Tuesday, October 26, 2010

On Twitter, building it won't make them come

I've had a few conversations with communicators lately about communication strategies they've built or are building (around specific issues, to publicize events, to attract attention for an announcement), and in which they're identifying Twitter as a tactic.

When I ask how they're planning to use Twitter, they often say something like "Well, we'll set up a Twitter account, and then we'll send out our messages."

It's not as easy as that.

I wrote a post last month called What Twitter isn't, in which I talked about how best to approach tweeting (if your intention is to use Twitter for PR).

What I didn't discuss in that post, though, was when to set up your Twitter account, and how to use it.

When's the best time? A year ago. When's the next best time: now.

If you have any intention of using Twitter to communicate with your audiences (that is, once you've determined that your audiences are or will soon be using Twitter), establish your presence there now.

The day you have a message to share with your audiences is not the day to set up your Twitter account. Why? Because on Twitter, you need people to have chosen to "follow" you to get your messages.

On day one, there's a relatively limited number of people you can email to say "Hey, come follow me on Twitter, here's my @username" -- and frankly, you could just as easily share your messages with those people by email. Will those people follow you immediately? Who knows... and you're too busy getting your announcement out to really think about it too much.

If you set up your account in advance, you have the time to begin building your audience before you need it.

Because Twitter makes it so easy for users to share interesting tweets with their own followers through "re-tweeting," your "followers" list can grow quickly... but only if you're tweeting things others want to hear. If you tweet something I think my followers would value, I'll re-tweet it; then, they may check out your profile and decide to follow you themselves.

Followers follow for a reason.

People are busy. There may be some who follow you because they feel they should (because they have some more personal connection to you), but most will only choose to follow your tweets if your tweets offer them something they value.

Have a quick look at the small portion of my Twitter timeline from this afternoon, shown above.

Notice anything?

Each of those tweeters has provided a link to something they felt might interest their respective audiences.

You sometimes hear people say all you get on Twitter is "I had a nice sandwich for lunch" or "I need to change the oil in my car," and that it's a waste of time. My answer to that is that if you're following people who offer nothing more than daily inanities, it likely is a waste of your time.

But my next suggestion would be to stop following those people, and follow others who tweet information that has some value for you. It's not as though every tweet needs a link to something else; personal perspectives and observations can be valuable, too!

Just make sure yours offer something your audiences will want before you send them.

Think of your Twitter feed like a storefront.

Building a store on a busy street isn't enough to guarantee sales. If you want people to come in and buy something, you need to put something in the window that'll entice them.

Our PR and Ad majors did a short customer behaviour research project in a local shopping mall last week, and saw evidence of exactly what I'm talking about: retail customers respond to displays that promise something they want (whether it's a particular product, or a sale, or an experience).  Put something in the window they'll think is interesting, and they're far more likely to come in.

What does retail consumer behaviour have to do with Twitter?

Everything! Because retail consumers are people.

We need to stop thinking as though human nature is somehow left at the door of the office (or wherever you're not using your mobile device). People respond to what interests them, whether it's in a store or online. They will volunteer to hear a sales pitch (i.e. walk into a store or follow your Twitter account) if they think there is something valuable to be gained there.

So, give them something valuable.

As soon as you realize Twitter is going to be part of your strategy, get on it and start using it. If you've determined that Twitter is right for your plan, you've obviously been thinking about your audiences -- so start finding and sharing information those audiences might find interesting. Follow audience members you know, as well as others who influence them -- odds are, they'll look at your profile to see who you are. If they like what they see (i.e., they see some value in your tweets), they'll likely follow back: and presto, your network is building.

If you tweet and no-one is there to hear it, you haven't gotten any closer to achieving your communication objectives.

But if you build a Twitter feed that provides value to the audiences you want to reach, they'll be there when you need them.

Friday, October 15, 2010

In which I predict the future

This week, we read in the Winnipeg Free Press about a telecom company error that had reportedly caused automatic calls made by the re-election campaign of Winnipeg's incumbent Mayor, Sam Katz, to show up on Call Display as having come from the home of an everyday Winnipegger.

Embarrassing mix-up, sure. (And to the former telco spokesperson in me, particularly interesting, since the reporter never mentions which telecom provider was being blamed, or gives that telecom company the opportunity to comment. Must remember to ask the Journalism instructors about that.) But it happens.

A discussion about the incident with my first-year PR class, though, got me thinking about the future of "robocalls," as folks around here were calling them.

Personally, I've always disliked them.

I haven't received any of the calls in question in this mayoral campaign, but I have received automatically-dialed, pre-recorded calls from federal candidates, credit card companies and long-distance providers, and what I can only guess are scams (telling me I've won a cruise).

As soon as I hear there's a pre-recorded message at the other end, I hang up. And if the caller has been (smart?) enough to tell me who's calling in the first few seconds of the call, I also think about how little I appreciate that caller's decision to interrupt whatever I was doing to listen to his/her message.

Interestingly, pre-recorded messages don't bother me at work -- but then, "mass voicemail" messages sent in the workplace are generally related to work, and are picked up at the receiver's convenience, so don't seem like such an interruption.

In class, we discussed why this might be: students called the pre-recorded message calls "shady" and "cheap" -- and "falsely personal," which I think is the bottom line for me. Despite the ever-widening range of mass media available to us today, the home phone remains (for now, anyway) a device for personal communication.

Who listens to these messages?

Well, political/PR junkies and journalism students, for one. After all, this stuff is all great ammo.

But otherwise, I'd love to see some actual research on who 1) listens to and 2) is persuaded by pre-recorded messages "pushed" at audiences through the phone.

I'd assume the target audience is people who aren't going online and "pulling" messaging from candidates' websites, Facebook and Twitter feeds (such as they may be, in the case of this particular contest), listening to candidates' debates posted on radio station websites, etc.

In the Lockstep crystal ball...

As demographics shift and the majority of voters move into "information pull" mode, I see "robocalls" going the way of the dodo bird as a campaign tool,

That's not to say campaigners won't look to "push" any messaging -- but I'll bet they'll be doing it through means that are less intrusive on voters' time, and in ways that allow more efficient dialogue between candidate and voter: I'll push this information out, but you can read it when it's next convenient for you. And if you have any questions or want to engage, I'll be ready and waiting -- when it's convenient for you.

The credit card companies and the fly-by-night long distance providers and the scammy cruise vendors may find it worth the risk to annoy customers who wouldn't have bought in anyway, for the chance at catching those who might.  But politicians seeking election won't, I don't think, have that luxury forever.

Social media have spoiled us a bit, in that we now have pretty much anytime access to pretty much everything. The more audiences come to expect to be able to receive information on their own time, the more anyone wanting their attention will have to adapt.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Why would a PR guy love teaching so much?

I love my job(s).

By day (during the academic year), I teach Public Relations to 100 or so bright, enthusiastic, committed students at Red River College. By night (during the academic year) and during the summer, I do freelance communications consulting. Before coming to Red River, and launching my consulting business, and having my daughter, I worked in corporate PR for more than a decade - and never once, for a minute, was bored.

I love every aspect of PR work: the diversity of people, the issues, the brain puzzles, the gratification that comes with success - even the parts that are sometimes uncomfortable and rarely but occasionally terrifying.

But I love teaching here at the college, too. On a recent drive home, I started to wonder whether it was unusual that someone who was so in love with PR as a career would so quickly fall in love with teaching.

Am I fickle?  I don't think so. I worked in retail in school, and I didn't love that.

So what do teaching and PR have in common?

A lot, I think.

To me, teaching and PR both:

  1. require you to read your audiences, and challenge you to tailor your "pitch" to their interests and needs if you're going to be successful. 
  2. require you to employ persuasion -- whether it's to influence public opinion or to encourage a student to recognize the value in the curriculum.
  3. present you with challenges and puzzles every single day.
  4. provide the opportunity to meet new people and learn about their perspectives. 
  5. encourage you to take calculated risks.
  6. force you to become a more efficient communicator, and a comfortable public speaker.
  7. help you develop leadership skills.
  8. demand that you be credible.
  9. reward empathy, initiative, and extra effort.
  10. allow you to be a life-long learner.
What's not to love?