Thursday, February 4, 2010

Talk, talk...

Lately I've been spending a lot of time talking about social media as a powerful tool for small business and non-profit success.  For those looking for more specific public relations advice, don't worry, I have that covered.  I have two more interviews scheduled that will give more insight into local newsrooms, particularly, online news content and radio news.

In the meantime, I want to focus on an aspect of social media that I think many small businesses and non-profits overlook when putting together their campaigns.

In official terms, it's called a "conversation strategy," and it could be the most important aspect of your social media efforts; even more important than which tools you use.  I've written a lot about the "effective use of social media."  You've probably read that same line about a thousand times as well, if you've done much research on the subject online.

And, like many others like you, you've probably wondered, "what exactly does that mean?"  Certainly using social media effectively means a few things.  Such as:

1.  Using social media in concert with other platforms such as public relations and live events

2.  Using a variety of social media tools to reach targeted audiences

3.  Having a plan in mind to reach specific goals with your social media efforts

4.  Using those social media tools regularly to reach out to those audiences

5.  Being interactive and proactive when using those social media tools.

Most small businesses and non-profits do a good job, an excellent job even, in at least three out of the five items above.  Sometimes an organization might not have a clear plan with set goals in place before venturing into social media outreach.  Sometimes an organization doesn't coordinate their social media efforts with public relations or face to face community outreach events.  These same organizations, though will likely be using a variety of tools, and will be using them regularly, for instance. 

But the one area where I often see small businesss and non-profits falter is in the last item on the list.  They're not interactive or proactive in their efforts, making their social media campaign one-dimensional and therefore generally destined for failure.

Perhaps it's because they get lost in the meaning of being interactive and proactive.  Many of my clients feel that simply posting information on their Facebook page or Twittering about what's happening in their organization is being proactive and interactive.

Get out and be active:

I'm here to tell you that it's not.  It's time for some tough love and I'm here to let you know that you need to do more or else your social media efforts will fail.  I'm not talking about using social media even more than you already are.  I'm not saying you have to dedicate more hours to your efforts or spend more time doing research and shooting video and linking to Digg.  In fact, by doing more, you might actually end up doing less. 

Confused?  Don't be.  It's kind of like the old axiom, "work smarter, not harder."  All of your efforts on social media won't produce the kind of results you want unless you take an active role in the conversations you're having with potential customers, donors and other shareholders.

In other words, you need a "conversation strategy."  So what is a conversation strategy?  In many ways, it's a lot like putting together your story and message for a public relations campaign.  It should be part of your plans and goals when thinking about starting a social media campaign as well. 

Before you even start, you have to ask yourself, "what do I want to achieve with my social media efforts?"  I'm sure the general answer is something like, "increase foot traffic to my business, raise my profile, be exposed to a new potential customer base..." and so on.  But that's only one aspect of your plan and goals. 

Much like a news story, the what, where and who are easy to identify.  Where it gets interesting is the how and why.  In this case, the why has a double meaning and the how is key to your success.  Now ask yourself, "why am I venturing into social media and why would potential customers be interested in my efforts, my organization, my product or services?" 

Next question is, "HOW am I going to interest these potential customers in my organization, service or product by using social media?"  And here is where success begins.

Just like real life, only not:

Think about how many times you interact with individuals on a face to face level every day.  How many of those interactions are business-related?  How many are purely social?  If you own a small business or run a non-profit, it's doubtful you have a lot of "purely social" interactions.  Every time you talk with someone over coffee, at a party or in a bar, the subject of work often comes up.  And if you own your own business or run a non-profit, the nature of that conversation is very personal.

What do you say in these moments?  Do you simply say, "I run a deli downtown.  Today we're featuring corned beef and rye.  Say the word 'cat' and you'll get a free coke with every sandwich pruchase."  No, it's more likely you tell them what you do, and why you do it, and why you believe it's the best deli in town.  Social media is a lot like that conversation.  And small businesses are great at saying what they do and where they are, and what's happening at the moment, but they often miss out when it comes to telling people the "why's" and "how's". 

Listen, social media is just that.  It's social.  Meaning you should be involved in conversations with potential customers and shareholders.  Too often, though, small businesses and non-profits view social media as a one-way conversation.  Have you ever been in a conversation with someone who talk endlessly about themselves?  They talk about their troubles, the joys, their day-to-day activities, leaving no room for you to talk about what interests you or ask questions to find out if this is really the kind of person you want to be socializing with.

Social media is no different.  If all you do is post information about your organization, you're much like that person.  Or perhaps you're like that salesman you meet at a party who is in your face and spends the next two hours as they tell you everything you never wanted to know about life insurance, leaving you no time to ask questions or simply have a conversation.

Putting the strategy together:

A conversation strategy involves the simple decision to have conversations with others, and then it involves determining what kind of conversations you'd like to have.  When you're at a party, you probably find yourself gravitating to individuals who interest you, or hold similar beliefs and values, or are involved in the same activities as you are.  These links automatically give you something to talk about.  The conversations are two-way discussions, with questions being asked by all parties.

Social media is very similar.  I've already talked about finding similar groups on your various social media platforms.  This is important.  But even if you join the multitude of groups that are linked to your organization in some way, you still have to be intereactive within those groups to get any value from your association with those groups.

You have to ask questions of others, be available to be asked questions by group members and you have to be prepared to listen.  You also have to be able to involve yourself in conversations that don't immediately relate to your product or service.  Any time you can offer insight into a conversation based on your experience or values, you should.  It doesn't always have to be about you, in other words.  In this way, you'll become a known factor within your groups and in the realm of social media.  You don't have to be the life of the party, just someone others find interesting and want to talk to.  Eventually, these conversations will prove valuable in the relationships you build and the business it attracts.

Here are some tips to creating and implementing a conversation strategy from John Haydon, at www.johnhaydon.com, a social media website:

Creating a conversation strategy

  • Understand why they buy. The real reason. The one that has nothing to do with price or product. I have an iPod because it makes me look cool and work smarter.
  • Understand why they tell their friends. I’ve been telling all my friends about @foursquare because I want to be the first.
  • Know what’s engaging the customers of your competition. Is there something they’re saying that’s not being heard?
  • Talk to your employees. Beyond the paycheck and benefits – what’s the real reason they show up everyday at 8:30AM?
  • Talk face to face. Have coffee with some of your customers. Get to know their whole lives, not just the pain points you address with your product.
  • Listen. “It is so crucial to engaged conversations and so easily overlooked in our active, talk-focused society.” – Bonnie Koenig
  • Polarize. Can you sincerely talk about your beliefs to an extreme? Think Greenpeace and the GOP.
  • Use your divining rod. Find bloggers who are already passionate about that you do. How are they talking about it? How engaged are their readers?
  • Plan. Talk often with staff about the business. Listen to each other. Map out why these conversations matter and how you’ll start talking.
  • Be sincere. People can tell if you’re real. Make sincerity a key element in your strategy. And if it turns out that you can’t sincerely have conversations in a particular way, move on. Trashing a half-hearted conversation plan will save everyone headaches.
I agree with most of these tips.  I might not advise a client to be polarizing, at least not immediately as they being to venture into social media.  But understanding your audience, knowing what topics will interest them, listening and being sincere are all fantastic tips.

You can listen to them in a variety of ways, including offering polls, opening up your blog or Facebook page to questions, or simply asking questions of others on your Twitter.  People like to feel as if you're truly interested in their thoughts and opinions.

Listening is vital.  People want to know that you hear and understand what they are saying.  Whether it's complaints from customers, or concerns from potential customers or even praise, people want to know that their time isn't be wasted by talking with you.

Being sincere is also key.  One of the things I have always coached when dealing with clients in a public relations/news conference/interview setting is to be sincere.  If you're lying, or saying things you don't believe in, the public will know.  Much like dogs can sense fear, children can sense single people and cats can sense those allergic to them, the public can sense when you're not being genuine. 

In a lot of ways, the same things your mother told you when you were very young still apply today even if the conversations are in a virtual world rather than face to face.  If you don't mean it, don't say it.  If you say it, mean it.  Never lie, and if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all. 

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