In Social Media, be a Communicator, Not a Technologist

Man with Bullhorn

Communications is not based upon technology

It’s surprising how much, even in 2014, I talk about this.  To friends.  To colleagues.  And now, in blog posts.

I’ve had the good fortune wanderlust to work in three public relations/public affairs agencies, one international corporation that is about to be the largest IPO in history as well as two stints in the federal government – and a few other gigs.  I’ve been doing “online” since 1997, when Mark Zuckerberg was 13 years old.

“Back in the day” (my kids make the Grandpa Simpson voice when I use that expression), Grandpa Simpsonwhen I got started doing online public affairs, the cutting edge technology was the ability to enter your zip code and then generate an email to your elected representative.  On your 36000 baud modem.  Technology could NEVER get better than this, right?

Well, now there are countless publishing platforms in the hands of anyone (outside of China and other Communist countries) like WordPress, Facebook or Twitter in which you can spark communication with others.  Or entertain them.  Or influence them.  Or, as I have often done in the past, piss them off.

But even since 1997 in an industry where the only constant is change, there is one thing that has not, and never will change:  you have to be a good communicator first, and a technologist second.

Why good communications skills matter

If you aspire to be a social media expert, at the heart of what you will do is communication.  You’ll have one or more intended audiences, one or a set of messages, channels through which you will send these, and hopefully a way to measure the success of your efforts.  Period.  Full stop.

Disappointingly, what I still find is that many organizations (and scarily, employers looking to hire social media “experts”) are focus on is the wrong thing:  the bright, shiny social media platforms.

I can’t tell you how many times I have heard, usually from senior management who have just read a Wall Street Journal piece on the topic, “WE NEED TWITTER/FACEBOOK/PINTEREST“!”  That’s great. But a nicely done Facebook page is not going to help you achieve what you ultimately want to do, which is to use the channel to convey your (again, hopefully) carefully crafted message.  A social media plan chock full of tactics that are not first rooted in a communications strategy is like putting lipstick on a pig.

How this hurts companies

Far too often, when people within organizations get starry-eyed at the prospect of using a popular social media platform to disseminate critical messages, bad things happen, like:

  1. Hiring a “guru.” If a company (or a dumb-ass boss) becomes fixated on a piece of technology, they will likely hire someone who is expert in the technology, not in communications.  I think that we are, for the most part, moving past the era of companies hiring hipsters with soul patches who show up at work in pajamas and are hired based upon the number of Facebook fans they have, but if you fixate on wrong things, like pure use of the tools, you’ll miss the mark in hiring the right person to help you get your messages across.
  2. A revolving door. If you are, in fact, a communicator who happens to be good at social media and are instructed (as I have been) to launch a platform that you know is doomed to failure because it just doesn’t fit, this is demoralizing.  And sooner or later, when it fails (and it will), where will the blame land?  Squarely on your desk. This drives good, strategic thinkers out the door and results in a social media “brain drain.”  You’ll lose good, smart people.
  3. Overestimating the impact of  social media.  Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that your company fixates on a platform, your are good at communicating and connecting with your audience and you DO manage to generate a healthy number of Facebook and Twitter followers.  Good for you.  But what does this mean in terms of achieving communications objectives?  Usually, a lot of big numbers are good to present to management, but recent survey have shown two stark realities about these “big” numbers:
    1. SocialFlow conducted a study between April 1 and July 31 analyzing 1.6m organic posts from Twitter, Facebook and Google+.  Shockingly, they discovered that 99% of organic social posts create almost no engagement.  So amassing big numbers of fans does not mean that they will think, act on, or pass on the information that you push out via your social media channels.
    2. Again, in another recent study conducted by Brightedge revealed that what’s old is new again:  Google will drive more traffic to your web site than Facebook.  They found that organic search drives 51% Of traffic, social only 5%.

Does all of this mean that you should abandon ship and ditch all of your social media programs?   Hell, no.  It’s just important to a) keep this in mind when you are really thinking about your “large” audiences on Facebook and b) be very careful about the way that you communicate what success is to management (NOTE: you should have determined what “success” is BEFORE you launched your communications initiative).  I’ve written about good measurement many times before, but it still continues to be an issue in social media.

The wrap-up

For more than 100 years, communications professionals have been placing ads in newspapers, billboards at the side of highways, and now, content on social media platforms.  But what was true 100 years ago is still true today:  the ad, billboard or Like is not the important part of your communications or outreach efforts;  these are just channels.  The important part is crafting a good message and choosing the best tool to get it  to the people you want to reach.

What is old is new again.  Hopefully.

Image credit: Fitz Crittle Photography, via Flick Commons



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Six Tips For Establishing a Successful Organizational Blog


A Simple Blog

When I got back from Hong Kong and began writing online again, I was struck by the number of people whose blogs I used to follow who just stopped blogging.  It was with a tinge of sadness that I re-created my .rss feed to keep up on what is happening in social media from some really smart people.  Many of those voices whom I used for inspiration were gone.

That got me thinking.  If so many social media “A-listers” had stopped blogging, what was happening in corporate America?  I did a little research, and based upon information released last week from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth’s Center for Marketing Research, blogging by Fortune 500 companies in 2014 declined by three percent, to 31 percent of the companies on the list.

Here’s their data:

Fortune 500 Companies That Blog

I am biased because I do online communications for a living, but the above chart is surprising to me, not because of the three percent decline from 2013 to 2014, but by the still low numbers of large companies that do blog.  Why is it less than one third of Fortune 500 companies?

Because establishing and running a corporate blog is really hard.  Many people don’t do “hard.”

Compare the 31 percent adoption rate of blogging, to the social media adoption at the Fortune 500 companies:

  • 77 percent maintain active Twitter accounts,
  • 70 percent have Facebook pages and
  • 69 percent have YouTube accounts.

Why the vast disparity?  It’s a lot easier to put up 140 characters, a Facebook post or a quick video than do carry out all of the steps to have a successful organizational blog.

It’s hard to consistently produce content that people are interested in reading and that furthers your organization’s goals.  It’s hard to find the executive sponsors within corporations who see the value in the blogging.  And it’s even harder to teach those who are unfamiliar with it to be patient while you build an audience – and show some form of return on investment.  But there is a clear path forward if you decide to get your company moving.

How to Establish a Successful Organizational Blog

  1. Determine what you want to accomplish.  This is often the most overlooked step.  If you don’t know where you are going, you can’t know how to get there.  Do you want to sell more widgets, raise your online profile, or drive additional traffic to your web site?  Or all of the above?  Beginning a successful blog starts with figuring out why you do it in the first place.  It sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised at how infrequently I have seen this be part and parcel of a communications strategic planning process.  And I won’t even bring up measurement, because from time to time, you’ll have to justify the investment in blogging to the higher ups.
  2.  Get executive buy-in for your efforts.  Oh, the fights you’ll have.  You’ll need to fight with work with IT, whatever they call corporate communications at your employer (maybe it’s public relations, maybe it’s public affairs), legal, and each and every single person who gets tapped to write for the blog.  And when you you these fights meetings, you’ll find that it’s extraordinarily helpful to have an 800 pound gorilla in your corner in the way of an executive champion – someone who shares your vision. has your back and can help mediate disputes.
  3. Get legal approval for a blog, including your comments policies.  Aside from getting Legal’s approval just for the right to use a blogging platform to communicate externally, you’ll have to craft some language about things like privacy as well as comment policies.  Will you accept comments (and you should)?  How do you moderate them?  What crosses the line into a comment that you’ll delete, and how do you do so with legal approval?  How will you handle haters and trolls? So make friends with Legal early on in the process.
  4. Line up subject matter experts, teach them how to write for a blog and get them to produce regular content.  This is probably the most common reason why many blogs fail after a great launch or start.  They don’t get fed with content, the readers whom you built up stop visiting,  your audience – and your blog – wither away.  You need to feed the beast with compelling content that people want to read – and a big part of this is teaching those people who are expert at something at your organization how to write in a way that works for a blog.  Short, concise, lots of bullet points and a call-to-action at the end.  This is a skill that can be taught and learned.
  5. Establish an editorial calendar.  Similar to #5, you’ll want to map out, well in advance, what you are going to put on the blog, why, and who is going to write it.  Oh – and you’ll likely end up having to nag the hell out of people in the process.  Regular, quality content builds an audience.
  6. Stick with it long enough to ensure success.  This is another one of the reasons why so many corporate blogs are abandoned.  It’s takes a lot of time and effort to craft and online voice and even longer to get people to come read your content.  So think in terms of years, not months, before you begin building an audience.  Just because you don’t have immediate success doesn’t mean you won’t.  You have to stick to it.

Are these tips the magic elixir for 69% of Fortune 500 companies that don’t blog?  Not a chance, because there are a multitude of very valid reasons why many don’t invest in a blog.  Blogging is not for everyone.  But if your company is going to do it, do it right.

Image: Egozi, via Wikimedia Commons


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My (Podcast) Roundtable Rants, Part Deux

Man yelling

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of doing yet another fun and sometimes cantankerous Media Bullseye Roundtable podcast with my good friend, Chip Griffin, CEO and founder of the Custom Scoop media empire.

Among the topical issues that we covered were:

Crazy, right?

Have a listen here, or:


Image: DieselDemon, via Flickr Commons

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The Damage Done to the Ferguson Debate by Slactivism

Screen Shot 2014-08-28 at 7.45.14 PM
Social media can do a lot of good.  It can connect people, spawn romance, spread news before even major outlets have it, or contribute to the overthrow of dictators.  And depending upon your point of view, have a serious financial impact for non-profit fundraising  (see Ice Bucket Challenge, although while sometimes annoying, has received $94.3 million in donations compared to $2.7 million during the same time period last year (July 29 to August 27).

But I have become increasingly dismayed by what I view to be the damage that irresponsible use of social media has caused over the last couple of weeks, principally the situation in Ferguson, Missouri.  In my mind, people have increasingly made their social media properties billboards for the latest poorly-Photoshopped picture of a candle that make you feel like you’re a total jerk if you don’t JOIN the cause and pass on the aforementioned picture of the candle.

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, “slactivism” is a combination of the words “slacker” and “activist.”  Wikipedia defines slactivism as:

The word is usually considered a pejorative term that describes “feel-good” measures, in support of an issue or social cause, that have little or no practical effect other than to make the person doing it take satisfaction from the feeling they have contributed.

So picture someone sitting on their couch, perusing Facebook or Twitter, Liking, Sharing a picture of a sick child on Facebook, or re-tweeting something just because, for example, it has a hashtag that describes a situation that they feel passionate about – like #Ferguson.  And doing nothing else, but reveling in that self-congratulatory glow that can come only from having make yourself feel good about being an activist without even leaving your couch.  Oh – and pass the Fritos, please.

The slactivists have taken over the interwebs over the last several weeks.  And it’s not helping.


Over the last few weeks, #Ferguson has been a trending topic on Twitter and Facebook and has dominated the national news.  It’s a terrible situation and one that has yet to play out fully.

Why is slactivism a problem regarding Ferguson?

In order to make the situation better,  what we need is information, not uninformed opinion.  #Ferguson became a political statement.  “Hey, I hate the police/don’t hate the police, so I’m going to use #Ferguson in my tweet.”

Resolution in Ferguson will come from research, understanding, compassion and grasping the other person’s point of view, and right now, that ain’t happening.  Why?

Tony Haile is CEO of Chartbeat, a company that “…measure[s] what matters so you can take action when it matters.”  They gather data.  So I take Tony at his word on this.

In case you don’t want to investigate, trust me that most people don’t actually READ the articles or blog posts contained in the links that they share.  They read the headline, and whammo bammo, re-tweet done.   Slactivist pat on the back administered.  Back to the Fritos.  People are fanning the flames and passing along information based upon a hashtag or a few words in a tweet, and not on the more detailed information that often accompanies the link.

And in the process, this sort of slactivism can create a a trending topic on Twitter – making it possible for others to see the link and do the same.  And the situation becomes self-perpetuating.

Passing on #Ferguson without reading – and thinking about – the corresponding information is the offline equivalent of recommending a chiropractor to a friend based upon the name of the practice, without ever actually having visited the chiropractor.  But with much more serious consequences.

When people see a popular (or incendiary) hashtag, read a few words of a description in Twitter and then endorse the underlying content by re-tweeting it – this is slactivism accomplished.  And yes, “endorse.”  That’s why so many people like me are required by our employers to state that re-tweets do not equal endorsement.  Because that’s what people perceive.

Has there been some very good, compassionate discourse surrounding the situation in Ferguson?  Absolutely.  And I have read quite a bit of it.  And I have also been flamed on my Facebook page for expressing my views.  But where social media harms us is that it makes it so easy – SO TEMPTING –  to hit that “re-tweet,” Like or Share without even taking the time to even know the point of view or judging the credibility of the information that they are passing on.

At some point in this social media chain, people will read the information passed on via social media.  What  will this be?  What point of view will it present?  How will it help make things better (real activism), than clicking on something then moving on to see what’s new on Netflix (slactivism)?

The answer is that I sure don’t know.  But what I do know is that the noise to signal ratio around a topic like Ferguson can helped by people providing real-time, on the ground information using social media, but this can barely be one percent of instances.  The other 99% of the people are NOT there, and information that is being endorsed, shared and spread is not likely even be read by the person who is sharing it.

That’s sad.  That’s harmful.  And that is how social media is hurting – not helping – the situation in Ferguson.

Wanna feel good about yourself?  Be an activist.  Start a petition drive. Volunteer in a homeless shelter.  Want to be a couch potato, endorse  information that you haven’t even read, let alone considered?

Welcome to the wonderful world of slactivism.

Image: Peters Gadgets


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Hummus, social media and customer service

Sabra Hummus Logo

If the headline didn’t draw you in, then very little that I write will.  But inspired by Lindsay Bell’s post in today’s “Spin Sucks” about first poor, then better, then semi-competent customer service from Jawbone, I felt compelled to write this post.

And before going into extensive detail, I’ll let you know that I am the first person to speak up when something is not right – and I’m pissed.  Hell, just from posts on this blog alone, ask Lou Capozzi (and again) or Robert Scoble and again, and again. Or a host of other people whom I have pissed off.  But I believe that if you complain when something goes wrong, you are obligated to praise when something goes very right.

The story

You see, my son and I LOVE spicy food and we LOVE hummus.  So when we discovered Sabra’s jalapeño hummus, we were hooked.  We bought it at least a couple of times as week and, with mouths burning and eyes watering with every bite, we loved it.

Except – MYSTERY –  it went missing from our local grocery store about two months ago.  Every time I went there, I looked for it.  I NEEDED MY FIX.  The store people really didn’t care, so I decided to use some social media skillz and try to play detective.

I found Sabra’s Facebook page, and with low expectations, posted on their wall and asked  if they still carried by beloved, spicy little jalapeños mixed with savory chick pea goodness.  To my surprise, within hours, I got the following response:

Sabra Facebook Post
Sabra Facebook Post

Nice gesture.  They were friendly, sent me to another resource for help and they responded quickly.  And keep in mind, folks, that this is not a $100,000 purchase – it’s a $3.99 package of hummus.  I’m not a big dollar customer.

So I took their advice today and emailed customer service, again, like a lovesick teenager, inquiring as to the whereabouts of my beloved snack.  WITHIN TWO HOURS, I had the following response:

Hi Mark,

Thank you for writing. I’m very sorry for the confusion. I don’t know who would have told you that we’re still making this flavor, but the Jalapeño Hummus has been discontinued. Please know I will share your comments with our sales and marketing teams for any future consideration.

There are many reasons why a product may be discontinued, but it is usually because there aren’t enough consumers like you buying it. Sometimes stores stop carrying slower-selling items to make room for other products. When this happens, at too many stores, it’s difficult to continue making and selling the product.

Mark, I’m sending you a free product coupon so that you can try something new on us! You should receive it in about a week.

Thanks again for sharing your comments with us. I hope that one of our other dips will satisfy your taste buds.

Best regards,

[name redacted]
Sabra Consumer Relations

My Take-Aways

To deconstruct Sabra’s emailed response, they a) apologized for any confusion, b) explained why the product was discontinued (at some length) and c) even said that they were going to send me a “free product coupon so that you can try something new on us,” enticing me to find a substitute for my favorite kind.

This is what embodies how you use social media for good customer service:

  • Actively monitoring your social media properties
  • Responding quickly
  • Pointing customers to other sources to solve their problems, and
  • Ensuring that you actually HAVE the customer service infrastructure to back up the referral (which is not always the case).

Sabra did all of these things which I consider to be excellent customer service, but one that takes advantage of the power of social media to connect customers and corporations – and in a remarkably short amount of time.

So bravo on a social media listening and online customer service response done well, Sabra.  I can’t wait to try “something new.”

You should too.


P.S. –  I HAVE used Sabra’s corporate logo without their permission, but I plan to alert them to this post and and have linked the image to their corporate web site in the hopes that they can discover more, happy customers.  Sabra comms/legal people – if using the logo is a no-no, let me know and I will take it down.


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