Friday, March 26, 2010

Finding What Works in Social Media

Sometimes you just have to shake your head.  You know what I mean.  You put in hours, blood, sweat and (maybe) tears, building your social media campaign.  You target your audience, you hit all the key groups, you use various platforms and tie them together with a consistent message and interesting content and then you release it to the world.

And then you find out that what people are watching seems to have more to do with luck than with actual planning.  In other words, sometimes it all feels so futile.  This is the reaction I hear from clients all the time, particularly early on in campaigns.  They put together what they feel is a very solid social media effort, only to discover that viewers aren't immediately coming in droves to their website.  Instead they're watching completely random, albeit entertaining, videos on YouTube.

Here's an example.  These were two of the most popular downloaded videos on Thursday, March 25, 2010: (Thank you to Mashable.com for the links and the stats)

First up, a random moment between former Presidents Bush and Clinton while visiting Haiti:

Next up, something you've probably never seen before:

This can be discouraging, I know. It's easy to throw up your hands and simply exclaim, "I can't compete with a girl balancing 10 books on her head, reciting Pi and working a Rubik's Cube!" To be fair, not many folks can. That's some serious talent and should be enjoyed and honored in the only way we can in 2010; by copious amounts of sharing.

But before you toss your social media campaign as a flaming, heaping pile into the trash, let's step back and analyze these videos for a second.

One Wonders Why?

The first thing we have to do is ask ourselves, "Why are these videos so interesting?"  What is it about the two videos, each one completely different than the other, that makes them so downloadable and, more importantly, why are people sharing them at such high rates?

That's a fairly easy question to answer regarding the first video.  To begin with, it has two former U.S. Presidents.  Both Presidents were highly polarizing and controversial.  The video also is coming on the heels of a nasty fight, both in Congress and in the streets, over Health Care Reform.  We live in a highly politicized environment right now.  Americans are taking sides and girding for some contentious elections in six months.

Right now, anything depicting something political, particularly something that might show one political adversary "dissing" another one, will quickly make the rounds.  There's a built in audience for anything political, and it's a huge one.

The success of the second video is more of a mystery, but not a huge one.  To quote "Mashable" in its analysis: (click the link to see the entire article)

"The comments section of the video is flooded with marriage proposals, and currently it has been viewed more than 30,000 times. So why the recent spike in interest? Could be because Pi Day recently rolled around? Or could it be because spring has sprung and the Internet set is feeling amorous?"

So, it's the advent of Pi Day?  Real Public Relations thinks it has more to do with the audience and that fact that, well, it's just plain cool.  Geeks everywhere are sharing this video and admiring her big brains, combined with her obvious dexterity and balancing ability.  Really, there's no hard and fast way to quantify the success of this video.  Other than the "coolness" factor, this video is like a million other videos online with people showing off their, um, unusual, talents.

Here is another video I received yesterday from a friend:

Again, this is an example of a person showing of a very cool talent (yes, that's ONE guy doing both parts, and he's clearly pretty talented).  My friend sent this to me because she knows of my love of both musicals, television and is familiar of my lamenting of a lack of great TV Show theme songs in recent years.  I don't know how she found this video, but once she did, she "immediately thought of me," she said, and forwarded it to me. 

This is how viral works.  It connects with a specific audience and that audience then begins to click and share it with their friends, who also happen to fall into that particular audience.

Clearly, these videos work and take on a viral life of their own, meaning fleeting stardom for their creators.  But a closer look at the success of these videos can reveal an element of strategy and point to specific reasons why they're "going viral," even if the creators didn't plan on it.


For every video or social media campaign that goes viral or reaches high levels of success, there is an audience just waiting for it to happen.  In some, rare instances, viral success hinges solely on the unusual or cool factor.

But in most cases, there is a specific audience that finds the video or campaign irresistible, funny, touching or amazing.  Even the viral video of the kid with the light saber had built-in audiences.  Both sci-fi geeks AND parents found that video compelling for whatever reason. 

The trick is correctly targeting your audience.  In the case of the Pi Girl, the video was posted on a college board, then made its way to a science forum before exploding into a geek phenomenon.

There are always some topics that will garner interest.  Politics, religion, abortion (which encompasses both) and money/finances.  When I was working in news, I knew that any story covering one of those topics would immediately be of interest to our viewers and would result in tons of messages on our website.

They're Different:

All three of the videos I've posted above are unusual in the fact that you've probably never seen anything like them before.  They're new, they're fresh and they're fun or interesting.  But all three also have two other important factors in relation.

1.  They're not preachy - They are simply showing something and letting the audience judge.
2.  They're not TRYING to be funny - Different, yes, but not necessarily funny.

Comedy is hard.  Humor is subjective.  What is funny to me, may not be funny to you.  Interesting and clever will always, ALWAYS be more successful than someone trying to be funny.  That's because humor is so hit and miss.  As you put together your social media campaign, and start incorporating videos into your campaign, you may put something up that you think is funny, but to others it may be lame, or even offensive.  I'm not saying "don't be funny."  I AM saying "if you're going to try and be funny, then you'd better darn well be funny."


Of course, video isn't the only element of successful social media campaigns.  Your posts, your topics, your message and focus have to be interesting as well.  And this is where many small businesses and non-profits get into trouble.  They approach every day as the day before.  The trouble is, things change.  People's interest change from day to day, heck, from hour to hour. 

Your posts should try and relate to what people are talking about that day, that morning, that afternoon, that minute.  If people are talking about Tiger Woods, but you're talking about spring fashions, you're going to miss out on a huge potential audience.  You certainly may have a hardcore audience of fashionistas who will be interested, but everyone else will miss your post entirely. 

Of course, tying in every post to the popular interest of the day isn't always so easy.  For instance, if you run a deli, or a cleaners, or an auto shop, how do you tie your campaign into the Health Care discussion?  You could pick a side and align yourself with those who agree or disagree with reform.  This is risky, because you'll immediately alienate half of your audience.  OR, you could look at people's money situation and approach it from an economic point of view.  Eating, transportation, being clean and looking good are all important aspects of people's everyday lives. 

Perhaps, as a deli owner, you could discuss the fact that you'll be required to post nutrition information on your menu's and how you feel about that or how it might impact your bottom line.  As an auto mechanic, you might discuss how people will spend their money in terms of transportation, or how the new laws could impact auto-makers in general.  As the owners of a dry cleaners, why not talk about the health implications of clean clothes.  These may seem like a stretch, but the point is, you'll be couching your message, your goals and your online activities into the overall topic of interest, which will attract way more attention than if you just spent time talking about sandwiches, cars or clothes.

There are ways to find out what people are talking about that are easy, quick and free.  Perhaps the best way to check is to simply look online at your various social media platforms and find out what people are talking about.  This is a great gauge, although because most of these folks are your friends, it's a limited sample.

Best to go to your groups and watch the conversations there.  Twitter also has a trends section which will tell you what the most twittered about topics or words are.  By incorporating some of these words into your content, and then into the tags, you can garner more attention.

Just like when you're targeting news outlets when pitching your news story, you have to know what the hot button topics are.  In news, you have to tailor your pitches to relate to the news of the day.  You have to do the same thing when tailoring your daily social media efforts.

Be aware that trends will change, but you can also look ahead to see what people might be talking about.  Some looked ahead in February and early March knowing that the NCAA tournament will be taking place right now and put together a modest social media campaign to reach out to the vast audience that has a huge interest in the games.  Others look ahead to particular political activity, while still others look ahead and tailors their campaigns around holidays.

Whatever you do, it has to be current, and it has to relate to what people are talking about and what they're interested in.  Successful campaigns also keep in mind that "interesting and useful"works.

One final Note:

As I said earlier, it's easy to get discouraged early on with your social media campaigns.  But here's the secret.  Unless you're a Pepsi, or an APPLE, quality social media campaigns don't happen overnight.  The best ones take some time.  They start out small and, with work, dedication and daily maintenance, grow into something big.

If you put out a video and post to various platforms in a concise, well-thought-out way, using interesting and useful content, you are on the right track.  If you do all that and expect customers to be pounding down your door and flooding your website within a week, then you're going to get discouraged and quit on a promising campaign too early. 

Particularly early on, you have to judge your successes incrementally.  Are you getting more viewers than yesterday?  Are your sales up, even slightly, in your comparisons?  Are you starting to garner more interest from new areas?  The social media graph doesn't start at zero and suddenly shoot up to 100.  It starts at zero and goes up to 8, then back down to 6, then up to 15, then levels off, may dip a little then shoot up again. 

Your social media and PR efforts are not overnight fixes.  They are keys to long term success.  So go ahead, watch the Pi Girl, giggle at the singing hamster, watch "prankwars" with wonder and silently curse the lightsaber kid.  You can even hum the tune to "pants on the ground" but in the end, know that all of these viral oddities will quickly disappear from public view while your campaign will continue to steadily climb, attracting more attention and ultimately help you grow your organization.

Just stay on top of the trends while you're at it.

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