Apr 18, 2012

The 3 Cornerstones of Building Lasting Online Visibility

As people worldwide continue to flock to social networks like Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter (and Sina Weibo, Renren, Badoo and Orkut) the mechanics of news and information consumption continue to change.  For communicators, the implication is clear – in order to keep brands and messages visible to online audiences, they must practice truly agile engagement, building brand connections by combining real-time intelligence and using that information to swiftly inform their communications strategy in order to take advantage of opportunities as they arise.

Vaulting to the top of search engine results pages and generating the type of positive conversations online that contribute to the top line require two things: great content, and a well-established social graph for the brand.  I mention search engines in particular, because the calculus they employ to assign rank is dizzyingly complex, changes continually, and increasingly factors in fine details such as natural writing and related social buzz, in addition to more traditional factors such as the number of links pointing to the content or and the relevance of the content on related pages.  This new environment can pose real challenges for communicators seeking to slice through the noise and establish a signal. However, we can identify three key factors common to successful communications approaches and use them as a guide to getting visibility in search engines and generating social traction.  They are:

  • Knowing your audience
  • Generating interest in social networks
  • Cultivating credibility for your message.

At the outset, these three factors appear pretty simple, but in reality, there are no shortcuts to building lasting traction with your online constituents.  To gain a better perspective on why, let’s delve into the tactics underpinning each.

Knowing your audience:

For years we’ve been hearing social media gurus cite the value of listening, and they’re right, for a few reasons.  First and foremost, our audiences are setting the conversation agendas online. As organizations plan their communications strategies and start drafting the related content, it’s crucial to keep audience interest in mind.  Communicating from the audience perspective is crucial – doing so sends a strong signal to your marketplace that your brand is in tune and responsive.  Additionally, your chances of creating content that “sticks” is much better.  Tips for getting to know your audience better include:

  1. Use a social media monitoring dashboard to stay on top of conversation trends
  2. But don’t forget to drill down into focused groups and conversations,  such as those that emerge around a hashtag on Twitter, or engage in conversation on a forum or within a discussion group.
  3. Survey sales teams and customer service staff to surface key customer issues, desires and recurring questions – each represents

Generating interest in social networks

We’ve all heard the term “social graph” used to describe the personal networks of friends, family, peers and colleagues we build when we social networks.  It should be no surprise that your brand needs a social graph, too.   To understand why, we need to step back and think about online content is shared, and how people are using that information when making buying decisions.  Study after study reveals that people turn to their social graphs when researching a product or service prior to purchase – whether it’s a B2B or B2C buy.

“Forrester’s B2B Social Technographics data shows that business decision-makers use social media for business purposes, and when it comes to creating content and sharing opinions, they do it more for business than personal reasons,” noted Forrester’s Jeff Ernst in a blog post this week titled “Time To Shift B2B Social Media Marketing Focus From The “Media” To The “Social.”

From the brand standpoint, this is good news – but there is a caveat.  In order to develop your brand’s social graph, you have to give people a reason to follow/friend/like your brand. You have to get and keep their attention, and the brand needs to interact with them on a human level.

“You’ve got to get personal.” says Victoria Harres, PR Newswire’s director of audience development, and the architect of the @prnewswire presence on Twitter, which currently tallies more than 55,000 followers. “You have to find a way to connect with people on a deeper level than just your great content. This is not a job for an RSS feed or algorithms. This is a job for a real human being who can detect nuances, moods, opportunities for engagement. Someone — the right someone — who can embody the personality of your brand.”

Without taking the time to build your brand’s connections to your marketplace, you risk wasting time, energy and resource with social campaigns. An organization can broadcast messages all day long, but if no one is listening – and if no one Likes, Shares or Tweets the message – the returns on investment will be small. Taking the time to develop presence in the social media lives of your audience is the first step in building lasting online visibility for your brand.

Cultivating credibility
There’s another critical component in this mix, as well – credibility.  The content your brand publishes must be credible in order to earn the trust of your audience, as well as journalists and bloggers in the space.

Creating credible content hinges largely upon the first cornerstone – listening.  If you’re paying attention to what your audience is talking about, and the content you produce is aimed at being useful, solving problems and furthering conversation, then you’re well on your way to publishing the sort of information that people value.  Communicate from the customer perspective (e.g. solving their problems and making their lives easier) rather than the brand POV (e.g. focusing solely on selling stuff) and maintain transparency.  You’ll be rewarded when the content makes the leap from owned to earned, through your audience’s interactions with it.

Search engines notice when content is shared on social networks, interpreting that sharing as a form of recommendation between connected people.  Google, in particular, with its new “Search Plus Your World” focus, surfaces content shared by people in your social graph within search results.  Given this, engaging well connected influentials is even more important.

Pick up of stories by credible third parties, such as media outlets and bloggers, has always been an important PR goal.  In today’s digital environment,  pick up and mentions are important, as are links back to your organization’s web site.  Links from a credible site back to an online asset you’ve published – a press release, a blog post, a white paper, a landing page or a product page – are enormously valuable, informing search engines and driving qualified traffic to that site.

What does this mean for the communicator?  Simply put, publishing content that people will share on social networks, that bloggers will re-blog and that journalists will cover is the ultimate goal and will deliver the credibility that is a cornerstone of online visibility.

How it all works together

These three cornerstones don’t exist in parallel.  They are interconnected.  Through social listening, for example, you can find influential brand advocates, and then use relationships you develop with them to help build out your brand’s social graph and amplify your messages. Develop credibility with your online audiences, and they will show their approval by linking to your blog posts, sharing your press releases and re-tweeting your messages – developing the sort of signals that convey the sort of authority and authenticity that search engines notice and reward.  With care and feeding, your healthy and connected brand will generate lasting visibility with your audience and measurable outcomes for your organization.

Sarah Skerik is PR Newswire’s vice president of social media, and is the author of the free ebook Unlocking Social Media for PR.

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