Over the last decade, many conversations that were once carried on in person, by phone or through words on paper have moved to the Internet. This new and rapidly evolving enterprise connects us across wider distances and at faster speeds. It has dramatically changed the way people share information and ideas and influence each other. Brian Solis’ book Engage! (2011) makes the case that we have no choice but to listen in and take part. Solis writes from a business perspective, but the lessons can be used by anyone or any group whose success or failure depends on what people are saying about them online.

Because the Internet is constantly evolving, successfully engaging means continually learning and adapting to new platforms and online cultures. Solis recommends this be done through anthropology, sociology, and ethnography, which is conducted through engagement and observation. This was an interesting theoretical standpoint, and was well supported by his arguments for social media observation, participation, and using feedback to revise strategy.

There’s a book by Marty Neumeier called The Brand Gap (2005) that drives home the point that a brand is determined by public perception: “A brand is not what you say it is. It’s what they say it is.” What people are saying on the Internet is a huge window into public perception. By listening in and participating in ways the public appreciates and values, a company can guide public sentiment in a more positive direction.

Solis’ Conversation Prism can be used to find out where on the web we can best represent our particular brand and message. We can observe the cultures within each platform and develop what’s called a “Conversation Index.” By performing a social audit – looking at specific keywords, what’s being said, how and when, the tone and language, who the thought leaders and trendsetters are – we get a better picture that serves as a starting point for our social media interaction. This Ted Talk by MIT’s Deb Roy is a fascinating visual model of how we can trace activity over a long period of time. Like Solis’ social audit analysis, we can create a landscape of activity and look at it from the perspectives of location, time, and content.

Solis argues that documentation lets us know what we can contribute, and where and when we have opportunities to do so. In combination with some serious and thoughtful consideration of its core values, a company can develop specific policies and a style guide. Documentation and planning help it to avoid undesirable brand representation, and synthesize its efforts to avoid overlapping content.

All this is great planning theory, but it is extremely rare for small businesses, non-profits and other smaller groups (like my client) to conduct this level of research prior to engaging online. This diagram shows just how complex the development and adaptation of a social media strategy can be. Nevertheless, they certainly would benefit by doing at least some research and monitoring.

Once  a solid plan is in place, content can be distributed to various online platforms through syndication of social objects and/or manual distribution. Then, aggregation tools such as activity streams and social media dashboards (along with dedicated content curation) can track the relevant web conversations about the company and its competitors.

Solis provides numerous examples of research and social media tools, but emphasizes that the tools are always changing, whereas the desire of people to communicate, receive attention and share gratitude is eternal. In this regard, he mentions the brilliance of the Facebook “like” button.  I found this a particularly strong point, not only because it provides for the personal gratification of endorsements, but also because it allows content to spread more broadly.

It’s critically important to listen to the dialogue already taking place, and to engineer a path for becoming part of it. This facilitates seamless integration, while moving the conversation in the desired direction.

This is especially true in reputation management – allow “the good, the bad, but not the ugly” to reside, according to Intel’s social media guidelines. The “ugly” refers to content that is either deeply offensive, off subject or out-of-place. Negative feedback should be responded to in a way that corrects misinformation kindly and earnestly, and promises to make any needed changes in the organization.

Solis explains how Twitter has fundamentally changed the way brands are perceived, and forced them to pay attention to and guide the conversation in a desirable direction. He argues that Twitter did this “singlehandedly,” but this article from the Corporate Eye blog discusses how Facebook analytics are now enabling business to easily track negative web-based brand commentary on Facebook.

Also, a company’s web content can’t simply promote products or services. It needs to serve customer needs by offering information, answers, and entertaining content, and respecting the audience. Consumers can readily detect and tend to disregard pure marketing. Nevertheless, they should be connected to an “endgame” or tangible action. For a business, this might be the purchasing of a product; for an advocacy organization, getting the user to sign a petition or write a letter to a member of Congress. Solis writes, “popularity is not influence. Influence is the ability to effect action.” An effective web presence entices some form of action from its audience.

More and more, people are congregating around ideas and interests, and through patterns of online behavior that are not dictated by demographic factors. Businesses, therefore, can’t simply market to demographic target audiences – the “one-to-many” approach formerly used. They now need to take part in the many-to-many model of social media communication surrounding interests and other psychological factors.

Regarding blogging, specifically, Solis argues that we have to earn our reach and influence by adding value, being genuine and transparent. We also need to be interesting, using, for example, images, videos, and other multimedia content. Rather than using blogs to extend marketing, companies should use them to humanize their brand, and demonstrate empathy for customer needs and desires.

This article from Social Media Today offers insight into another way to gain interest and attract users. With the enormously popular “meme,” the same funny picture gets captioned and recaptioned over and over, spreading across the Internet in a variety of adaptations. A company could use a meme to say something about itself, a product or technology.

Blogs can also be used to develop connections with other information sharers and opinion leaders. Linking to other blogs often helps generate relationships, as does communicating with others through the backchannel of messaging, and using a blogroll to create “tunnels” between blogs. And linking back to company blogs in external online activity also increases visibility.

This is something I’ve seen a lot in the organization I work for, Public Citizen. Our new media strategist is consistently working to develop relationships with influential, “lefty” political bloggers to increase our visibility, but also connect bloggers to our policy experts as an informational resource so that they can produce higher quality, higher impact pieces.

This semester, I’m working with Public Citizen’s infant formula marketing campaign, which seeks to get hospitals to stop giving out free formula samples and coupons to new mothers. The practice discourages breastfeeding, ends up costing mothers more (because they tend to stick with the familiar, but more expensive brands), and inserts commercialism improperly into a public health setting.

The campaign can learn from Solis’, teachings, even though it’s an advocacy and not a business effort. Solis offers several best practices that are effective for all bloggers, such as providing helpful information for website visitors, answering questions, outsourcing to experts and other bloggers for posts, developing relationships with other bloggers and opinion leaders, and tagging appropriately to improve social media optimization (SMO, search visibility).

Engage! is a great tool for companies, organizations, and other groups interested in wielding the opportunity of a robust online presence to make valuable connections and improve image. It’s written primarily for businesses, but the processes it endorses for tracking and becoming involved in web-based conversations are useful for anyone.

The take-home message is, don’t just jump into the vast pool without looking. Take time to see what’s in there and how it operates. Develop a plan. Assemble a team, if it’s available, and train all members. Track successes and failures, and revise the process accordingly. Learn from the feedback and evolve. And don’t expect to become a master – the landscape is always changing, at an ever-faster pace. The best we can do is to try and keep up.


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Filed under blogger outreach, blogging, infant formula marketing, Public Citizen, social media, social networks, web presence

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