Friday, July 29, 2011

With social media, companies should go all-in

I recently caught up with a communicator friend I hadn’t seen in a long time, and as will inevitably happen, we started talking about PR.

Specifically, we were talking about how important it is for businesses whose audiences are using social media to participate in social media – and the challenge that remains, especially in larger corporations, in persuading upper management that engaging with audiences online is worth the inherent risk.

“Even if they just opened a Twitter account and used it to blast out their news releases, it would be a start…” she said.

Social media requires two-way communication

I completely understand my friend’s frustration. She feels her client’s continued absence from Twitter and Facebook works against it, and she’s right. Her client is discussed openly on both platforms – customers talk about both good and bad experiences.

Some call the company out when they’re unhappy with their service, hoping it will respond to the public embarrassment and give them what they want. It’s what [some] people do on social media… it’s part of the deal.

But because my friend’s client isn’t there, it doesn’t respond. Occasionally an employee will catch something and try to address it from their personal account, but it isn’t anyone’s job to do so (that my friend is aware of, at any rate). There is no corporate account, so it’s just unaddressed ranting for the time being.

Unaddressed ranting voiced into the wilderness isn’t good for your brand. Unaddressed ranting to your face is worse.

Today, customers flaming a company on Twitter and Facebook potentially get the attention of any of their followers/friends who happen to be reading that post. It’s not great for the company, but unless the content of the post is egregious/embarrassing enough to go viral or get mainstream media attention, the damage is relatively limited. The complainer may add complaints about not getting any attention from the company, but the complaint can potentially do what the company wants it to do – just die.

It’s just one complaint, and people understand that even the best companies can’t satisfy everyone all the time. But when your customers’ Facebook feeds and Twitter timelines contain multiple “everyman” complaints about your company, and no-one seems to be getting any satisfaction, it can affect your brand.

While my friend saw it as a first step, I think a “placeholder” account that only blasts out corporate messages for the sake of being there, without engaging with customers, could be even worse for the brand.

Whether you mean it that way or not, a corporate account represents the company on a platform built for two-way communication.

Customers expect companies to engage in two-way conversations on Facebook and Twitter – that’s what those tools are for. You wouldn’t open a customer service desk and restrict the staff to providing pre-written advertising and corporate messages, because you know your customers would be offended by that. One-on-one communication should be a give-and-take.

Of course, some of the C-suite reluctance to green-light corporate social media accounts is because this isn’t really one-on-one: while it feels like one-on-one to the customer, it happens in front of an audience of (potentially) millions. It's risky.

We’re at a strange crossroads, where tweets and status updates from the corporation are expected to have all the background and credibility of its other corporate communications – but often need to be produced on-the-fly, around the clock, by the hundreds. It’s no small feat for a large company to begin using social media.

Eventually all companies will have to come on board

Social media isn’t a fad. The way we communicate and consume information has fundamentally changed in the last 10 years, and mobile technology is only advancing that evolution further.

Eventually, unless are they are without competition or stakeholders of any kind, even the largest, most risk-averse companies will have to get with the program… as uncomfortable as it may be.

There was a time not that long ago when communicators were working this hard to persuade their clients to build websites, using many of the same arguments we’re using now for social media.

“Online is where our customers are going to be! We need to be there!”

“Online is where our competitors are going to be! We need to be there!”

“Yes it will cost money, but it’ll cost more to leave our competitors and our customers alone there!”

Gradually, they got it.

It’s now standard for a company with a large customer base to have:

  • a website offering some kind of customer care (even if it's just a "contact us" email), and
  • a call/contact centre of some kind, and
  • a communications (PR/Corporate Communications) function.

Within a couple of years, tops, customer-focused companies won’t be able to get away with leaving social media off that list… for all the reasons we argued in favour of a website, above. Of course, there’s a new argument from the C-suite we need to address, now, too:

“Yes, our customers could use our social media sites to publicize their dissatisfaction with our services. But as it is, they're just using their own to do the same thing… and we have no way to respond.”

Ignoring the fact that people are complaining about you doesn’t change the fact that they’re complaining about you - or that others are hearing it. It just leaves your hands tied to address misinformation they may be spreading with their complaints, not to mention dealing with the issues they raise. And worst of all, it sends the message that you’re not interested in helping them.

Companies: if you have customers who are using social media, get on social media and communicate with them... before your competitors do it for you.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A great opportunity!

In PR, you'll get lots of great opportunities for great opportunities.

Our skills are "soft" -- most of the value of what we sell comes from inside our brains. We sell ideas and approaches, words and images. They're not hard goods with a wholesale cost and a mark-up.

We do things others value, but to which others don't always assign a dollar value.

If you ran a candy shop, people would likely expect to have to pay for the candy they bought in it. After all, you had to buy the candy from your distributor, you had to pay rent on the candy shop, it makes sense.

But when your inventory is in your mind, you're just walking around with it. As others sometimes see it, it's something you can just donate.

The Coordinator of the Creative Communications program at Red River College receives hundreds of requests for CreComm student volunteer work every year; individual instructors receive even more on top of that, and I'm certain the students themselves field even more. Each organization asking for help has a project that legitimately needs the work of a skilled communicator, and CreComm students are that, for sure.

But there are only so many hours in a day. The workload is heavy in our program, and some have to manage part-time jobs, too, not to mention trying to see their family and friends on occasion. While they might love a great "portfolio builder," they're short on time, and they unfortunately can't do it all.

We have a board at the College where we post volunteer opportunities that come in, and some of them do attract student volunteers. Given that the requests easily outnumber the students, though, many don't.

Not just a student problem

Professional communicators, and especially freelancers ("you have so much free time!") are often asked to do pro bono work -- and many (if not most) of us do.  I've done writing, project coordination, strategy development and social media work for non-profits at Lockstep, and have enjoyed both the experience of working with the organizations, and knowing I was helping out.

I've also had to decline some requests for volunteer work; when it comes down to it, I can't allow pro-bono work to interfere with my commitments to the College or to paying clients. It's always hard to say no: I've never been approached by an organization I didn't think could use the help. But it's a reality of business.

Choosing pro-bono work

Most of us would like to be able to help just about anyone (anyone with positive motives, that is); unfortunately, pro-bono work won't pay the mortgage. So we have to choose.

Everyone has different priorities, personally and professionally -- and those should guide you as you decide whether to do free work. But here are some questions you might ask yourself as you consider an opportunity.

1. Could this organization afford to pay someone to do this work? There are two angles here: making sure you're helping an organization that really needs the help, and not taking paying work away from yourself or a colleague by doing it for free.

2. Is this an organization I personally want to help? Choose organizations that do work you believe in; you'll do better work for them, and feel good about doing it. You'll also be prouder to showcase your work in your portfolio.

3. What exactly is expected of me? Get everything out on the table, and be specific about your deliverables and their deliverables. Make it clear up-front what's expected from everyone involved, so you know exactly (well, at least approximately) how much time this work will take. This isn't always the easiest part of the process, especially when you're dealing with volunteer boards who may have sketchy ideas about what they want from a communications perspective, but it's worth doing... for peace of mind on both sides of the table.

4. Will doing work for this organization help me network? Non-profits are full of smart, energetic, committed people who are well-connected to other similar people in the community. Look at who's involved with the organization and determine whether there's an opportunity for you to work with people who might be able to help you professionally down the road. After all, doing great pro-bono work for a cause they care about is a great way to show your skills and what kind of person you are.

5. Is there some way I can leverage the relationship to help my career? Some organizations have member newsletters, websites, social media properties etc. that can be used to help position you as a supporter and contributor to the cause, and to showcase your work. Don't be afraid to ask: an organization looking for free help should be willing to help you back, in return.

6. Will I have fun? Before taking on a volunteer gig, think about whether you'll enjoy it. If you don't, it'll be too tempting not to give it your best -- and that won't serve the organization or your reputation well.

Volunteer opportunities are fantastic ways to stretch your skill sets, build your portfolio, meet new people, try new things, and find new opportunities for down the line.

To make the most of them, treat your volunteer work as though you were being paid for it: be professional in every respect, from attitude to quality to timelines. You'll be happy you did.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Tire-kicking on Google+

Late last week, I succumbed to the temptation and joined Google+, the latest shiny new thing social media has to offer.

A word of warning before I begin: I am a beginner on this platform. I haven't spent more than a few hours on Google+, and so am no expert. If I get anything wrong in this post, please do me and my readers the favour of correcting me in the comments, below - thanks! has provided an overview of Google+ and what it offers compared to other social media networks like Facebook and Twitter; a more detailed review is posted here

My early impressions

I think Google+ has huge potential, if -- and it's a big if -- Google can get people to adopt it. 

Here's what I can already see being huge selling features.
  • Easy grouping of friends/followers/people. This is one of the big ones, for me. As an instructor in a college, I have a large number of students who are active in social media, many of whom follow me on Twitter for the benefit of the links I share, and many of whom also send friend requests on Facebook. To keep things fair and ensure no-one thinks any classmates have any "inside track" information others don't, I've declined current student Facebook requests (with an explanation as to why). If they still want to be Facebook friends after they graduate, I'm happy to add them - but not before then.  With Google+, I can easily categorize people according to the kinds of information I intend to share with them. I can create a circle for current students - and once they graduate, can move them out into my custom "Communicators" circle if I want to. WIth drag-and-drop functionality, it couldn't really be easier.
  • Easy selectiveness when posting to different groups of friends/followers/people. Related to my last point, if I want to post about something personal or family-related (I'm under no illusion that students who connect with me on social media for the PR-related links also want to know about all the cute things my kid says, cute as they may be), I can choose to only send it to my "Family" and "Friends" circles.  Some of my "Family" and "Friends" also qualify as "Communicators," who'd likely receive most of the links I currently send out on Twitter to PR-related content of interest, so they can be in both circles. At the other end, I have to think it would also make the experience more enjoyable for all my connections, because they're receiving less content from me that doesn't interest them.  Some of my Twitter followers would likely welcome my creation of a "Tennis" circle, saving them from having to read my cheers and rants during Grand Slam tournaments. And I could target administrative messages related to the Creative Communications program to students currently in it. Twitter's hashtag allows people to opt in to such messages today -- but it doesn't have a way for other followers to opt out, without unfollowing altogether (at least, to my knowledge).
  • Potential, down the road, to streamline the number of social networks you're on (i.e. saving time). Just think: if everyone was using Google+, you could check and post to one site, and reach all the people you want to reach with the content you feel they would be interested in. This wouldn't just translate into time saved toggling back and forth between platforms -- it could also reduce time spent trying to refer back to something. "Where did I read that? On Twitter? Facebook? LinkedIn?"
  • Group video chat. I watched my students this past winter tweet back and forth about school projects they were furiously working on, to deadline. I can only imagine a Google+ enabled class would have an even easier time of getting together to discuss ideas, issues, and what constitutes a typo late at night once everyone's left campus. Same goes, of course, for collaborators in the professional world, and anyone wanting to chat with others in different locations. Video chats involving parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles will be easier to manage here than getting everyone on Skype (at least, in my experience). Not having used the new Facebook video chat service yet, I can't speak to whether it's equivalent.
  • Integration between social and the rest of the content Google has access to. I haven't used it enough to really experience this yet, but if I'm reading Mashable correctly, Google+ will make it easier for you to find content that interests you, from both within and outside your social networks. If it's done right, this has the potential to make a social network even more useful, as we now won't be bound by the limitations of our networks.

But here's why I'm not calling the game for Google+ quite yet.

On top of Google's successful execution of this whole thing, it still relies on people to leave where they are and come to this new place -- not an easy sell.

Ask any marketer about the difference in the cost of keeping an existing customer vs. winning a new one, and you'll find out that getting people to leave things they know to try things they don't isn't easy. Add to that the "stickiness" factor inherent in Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn's existing networks, and it's even tougher.

Without the people you want to interact with on Google+, it really won't offer the value for you; it'll just be one more login to add to your social media cycle. 

With more than 750 million users worldwide, Facebook has a pretty good lock on us, at least in the short term. Here's a screen shot I grabbed earlier today from Facebook (you can find these and other stats here) that gives you a sense of the leg up Facebook currently enjoys over the new game in town (which, Mashable is reporting, at least one observer is estimating at almost 10 million users in a couple of weeks, which is nothing to sneeze at either!).

Facebook's recent launch of video chat powered by Skype is, I'm sure, meant to address the new competition, showing Facebook doesn't plan to give Google+ much slack.

But to my mind, Twitter has more to worry about than Facebook. Mathew Ingram writes a good article on looking at Twitter vs. Google+ (I was alerted to this article on Google+ this afternoon by blogger ChrisD) and I have to think Twitter has more to fear than Facebook because of the way we use it.

  • While Snooki may be using Twitter, your grandmother is likely on Facebook. 
  • I (mostly) use Twitter to share information of interest with people who share interests with me (public relations, tennis, Red River College); I (mostly) use Facebook to connect with family and friends about other stuff.

Why do I raise these points?

Your grandma, and many of my non-office-dwelling family and friends, aren't looking for all the functionality Google+ brings. They want news, and community, and photos, and Scrabble, and Farmville (yeesh). Right now, there's no reason for them to move over there.

Snooki and celebrity tweeters, on the other hand, want whatever platform will give them access to their fans. Office dwellers and digital road warriors want whatever will be most effective and efficient. Twitter's real-time, un-gated news feed has offered that until now -- and given everything else the new kid on the block is offering, I think Twitter may see the biggest migration to Google+.

It's back to experimenting for me. If you have observations to share or any corrections to make, please comment!