take is too prosaic by half. If everything happens much faster, then the cautious, laborious "targeted message" mentality of traditional public relations is fast growing obsolete. Social media savvy signals success. And those who panic under pressure (highly likely until we all have our 10,000 hours) aren't going to be great ambassadors for your company.

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