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social media

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I’ve been a content marketing and social media professional for roughly the last six years. I was, and continue to be, excited about the potential of social media and content marketing to change the business world for the better. But these days, I cringe when I go on Facebook or Twitter. I find myself pondering a strange and uncomfortable question:

As human beings, are we ultimately unsuited to social media?

Self righteous indignation has become America’s national pastime. (Schadenfreude is a close second.) I’m not just talking about people complaining on Facebook about bad service. People really enjoy piling on when someone else makes a mistake. And a lot of websites and Facebook pages seem completely devoted to amplifying and broadcasting those mistakes.

Here’s an example: a few weeks ago I saw a status update from a young woman who said something disparaging about people who join the military. It was unfair, unwarranted, disrespectful and showed no gratitude for the sacrifice that the volunteer military makes to help keep us safe.

But ultimately, so what? I doubt more than a handful of people would’ve seen it if it hadn’t been picked up and spread. Of all the people I’ve met in my life who give less of a damn what idiots think of them, serving military personnel and veterans are at or near the top of that list. Regardless, one young woman said something stupid and thousands of people piled on, to the point where I was genuinely worried she might be getting death threats.

Is this really how we want to use a worldwide network of information and connection?

As for content marketing, we may as well replace the word “content” with “linkbait.” Yesterday, I saw a video showing people they were using little paper ketchup cups the wrong way. As I said when I shared it on Facebook, “If you’re creating content for people too stupid to use ketchup, how long are you going to stay in business?”

Marketers are seeing the value of content, but predictably have galloped right past the point of diminishing returns to the point of absurdity and eventually, destruction. How tired are you of headlines like, “This one guy did this one thing and what happened next is the most amazing thing that’s ever happened, and maybe somebody exploded, but actually they didn’t”?

Does anyone really think this is sustainable? Does anyone care?

We do know what is sustainable. We’ve known it in our hearts and in our guts, and we can finally prove it: giving your audience useful, interesting, well-written content that amuses and engages them while at the same time helps solve their business problems.

Why don’t more people do that all the time? Again, there’s a simple answer: because doing it is hard. But it’s the only thing that works if you want to build trust, build a reputation and build relationships.

I hope we can survive the coming backlash. Social media went through a backlash because it never lived up to the hype piled upon it by people who really didn’t know what it was. The same thing is happening with content marketing, and I’m afraid it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

If you want to do one thing to help, share good examples of useful, interesting content. The more we do that, the more we can all help prove that quality will win in the end.

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Today in North Carolina there was an Amber Alert for a one-year-old girl in a stolen car. The headlines in local media were along the lines of, “Search continues for missing High Point girl.”

I first saw the story on my iPhone, and I’m sure many others viewed it on a mobile device. To get the most potentially-important information, namely the description and license plate of the vehicle, you had to click through to read the story. I did, but I wonder how many others did.

The most helpful headline would have been, “Missing child in stolen white Suburban, NC license BJXXXXX.” (I’m not putting the actual plate number here as the girl has, thankfully, been found.) That would have provided useful information to someone who only read the headline.

In content marketing, we talk all the time about how to make our content easily consumable on mobile devices. Businesses are adapting their content for mobile consumption. It’s time for the media to do the same, even if just in cases of urgent need. A teaser headline may get more click throughs, but it may also make it more likely that vital information is ignored.

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Social media usage statistics for the month of July show that early adopters and influencers are leaving Facebook in favor of a new crop of social networks. These location-based food photo sharing apps place funny quotes on top of the picture, designed to attack people who don’t share the user’s political believes. The hottest one is called SaidNoOneEver. There is no Android app as of yet.

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There’s been a great deal of controversy about Facebook’s purchase of photo sharing site Instagram for $1 billion. As always, people are heralding it as a harbinger of a new social media bubble.

How can a site like Instagram possibly be worth that much, and how can it add to Facebook’s share value? But that’s the wrong question. The real question is, “How much is the future worth?”

Facebook is in the same league with Google and Apple as a company that transcends commerce and is defining how we live digitally. Steve Jobs didn’t make decisions based solely on immediate gain, as anyone who has read his biography knows. And I don’t think Mark Zuckerberg is making decisions based on share price. (I don’t claim to know anything more about him than anyone else who saw that movie, but I bet they have some interesting board meetings.)

Instagram has changed the way people share and engage around photos, and has brought together photography and mobile in a way that nothing else has. I’ve waited patiently for a good Flickr app for the iPhone. I finally got it with Instagram. I would go so far as to say Instagram is helping define a new visual paradigm for communication.

Facebook has so much money, that, like Google and Apple, they can afford to spend it on buying things that make sense, that are cool, that work, that define the future. Whatever Facebook does with Instagram, they own it now, and no one else will. In Zuckerberg’s mind, I’m sure that sounds like a bargain.

Now, when will Amazon buy Pinterest, and for how much? 2 billion?

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car lot signI just got a call from my local Subaru dealer. “We notice it’s been four years since you bought your Subaru and we just wanted to check in to see how everything is going.” It doesn’t take much to translate that into, “It’s a slow sales month and we’re going back through our records and calling people who might be ready to buy a new car.”

This is the only time in that four years that anyone from the dealership has contacted me, other than to send oil change coupons or follow up on service visits. Their attempt to “engage” with me felt spammy and one-sided, in no small part because it came out of the blue. I’m sure the strategy is “contact customers who might be ready to buy,” but in practice it becomes “contact customers every four years and start over again.”

By the time the sales process was complete, I had spent a fair amount of time with the salesperson, and we’d developed a bit of a rapport. That vanished the moment I drove off the lot. I can’t remember his name. If I wanted to buy a new car today, I wouldn’t have a clue how to find him. “Hi, I was in here four years ago and bought an Outback from a white guy, kind of young, about yay high, blue shirt. Is he around?”

The fact is, I did buy a new car about four months ago. And I test drove a Subaru. I suspect, knowing me, I probably talked about it online. If Whitey McBlueshirt had stayed connected with me, I might have bought a Subaru WRX from him instead of a VW GTI from another guy who dropped off the face of the Earth as soon as the ink was dry on the contract.

If you engage with your customers in an honest and mutually-beneficial way, they will appreciate it. If you build a relationship, there are many tools available to help you maintain it. If you repackage traditional, hackneyed, one-sided sales techniques with a veneer of “engagement,” all but the most naive will see through you.

image by s myers

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a very nice photo of a roseI’ve been tired of the arguments over “social media experts” for a long time. There’s also the recurring meme about people with unusual titles (ninja, guru) and that one bores me as well. If all you have to write about is semantics, dig a little deeper.

But here’s a nomenclature discussion that makes sense to me. The PR firm GolinHarris has tossed out their old title scheme and adopted a new one:

Strategists, who analyze a client’s business;

Creators, who develop new ideas and engage in brand storytelling;

Connectors, who reach target audiences through media and other channels;

Catalysts, who manage client relationships.

(Thanks, and a tip of the blog hat to Publicity Club of New England, where I found out about it.)

I’ve always been a big fan of clarity and saying what you mean. Those titles seem to me to say pretty clearly what those people do (with the possible exception of Catalyst—that one seems a little less descriptive and more like marketing speak).

With the speed at which things are changing in the communications and marketing world, and the different ways we are pursuing those activities, it makes sense to rethink the way we talk about what we do. Two of my three most recent titles didn’t exist five years ago.

The big question, of course, is will this provide clarity and value to clients, or will it confuse people? Regardless, it’s a bold step and one that seems to me to involve more than just semantics.

What do you think of those titles? And do you think we need new ones, or should we let the old ones evolve?

image by suchitra

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pushing a boulderI spent the last two days at the MarketingProfs B2B Forum in Boston. As always, it was an excellent event filled with great information and smart people willing to share their experience and expertise. In addition to leading a workshop and participating in the final wrap-up panel, I volunteered to do some “one-on-one therapy” sessions with conference attendees on the topic of enterprise social media structure, policies and integration (you know, the stuff we write about in The Executive’s Guide to Enterprise Social Media Strategy).

I spoke with half a dozen folks and was happily surprised at how far along they were. A year ago, many of the conversations around enterprise social media were pretty basic: Who should “own” it? Do we need to be on Facebook? But these folks came to me with very specific questions about staffing, generating and sharing content, tracking results and other nuts-and-bolts stuff. It was great fun.

I also spoke with several very smart folks who I really couldn’t help very much. Everything I suggested, they’d tried. They were intelligent and adventurous and read the right blogs and the right books and went to the right conferences. We struggled to come up with ideas to address their particular problems. In the end it came down, essentially, to “I work for a company (or a boss) that just doesn’t care or get it no matter how much I show them what our competitors are doing, or what the industry best practices are, or the conversations about our brand we’re ignoring.”

What do you do with that?

I know a lot of people in the enterprise social media world who have pushed similar boulders up similar hills and had great successes. They are people whose names you may know, and a lot are mentioned in our book, like Zena Weist and Bert DuMars and Nichole Kelly and Chris Moody and Lee Aase. (And some of them have changed jobs since the book was published.)

If you’re the person inside your company who has been pushing the social media boulder up the hill, I want you to know three things:

1. There aren’t many people like you.
2. Eventually the people standing in your way will know you’re right.
3. You are more valuable now than you’ve ever been.

It’s up to you, obviously, to decide how much boulder-pushing you want to do. Maybe you like your boulder. Maybe you like your hill. Maybe I’ve taken this analogy too far.

But if you’re beating your head against a wall and feeling like you’re failing, I’ll bet you’re not. You may think you’re doing it wrong, and I promise you, you’re not. If you’re thinking you could finally break through if you just worked harder or smarter or longer, that’s probably not it, either.

Maybe it’s just time to look for a new job.

image by Krikit

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roadsign for Fail RoadPeter Shankman has a post today about an ill-conceived comment posted to 7-11′s Facebook page. I haven’t researched it to find out what their reaction is, but we can guess based on past experience. They will issue an apology, and someone might even get fired.

Peter’s blog is full of comments from people discussing whether the comment is offensive, whether we’re being too PC and what this slip-up says about 7-11′s social media policies and corporate voice.

The issue raises lots of questions, but as to the question of “How did this happen?”, I can answer that one:

A person made a joke in an effort to amuse other people. It didn’t work.

Don’t suppose that’s ever happened to you?

Folks, we’ve got to get used to this. If we want brands to use social media and be more edgy, more interesting, more topical and more timely, they are going to screw up every now and then. If every screwup becomes a new target for America’s favorite pastime of self-righteous indignation, brands are going to stop trying.

Do we want every company communication in social media to be boring, bland and homogenized? If so, then let’s keep attacking them for every misstep.

When I worked for a small independent record label and music distribution company, I accidentally sent a newsletter to one of our artist lists where I got the name of his most recent album wrong. I immediately sent a follow-up email apologizing for the mistake and blaming it on a long day.

In the interim, at least three people wrote back calling me some variation of an idiot who deserved to lose his job for this grievous error. One of them, on reading my apology, wrote back again. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I’ve had a long day, too. There was no need for me to be so unpleasant.”

What happened to change his mind? My first email, in his mind, came from a faceless company. My second came from a person, and he could empathize with the idea of a person making a mistake.

Keep that in mind the next time some corporate tweet or status update rubs you the wrong way. It probably wasn’t written by a committee, but by a person trying his or her best.

image by fireflythegreat

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wow, those are some beautiful toolsWe’re having a lot of work done on our house, including turning our attic into my awesome home office/aerie/fortress of solitude. I like our contractor very much, but now that the work has stretched past two months, it’s starting to wear me down. Earlier this week we were talking about the schedule and without thinking, I said, “I’m really tired of having you guys here.” His very reasonable response was, “Yep, it’s not a convenience.”

I started thinking about the many little ways that this experience has been inconvenient, and some of them could be alleviated somewhat with freely available web tools. So, if you’re a contractor, here are some things you could do that I’m sure your customers would appreciate. They may not all involve social media per se, but the general principles are there.

1. I never know who’s going to be here when.

Once or twice a week, usually when one of us is on our way out the door, the contractor will tell me the upcoming schedule. I don’t write it down, so I certainly don’t remember it. How about putting the schedule in a Google Doc and updating it daily? Or a shared Google Calendar? That would require some extra time at the end of the day on the contractor’s part to update all the schedules for all jobs, but it would be well appreciated.

You could also create a Posterous blog just for this job, and the contractor, subs and homeowner could update that via email. Or a private Facebook group.

2. I don’t know who all these people are.

In the course of our various endeavors, there have been roughly 1,012 tool belt wearers in and out of the house. I have been introduced to all of them, but I’m afraid I’ve forgotten a lot of their names. (Although, given that this is the Chapel Hill area, I’ve known a few of them for 15+ years and one is a guitar player famous in the indie rock world).

Take a picture of the folks who are going to be working on my house with your cell phone, and post them somewhere. They could go on the Posterous blog or the Facebook group, too.

3. I’m not always here to answer questions, and even when I am, they don’t always get asked.

I spent 20 minutes talking to the painting contractor on Monday about what colors went where. On Wednesday his guys showed up without him, and painted one (thankfully small) hallway the wrong color. Again, how about a Google Doc with all the information that anyone can refer to?

4. How can I recommend you to my network if you’re not online?

Again, I’ve been very happy overall with our contractor. I would happily recommend him to my friends. If he had a Facebook page for his business, I would go there and like it, and leave a positive comment. But he doesn’t. I know, like everybody, he’s busy running his business and trying to have a life. But the hour that it would take him to set up a basic page would be time well spent, especially in this tech-heavy, relationship-oriented community.

There are lots of other tools that Google makes available for small and local business, and I’m finding I search for a lot more than just restaurants on Yelp. Plus, small businesses benefit from the Google juice they get from having searchable content on a blog or videos on YouTube, just like big businesses. There’s an electrician in town with a white truck that says www.chapelhillelectrician.com on one side and www.carrboroelectrician.com on the other. That’s a guy who understands the value of SEO to a local business.

But we’ll leave it at that for now. What suggestions would you have for local service providers that would make you a happier customer?

image by geishaboy500

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There’s a pizza place in my town that does a TGIM pizza special on Mondays. Great idea. I’ve always wondered why we celebrate Fridays when they don’t need anything more to make them special. Of all the pizza specials that are offered every week, this one stands out, because it’s different.

What can you do that’s unexpected, meets a need and delights people? Sure, that’s a broad and by no means original question. But narrow it down to social media. What are you doing now? Is it a surprise and a delight, or are you doing the same thing all your competitors are doing?

Take off your sales and marketing hat and put on your normal person hat. What do you want from a company with whom you have a relationship? What’s the one blog, Facebook page or Twitter feed you would miss the most? What real value are they giving you? What do you have that would be equally valuable to your customers?

Image by Matt Watts

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