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We may hear the words “secret decoder ring” and chuckle, yet many of us view social media marketing as some sort of encrypted medium.  Sure, we may be avid users of a variety of platforms to maintain friendships. When it comes to a business using social platforms, there may be intimidation, suspicion, even downright aversion.

Did You Know?

These children’s toys have not lost popularity since the 1930’s, and they are still sold in adult sizes with prices ranging from a mere $18 for a stainless steel version to upwards of $2,200 for a platinum version!

The Harvard Business Review published an article entitled Most Organizations Still Fear Social Media.  Why?  Simply put, they still view it as a “threat to productivity, intellectual capital, security, privacy, management authority, or regulatory compliance.” Balderdash! This is one of the most powerful highways of communication. So, where’s the on-ramp, how do you not get run over, or worse yet, driven by with no slowdown for attention?  What is the “decoder”?

The Foundation

Marketing in the traditional sense has often been a matter of giving the ad agency an idea of what you want your customers to know.  The agency comes back to you with a slick presentation that has color and a catchy phrase; if you like it, you sign the bottom line, and someone puts it out for public access.  But, there’s a disconnect between you and the customers.  They don’t know who you are or what you represent, only what you’re selling.  You assume the ad agency, if they are successful (meaning they have high-dollar clients) knows how to connect you with the right customers.  It’s a bit like a matchmaker setting up an arranged marriage where the two parties never meet until the wedding day, or in this case, point of sale.

This is one fault with much of social marketing today; companies will go straight from “hi, you just heard I exist,” to  “now please buy my product.”  Using the dating analogy, this is akin to saying “hi, I found you online, I think we should go to dinner and while we are there, discuss how many children we are going to have.”  Really?  We know you have more social finesse and cultivation than that.  

With increasing numbers of venues for marketing, this leads to more “noise” in the advertising world. It is similar to the fact that you can self-publish a book. This means more books, but it’s harder to tell the good from the bad. Social media creates a similar environment. There are more voices and more marketing, so you really have to make an effort to stand out.  Social media allows you more personal interactions which in turn afford you the opportunity to get to know your customers better and, as a result, better meet their needs and wants.

The Relationship

For starters, it’s not rocket surgery…

It’s as simple as “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  Imagine you are at a well-attended party. What would others think of you if, in that chatter-and-music-filled environment, you stood atop a chair and shouted your personal characteristics?  Yes, you might garner some momentary attention, possibly even of the security variety, but more than likely those around you would be put off.  It’s similar with blasting your message on social media.  It’s social media, not a billboard.  “Social” intrinsically has the ideas of interaction, cooperation, and interdependence.

So, how do you start?  Simply posting a social media presence, having a way for others to engage is not being social.  Think of standing in a corner at the party and not conversing with anyone; that stance is also likely to receive negative attention. So, engage in the same way you would in a face-to-face conversation.  Introduce yourself (briefly) and politely ask about the other person.  Do more listening than telling.  Don’t focus on the individual’s wallet; focus on the person’s “face”.  What are his or her expressions telling you?  And, finally show appreciation for whatever feedback, positive or negative, and express gratitude for being given the opportunity to serve the customer.  Think of the flight attendant who before landing courteously takes your trash with a chipper “thank you!”  

Serve others.  Don’t you appreciate it when someone at a party says to you, “hey, I’m going over to the bar to get myself something to drink, can I get you something?”  Immediately we feel special.  So too on social media.  Comment on other people’s blogs and make recommendations.  Add helpful information, and don’t make an egoistic pitch for your company.  There are not many things more offensive than selfish ambition.  

“The aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well the product or service fits him and sells itself.”

–Peter F. Drucker

Perhaps you’re fearful that you’ll blunder in this new landscape.  Don’t worry, you will!  Remember someone advising you when you were learning to drive, “It’s not if you’ll have an accident, it’s when”?  Some of the largest corporations out there have had some of the most memorable social media fallout.  What stands out to all of us is not so much what happened, but how it was dealt with.  Crickets are not the answer.

Case in point.  You may remember the ridiculous incident that occurred with a JetBlue flight attendant on a flight that landed at JFK.  The employee, reportedly angered by a passenger, used the plane’s public address system to discourteously announce that he was quitting!  Afterwards, he grabbed two beers, deployed one of the plane’s inflatable emergency chutes, and exited the aircraft.  Although we might find the incident humorous and share some vicarious feelings with our own employment, the event was a legal nightmare that needed to be handled.  It is generally agreed that JetBlue was slow to respond on social media…like 2 days slow.  However, due to their investment in social credibility over a number of years, and their adept manner at handling the matter, their social media shortcomings were forgiven, and their response was later praised.

“Sometimes the weird news is about us…Perhaps you heard a little story about one of our flight attendants? While we can’t discuss the details of what is an ongoing investigation, plenty of others have already formed opinions on the matter. Like the entire Internet…”

Excerpt from BlueTales, the corporate JetBlue Blog


Finally, for every individual that you courteously engage, there are many quiet observers who take note of your response.  If you handle difficult situations well, by simple observation, they too may become staunch advocates of your product and services.  

The Plan

As is true with in-person relationships, not all social media relationships can be maintained at the same level.  Some businesses have attempted a “pilot,” or foray, into the digital world, yet according the HBR article cited earlier, these attempts often don’t have success because they are restricted from growing in an organic manner.  Picture yourself being told, “I’ll go out with you on two dates, and we’ll have conversations about these five subjects.”  Oooh, be still my beating heart!!

Another social faux pas is seen when a company finds you through social media.  After you join one large social media platform, the corporation immediately sends an in-house email asking you to purchase their product.  Insight Strategy Group conducted a study with individuals ranging in age from 18 to 64 who responded that this strategy felt “invasive”.  Imagine yourself again at the party, seated with a group of friends, laughing, catching up on recent events, and a total stranger walks up, looks you in the eye and says, “Hi!  I overheard you went zip-lining in Yosemite.  I’ve got a timeshare in that area that I’m sure you would be interested in! Let me show you pictures!”  Perhaps you had only been doing research for your boss’s trip, and you have no interest in zip-lining! No doubt you would give your friends a look that communicated “Creeper!”  Not only did that marketer just sour you on his product, but also, he likely soured your friends as well.  

Additionally, it would be unwise, using Seth Godin’s illustration, for a man to walk into a bar and ask each woman seated at the bar for her hand in marriage. One size does not fill all; there must be a plan.  In Ted Rubin and Kathryn Rose’s book Return on Relationship, they suggest the following questions to discuss as a team before venturing into a social media platform.

  1. How complex will it be for us to establish and maintain a presence here?
  2. Are our top competitors represented here as well? How are they doing?
  3. Do the interest of most users here match those of our audience persona(s)?*
  4. How likely are we to build the best relationships with users of this platform?

Cautionary note… don’t apply these suggestions and not really mean it.  You have to be sincerely interested in your customers otherwise your efforts will come across as ingenuous and backfire on you.  So, with your team, do your research and look at what platforms would be best-suited for your business. Then, look at your audience and their interactions.  What are they asking for? How can you best serve them?  And, have a maintenance plan to keep those relationships healthy and sustained.  Yes, you can decode this new marketplace and have success.   

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