Social Media is not Pixie Dust

Social media continues to gain mainstream acceptance among the executive leadership of businesses and organizations. However, many (most?) leaders still do not understand social media and may not necessarily like it. However, they may concede where there is the proverbial smoke there must also be fire – and instinctively believe it is fire their organizations need to stay competitive.

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The reaction is often times to call in the human resources manager or director of communications and confidently mandate, “Get us some of that social media.” Unfortunately, a lack of understanding too often leads to the belief that social media is like Tinker Bell’s pixie dust: to have some sprinkled over your organization’s marketing plan magically makes you “fly” with your stakeholders.

Social media is not pixie dust and in fact is about as useful as a Ferrari at a tractor pull if there is not some strategic thought given to its introduction into an organization’s overall marketing communications and branding plans.

Here are five observations to consider when incorporating social media into an organizational initiative.

1. Executive leadership makes or breaks meaningful social media integration. It isn’t enough for an organization’s leader to authorize “getting some of that social media.” Verbal support with no understanding leaves those responsible for integrating social media into the overall marcomm plan in a tenuous position. For instance, many C-level executives do not fully understand that social media means frontline engagement with customers, stakeholders, constituents, passersby and anybody else. A great way to think of it is to insert “conversational” for “social” when talking about social media.

Social media holds an organization accountable to people. The reality is people are having the conversation with or without the organization’s involvement and it is the organization’s responsibility to engage. Frankly, if no one is having a conversation about you – good or bad – that may be a strong indication as to how little people have your organization “top of mind.”

But obviously engagement presents other challenges. Legal for instance. Most corporate attorneys revile social media and cite trade secrets and potential lawsuits as top reasons for throttling tools with proven success. Executive leadership can lighten the burden by first having a working understanding of social media and by granting communicators some freedom to experiment and build trust – both within the organization and beyond. Social media is a risk and can get messy, but building relationships with people is also the most effective way to build loyal supporters/customers.

2. Social media works best when integrated into a larger strategy. When many organizations add social media, it becomes about as complementary as the circus dancing bear at a ballet competition. Instead of one integrated communications, branding and marketing strategy (and let’s face it, it is all the same these days – or should be) the social media effort becomes a parallel track. In dysfunctional cases, social media is seen as competition by those working on the “traditional” side of the communications strategy. Integration should be a thoughtful process that merges both strategies into something new altogether. The objective is seamlessness across any number of entry points: organizational Website, Twitter, Facebook, blog, billboard, CEO’s remarks at the chamber of commerce luncheon or direct mail piece. The ideal is to draw people in and then through to other content.

Longer content engagement equals a higher probability of  relationship, and strategic integration increases the chances of both.

3. Clearly stated goals help manage the expectation of social media. Social media applied to an organization’s communications and marketing strategies does not ensure achievement of corporate goals. In fact, social media can’t compensate for the wrong goal. I once worked with a client who wanted to enlist a certain number of like-minded entities to participate in a particular emphasis, but the success of the emphasis was ultimately dependent upon the participation of people, not corporate units. Yes, it is possible for social media to drive entity enlistment, but the over-arching desire was the mass participation of individuals. The best use of social media is people-connecting, and corporate units could have been enlisted from a growing community.

4. It takes time to build a social media network (community). Yes, if you build it they will come; just don’t expect them by tomorrow morning. With seven billion-plus people in the world, every possible interest someone has is shared by someone else. However, unless the community is built around something like the latest Apple product, a celebrity, hottest rock band in the land or something else to which large groups of people simultaneously migrate, chances are perseverance is the best approach.

Think niche audiences: Ford Mustang lovers, backyard gardeners, families affected by cancer, youth group in a church group, pet owners, golfers, etc. The key is to create a foundational presence (i.e. Weblogs, Facebook pages and Twitter accounts) with people who share a similar interest. If you provide value and useful content to the community, it will participate. If not, you’re not providing leadership to your desired community. Like leadership guru, John Maxwell writes: “It’s not leadership if no one’s following. You’re simply going for a walk.”

5. Take social media offline. Don’t underestimate the power of a phone call when building a social media presence for your organization. Network offline with people you know who support your organization or initiative, or have an interest in the subject matter (like maybe a health and science reporter if what your organization does relates to field). Explain to each of them what you are trying to accomplish and ask for their support. Translated, support may simply be them mentioning your blog to their community, recommend you be followed on Twitter or give a plug for your Facebook page. You have to think like a media relations manager and go find influencers you can introduce to your community. Careful! If you do that, you better have the content to merit asking for access to their communities. If not, you risk the opposite effect: them driving people away from the community you are trying to build.

No, social media is not pixie dust, but when done well and as part of an integrated marketing and communications plan, it can certainly have a magical affect on the way your organization connects with its stakeholders.


I write...a lot, and use social and traditional media strategies to help people and organizations communicate better.

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