May 25, 2011

Social Media: A Simple Guide to “Getting It”

Unsure about taking the plunge? A more gradual approach is fine.

Social networks have upended many aspects of our lives – from how we stay in touch with friends and family, to how we consume information, stay on top of the news and purchase things.  Social media has also changed how companies sell, how they serve their customers, and how they communicate with their publics.   However, many public relations pros are still struggling when it comes to integrating social media into the daily practice of PR.   I’m going to devote a few blog posts to the integration of social media into the practice of public relations, and today, we’re going to talk about getting started.

If you’re one of those folks who set up a Twitter account, tweeted a couple things, followed a couple people and then abandoned the account after two weeks, these posts are for you. (Disclosure: I was there too!)

First and foremost, I think it’s important to note that I don’t consider social media a practice unto itself.  I believe the social layer will soon become as intrinsic to our every day lives and workflows as email, the telephone and search engines are today, and will soon be seen simply as another mechanism for communications, and finding things.

So, on to getting started.  Most social media guides will emphasize the importance of listening first, and I offer the same advice. Before you do a swan dive into the deep end of the social media pool, wade around in the shallow end first.   But before you even start monitoring social media for your brand, I think it’s important that you make the foray onto social networks yourself, and, once there, listen to and observe those around you.

Facebook: 

Become a fan of businesses and big brands you like on Facebook.  Observe how they interact with their audiences.  Notice which posts generate interaction (e.g. likes and comments) among the fans.  Notice which are largely ignored. If you need some suggestions, here are some good Facebook company pages to go observe:

  • Intel – with more than a million fans, the team at Intel have done a great job on their Facebook page. They’ve done some cool Facebook customization but I really want you to watch their Wall.  They are good at loading interesting content that drives fantastic interaction, and starting conversations.
  • Adobe Photoshop: Like Intel, Adobe has some nice customization.  Again, however, the real interaction is happening on their Wall.  This is another great example of a brand interacting with their audience (which is more than 2 million strong.)
  • Saddlers Row: At the opposite end of the business spectrum is Saddler’s Row, tack shop near my home. This is a small, local business that doesn’t have a huge marketing budget or social media experts on staff.  However, they are creative and human and their use of Facebook is inventive – they post about area events, poll their fans, and have sparked great interaction with a series of “field testers” – calling for people to test products and give feedback.  This is the “if they can do it so can you” example.

Important:  It is worth the time to customize your privacy settings, especially until you get the hang of Facebook.  Here’s a good Facebook settings privacy guide from the good folks at Mashable.

Blogs & Discussion Forums:

Pursue personal interests online.  I think this is a great way to observe social discussion and brand interactions from an objective perspective.  Find blogs and discussion forums relating to a hobby and tune in.   See how people act, and interact.  Watch how the community handles trolls. Notice whether or not any brands interact with the group, and whether or not the communications are well received. You’ll learn a lot about interactions in the social layer (and probably about your hobby, too!)

Case in point.  One of my own hobbies is finding new homes for race horses that are no longer competitive racers. Transitioning these animals from the race track to life as a riding horse is a process that involves training, changing their diets, and addressing minor problems common to horses coming off the track. I belong to several internet forums devoted to this pursuit.  Different feeds, drugs and therapies are often discussed.  One day someone started a discussion about a feed supplement from a popular supplier.  The supplier’s packaging had changed, and the daily dose packages were a real hassle to open.  A few others chimed in saying they had noticed the same thing.   General unhappiness with the supplier was percolating.  Within a few hours, a service rep from the supplier weighed in, noting that they had switched to compostable packaging, which was flimsier, and the glue used to seal the packing was too strong and hard to open.  They were in the process of switching to a new adhesive, and said that within month or so the problem should be remedied.  The discussion quickly changed tone – everyone liked the fact that the packaging could be composted and that the problem was being fixed.  And they loved the fact that the brand was listening and responded directly.

Believe me, there is something for everyone.  Just Google your interest and the word “forum” and you’ll find a group talking about your interests, whether that’s gluten free baking, wild mushroom hunting, any manner of crafts, motorcycle-rebuilding or model train choo-chooing.

Twitter: 

Sign up for Twitter, and have someone help you find interesting people who are talking about your industry or hobby to follow.  Or, if you’re afraid to ask, here’s a great beginner’s guide to using Twitter, again from Mashable.

Case in point:  My own husband was a vitriolic anti-Twitterer, until he got an iPad shortly before the NFL draft.  When he wasn’t looking, I set up a Twitter account for him, and found a bunch of NFL scouts, bloggers and draft prognosticators for him to follow.  I then loaded Flipboard, which turns a Twitter stream into a sleek interactive newsmagazine.  I handed him his iPad with his customized, up-to-minute NFL draft digest and blew his little mind.  Needless to say, he doesn’t fully get Twitter, but he’s now a fan.

Another case in point:  For someone whose title has “social media” in it, I was fairly late to Twitter.  I followed “best practices,” which include a lot of listening, replying and retweeting.  I also avidly read a variety of industry blogs, and would tweet interesting things I saw, which the authors appreciated.  It took a good six months, I’d say, but Twitter went from being something I was doing because frankly I had to do it to a totally indispensable network and resource.

Blog:

Create a free blog on WordPress (my favorite) or Tumblr (the current darling du jour) and start writing about something that interests you, preferably a topic you’re also following on Twitter.   Blogging regularly will deliver a couple benefits:

  • You will be amazed at how your writing improves.  You will be faster, more nimble and more creative if you are also blogging frequently on the side.  (I have two personal blogs and contribute frequently to this one.  I spend a lot of my free time writing, and my output is all the more readable for it.)
  • Tweet your posts, and share them on your Facebook page.  You’ll start to learn specifically how to tweet messages in a way that encourages people to read and interact with the information you’re putting forth in social networks – an important skill for any communicator these days.

So, if you haven’t taken the plunge into social media, now would be a good time to test the waters.  If you don’t learn to navigate this environment, chances are good that you’ll be swimming upstream professionally from this point forward.  Follow these steps, and learning about the social layer will be fun, intuitive and personally rewarding.  Let me know how you fare!

Need a pal?

If you need a friend as you start your journey or want to see how I spend my time in social networks, come find me – I’ve staked out space in most social networks, including:

Networks:

Twitter: @sarahskerik – I tweet about digital PR, social media and search.

Facebook: I use FB to keep up with friends and family. I don’t talk much shop here.

LinkedIn: Back to shop talk.  I use LinkedIn for professional networking.

Blogs:

Tumblr:  This may wind up being a photo blog, or I might abandon it. I don’t know yet.  I’m still thinking about it.  I’m much more active on the next two blogs (below), in addition to right here on Beyond PR, obviously:

CollectingTBs – my adventures with the aforementioned ex-racehorses

The FUNgrrl – I’m into foraging for wild mushrooms, and document my frequent failures and occasional finds here.

Next:  A simple guide to using professional networking sites like LinkedIn and Quora.

Author Sarah Skerik is PR Newswire’s vice president of social media.

Image courtesy of Flickr user familymwr

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