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Social Media for Socializing or Marketing?

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Like many PR pros who have a budget (well, there’s a few of us, at least), I subscribe to a wonderful service called PROFNET (shout out to fellow PR pro Chris Stutz who introduced me to PROFNET about 14 years ago!) whereby reporters, freelancers, producers, and assorted journalists post their requests for experts and interviews. It’s a great way to pair up your clients with media who actually WANT to talk to them! Thanks to this service, and its comrade in arms, HARO (Help A Reporter Out), I’ve developed many working relationships with writers all across the country…funny, there are some folks that I have “known” for YEARS, but have never met, never seen, never even spoken to by phone, just via email and social media messaging. Which brings me to the subject of today’s blog.

Through PROFNET, I saw a query posted by one of my contacts, Fay Shapiro, seeking insights from communication professionals for a 500-word opinion piece on the topic, “Is social media really an effective marketing tool? Wasn’t the original intention of social media to, well, socialize?” Fay makes a good point. Go back a whopping 10 whole years (i.e. a blink of an eye) and it was MYSPACE that was all the rage, a place for adolescents to hang out, chat, and get away from nosy parents…until the meddling Establishment adults started taking it over. Then the kids all took off for FACEBOOK and MYSPACE metamorphisized into a specialty forum for musical artists, bands, etc.

Now the kids are starting to leave FACEBOOK for…well, not sure for what, maybe to actually, physically MEET AND TALK to each other (wouldn’t THAT be something), and now you can’t swing a disgruntled client without hitting a PR conference where the marquee topic is SOCIAL MEDIA.

Truth is, the “jury is still out” on the efficacy of social media when it comes to marketing. Like Fay says, social media was supposed to be about “socializing”….but that’s where the hook is. How often do we make decisions, major decisions, based on conversations we’ve had with friends and neighbors, chatting over lunch, at a ballgame, over the communal fence as it were? The most powerful promotional tool, the manner by which attitude and action are so often shaped, remains…WORD OF MOUTH. And social media is word of mouth for the 21st century.

The key to making it effective is finding a way to get YOUR message to come out of the virtual “mouths” of people you actually respect and put stock into. This is why Company A launching a FACEBOOK page and posting and posting and posting about all its various products DOES NOTHING in terms of marketing said company’s products/services. It comes across as so much “advertising,” i.e. you EXPECT Company A’s page to be filled with stuff saying how great Company A is—IT. HAS. NO. CREDIBILITY. However, if you can get a “Joe the Plumber” type, someone who just uses Company A’s products, to post something about how great it is, you’re more likely to listen..and even MORE likely to listen if you are a FRIEND of Joe, or perhaps even know him IN THE REAL WORLD.

This is the key as I say, but also the really tricky part about making social media truly effective as a marketing tool. If you want social media to work you must be INVESTED in it. You must post often, respond often, post on OTHER PEOPLE’s pages, you must be INVOLVED with what’s being posted/said online and it is always best to be PERSONAL, offer an OPINION, not just “Company A now has new Widgets! Check them out! Watch this video about our widgets! Aren’t our widgets awesome! Buy our widgets, buy, buy, buy!” You see that online and you think SPAM, quickly followed by “Go get stuffed, Company A, peddle your propaganda someplace else.”This is because the folks at Company A forgot that social media IS ABOUT SOCIALIZING. It's about making friends. Nobody wants a "friend" who only shows up to SELL YOU SOMETHING. I'm reminded of this hilarious scene from the film, GROUNDHOG DAY, as Bill Murray's character is accosted by his "friend, Ned": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gOwhG_y0HQg.

What I endeavor to do is to use my personal Facebook page as a way to build rapport with media and also members of the general public (particularly members of the general public who have large followings, i.e. if Company A’s FACEBOOK friends are 17 teenagers blogging in their parents' basements and their followers are just members of the local Dungeons and Dragons chapter, chances are your message isn’t being shared with anyone that’s going to help you make your sales quota).

People want THE REAL PERSON. This is why blogs that are ghostwritten by some poor PR schmuck on behalf of some big-deal celebrity disappear faster than dandelion fluff in the wind. They’re phony, and people can spot a phony A MILE AWAY. People want to hear from a living human being who has prejudices, opinions, ideas that don’t bear a corporate brand, who have a sense of humor, who are fun, smart…SOMEONE YOU’D WANT TO HANG OUT WITH…SOMEONE YOU’D WANT TO SOCIALIZE WITH. Hence, social media.

And this concept, naturally, scares the livin’ beejeezus out of Company A’s “suit squad,” the top execs, the “boys (and girls)on the board,” who don’t like the idea of having someone posting and connecting to current and potential clients without first all their comments going through a proper, PC-sanitation process. Why? Well, that’s because you have people who FORGET that while they are being sociable, they are also PROFESSIONALS. It takes a special balance between being REAL and being cognizant of the climate—social, economic, industry, market—in which you are working. And even people who make a living at PR can mess this up. Remember the huge 2013 fiasco involving PR pro Justine Sacco’s HIGHLY insensitive tweet about vacationing in Africa, “hope I don’t get AIDS…hey don’t worry, I’m white!” She was lambasted internationally, was fired before her vacation plane landed, and as this story reports, her own father called her “an idiot” http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2527913/Justine-Sacco-tweet-Going-Africa-Hope-I-dont-AIDS-causes-Twitter-outrage.html.

To use social media effectively, to get the true value from it…well, it’s a little like working for the bomb squad. It can be done, and it can be done well, but if you aren’t careful, if you relax too much, if you get too “buddy buddy” with your fellow posters, if you start to say EVERYTHING you REALLY THINK, well, the (bleep) can blow up in your face…and thus, in your CLIENT’s face.

Bottomline? What makes social media so appealing to the marketing world is also what makes it so potentially DANGEROUS. It can be a very effective marketing tool, but it’s not for the timid.

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