by Jim May, PR Manager

It’s amazing how many companies are caught up in the social media craze, while completely ignoring the plain meaning of the name of the medium. These folks are easy to spot. Look at a business’s Facebook page. Are 90% of the wall postings by a representative of the company? Even worse, are they all links to press releases, print ads and commercials? If so, that company doesn’t get it.

Now hop over to Twitter and look at some company feeds. How do the Tweets break down? Are they just a bunch of links to the aforementioned traditional messaging vehicles? Is the tone conversational or formal? Are any customers responding to the company’s Tweets? How many of the company’s Tweets are responding to customers? See where I’m going with this?

Yes, social media is exciting. Yes, it holds the potential to transform the way companies interact with their customers. It seems that just about everyone knows that much. Unfortunately, there are a whole lot of companies out there that have no idea why the phenomenon’s exciting or how it can transform customer relationships. They just know it’s something that everyone who’s anyone is doing and they’ll be damned if they’re going to be left behind. If you’re wondering if you’re one of those people, there’s a good chance you are. It’s ok. Relax. Let’s talk a bit about social media.

This Technology is About Community
Advertising is a one-way communication with the goal of getting customers to identify with a brand or product. Social media isn’t. At all. Some say it has more in common with customer service than with advertising. That’s definitely the case, but it’s still missing the mark. It’s a substantial evolutionary step beyond interacting with customers on a one-on-one basis.

Social media is all about community. Companies that want to have success in the medium need to really think about the ramifications of that statement. You might set up an online forum or Facebook profile, but once they’re out there, they belong to your customers and you’re just a participant. If you can’t accept this from the get-go, you’re not ready to participate in the technology.

Here’s a quick litmus test. Say a customer visits your Facebook wall and posts a lengthy rant about how they had a product fail and then received horrible customer service. Within a day, a couple more customers post that they’ve had similar experiences. Would you:

1. delete the post and pray that very few people saw it?
2. leave the post, but provide a strongly worded response indicating libelous statements may be met with legal action?
3. post an apology and tell the affected customers that if they provide their contact information, someone will be in touch to remedy the situation?

If you went with #3, congratulations, it sounds like you have a good grasp on the medium. If you picked either of the other two options, you’re not ready to play this game.

Companies have to realize that once you establish an online location for your customers to form a community, you’re no longer in control of what’s said about your brand. If you stamp out any whiff of dissent, customers will be quick to abandon the presence you’re trying to establish and your efforts will have amounted to a waste of time, at best. Even scarier, if customers have already started identifying with each other and building relationships and they see you ‘breaking the rules’ to preserve your image, there’s a good chance that they won’t just leave. They’ll form a new virtual meeting place that you don’t know about and can’t participate in.

The above scares the hell out of many executives. There’s an upside, though, and it’s a pretty big one. Say the hypothetical situation above actually occurred. If you’ve truly fostered an online community for your customers, guess what… they’ll come to your defense. They’ll respond with their own positive stories about your products and services and it’ll be far more credible than anything you possibly could have said. Yes, you may still want to post a quick ‘Sorry, give us a call,’ to the disgruntled party, but if your satisfied customers start talking, let them defend the brand. They’ll do a better job than you could ever hope to.

By now, I’m hoping anyone reading this understands that social media is about giving customers a place to connect and discuss your products. That said, I’m guessing at least some people would still think, ‘Bah, I don’t need to build a community. People are there and I just want to use these sites to expand my brand presence and drive sales.’ That’s all social media is to a fair number of executives. They’ll adapt or they’ll pull out of the medium. Establishing a profile on a social media site for any kind of push communication is going to be about as effective (and beloved) as cold-call telemarketing.

That’s all for this entry. Next week, I’ll be talking about different avenues of social media and how to select the right ones for your business. If you have any questions in the meantime, leave a comment or send me an email at

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