I have been putting food on the table using what is now called online/social media/digital since 1997 and I am often struck by no matter how things change, they remain the same. I am lucky enough to work in a field (social media) in which there is ALWAYS something new around the corner, but it is these bright, shiny objects that often lead to our downfall as practitioners.
I wrote about the topic all the way back in 2009, but many of the basic precepts on how to build a successful social media practice, whether in-house or at an agency, remain the same. Even as time has passed, it just convinces me more that the magic in the digital world is NOT in the bright, shiny objects, rather in their strategic application. In other words, you can have all of the Facebook or Snapchat skillz that one can muster, but if you do not have a fundamental understanding of communication or marketing or what your organization or client want to achieve (and how to define success), you will be doing digital or social for its own sake.
And you will quite possibly fail.
So here are a few thoughts on what I think makes for a successful social media offering, if you are doing so for an employer (in house) or for an agency (for clients). As always, I welcome your comments.
1. Always start with your organizational objectives.
The one thing that will keep you from jumping on the latest and greatest social media platform (remember Ello?) is one simple question: how does using this tool fit into helping my team achieve our organizational objectives? If you can make a business case about how something will lead to more engagement, dialogue or
interaction with the people with whom you want to dialogue, then you may be on to something.
If you want to show off that you are on the vanguard and use a tool simply because a competitor is using, it’s brand new or your CEO read about it in the Wall Street Journal that morning, well, that may or may not work for you. For example, what brands are starting to figure out now is Snapchat. But if your target audience is over 30, it’s time to move on and put your resources behind a medium where your audience congregates. Snapchat is not a fit. It’s that simple.
Bright, shiny ≠ what’s best for you and your employer.
2. Read, read, and then read some more.
Again, the up side to doing social media for a living is that the only constant is change. The down side is that you need to do a LOT of reading to keep up not just the tools, but the way that the industry is evolving. Intellectual curiosity is a must. Even when the hot platforms being introduced have leveled out, you still need to know how Facebook’s ever-changing algorithm could impact your client (um, pay-to-play is where it’s at), and when Twitter is finally going to build a Walled Garden around their data (it’s hard for me to see another successful revenue model). In short, you need to see the obvious and not-so-obvious trends that are unique to our industry.
And that trend might not be as obvious as you think. For example, last December, Pew Internet reported that cable and satellite providers continue to hemorrhage customers:
15% of American adults are now “cord cutters” – that is, they indicate that they once had a cable or satellite TV connection, but no longer subscribe. Another 9% of Americans have never had a cable or satellite subscription at all, meaning that a total of 24% of Americans currently do not subscribe to cable or satellite TV in their homes.”
If you work in the online environment, you need to not only be aware of this, but also recognize that YouTube, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu and others come via an Internet connection and think long and hard about what this means to your internal or external clients. The only way that you are going to be able to identify opportunities before others do is to stay current and think hard about the opportunities that are presented by trends.
3. Know that reputations can take decades to build, but can be taken down online in ten minutes.
In what is still a surprisingly underpopulated field of practice, online reputation management is where the rubber hits the road between knowing who is saying what about your organization or its people, when it matters, and if and when to react. Fifteen years ago, you had 24 hours to put out a press release. Now, when something goes very wrong online that threatens your organizational reputation, you need to:
- Spot that threat or opportunity through human means (good community managers) and/or technology (comprehensive monitoring tools);
- Know where the tipping point is – having an innate sense of if and when to respond or react;
- Have a list of people whom you can call upon who can either speak to the issue that is impacting your organization’s reputation;
- In the absence of #3, have a set of pre-approved messages based upon a good crisis communications plan that can at least show those who are watching online (and don’t forget that offline now follows online – traditional and print reporters now source leads from social media) that you acknowledge that there is a problem and you are sensitive to their concerns.
- Know that when a crisis really gets bad, the top person in your organization needs to be the one to respond, even if it’s a series of tweets. When someone goes very wrong in a crisis, people want to hear from the top person in your food chain.
4. Be a good internal communicator.
Ask any student who has ever taken a class with me, and they will probably roll their eyes because I have said this so many times: unless you are a sole practitioner, your most important audience is often internal. Especially in the world of social media, you are always teaching and selling, oftentimes to skeptical audiences. So if you want resources in order to get things done, you need to a) get people to like you, and b) communicate the value of social media in ways that people will understand. This can be as complex as putting together an all-emcompasing social media strategy or as simple as popping by a co-worker’s office to do a soft-sell on an idea that you are going to bring up in a meeting. Building coalitions in-house when you do social is critical, yet is often one of the most undervalued skills a social media communicator can have.
5. Groom the next generation of leadership so they can take your job.
This might seem a little counter-intuitive, but in many management positions that I have held, I have always thought that my job was to ensure that anyone who was interested and talented should be groomed to replace me one day. And “replacement” does not need to mean something negative. Many companies routinely spot good internal talent and move them to completely different areas outside of what they do. They know that you can teach someone to be a subject matter expert, but you cannot teach them to be smart.
Richard Branson’s quote sums up an excellent philosophy:
Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough so they don’t want to http://t.co/QHONOZYXEy
— Richard Branson (@richardbranson) March 27, 2014
Making every person on your team smarter and more empowered multiplies the strength of your communications team, even if you are only a team of two. So when you train people so well that they could leave (or take over your job) but incentivize them to stay, you have a winning combination and a much stronger team.
What it all comes down to:
These are just five elements in what could probably be 20 tips on how to build a very good internal or external social media practice, but in the end, it’s pretty simple:
- Be smart and well-read;
- Be a good internal communicator; and
- Make everyone around you smarter and better.
Building and sustaining a career in social media is not easy. But it’s even harder for those who don’t remember one of the most basic precepts of our profession: it’s the “social” in social media that truly matters.