For once we may actually be a little ahead of the curve. Just a little. A very little. Or as I read on Twitter once, “if the clown shoes fit go ahead and slop around in them”.
Lots of our friends are entrepreneurs. Birds of a feather flock together, as they say. One of the big topics in our social circle lately has been, well, social media. Seems everyone is trying to figure out if and how to use the new tools that have come into vogue over the past year or so. And mostly all remain confused, many disappointed with their use of these things. But as we discuss these topics in our start-up circle, we realize we’ve actually gained some insights worth sharing from our ongoing social media experient.
We started using social media tools about two years ago, with this blog. About a year ago, we put our company on Facebook (OK, one of our customers did it for us – Thanks, Dave!), and started email blasts to opt-in customers (sign up on the widget bar on the right side of this blog). About nine months ago we started Tweeting. Along the way, we’ve dabbled with Digg, Technorati, Networked Blogs, Alltop and others. Just a couple months ago, we started a YouTube page. None of this was very long ago, but it was long enough to put us on the leading edge of technology adopters, and we have enough experience to reflect on some learnings. And even though we think we’ve learned some things, it doesn’t mean we always practice these learnings rigorously, or even that we’re right. So we thought we would share, and ask for others to share their experiences and feedback via comments here. Everything said here is JUST OUR OPINION (though we’ve heard similar things from our friends). We would love to hear from others. Here goes:
#11 Social Media Is No Longer Optional for Small Business. Get Over It.
Yeah, we all have too much to do. But today’s small company lives in an always-on, high-touch world. Your customers expect to interact with your Company, whether you like it or not. If you don’t show them the love they expect, they’ll find someone else who will. So you need to figure out how you’re going to engage, and communicate that to your customers by example.
#10. There’s a Social Media Tool For Every Job. Sort of.
Facebook, Twitter, and your blog are different in the way a wrench, pliers and a socket are different – each might be used to twist a nut off a bolt, but some are better than others in a given circumstance. And for some jobs, one or more of them may not work at all. Much has been written about the roles of specific social media tools, and we could never do it justice here. Research it, learn from others, and make your own decisions about how to use these tools yourself. But be thoughtful in your application of the different tools available, your selection may vary according to the type of business you’re in and the goals you’re trying to accomplish.
#9. Lurking. It’s Not Just For Voyeurs Anymore.
You’re a smart person. Twitter is just a 140-character canvas, shorter than a text message. How hard could this be? The urge to jump in with both feet to show the world how smart you are can be almost irresistible.
I urge you to resist anyway, at least for a little while. Online communities, just like their real-life analogs, can be complex things, full of unspoken conventions and social norms. Just look at the vocabulary on Twitter – RT, #hashtag, @name, FF, etc. – if you have any doubt. The way to learn those norms is to hang out. Be a fly on the digital wall. In time, usually days to weeks, you will understand the behaviors the community expects, rewards, or does not tolerate. I was fortunate to have learned this lesson back in the days of Usenet (before Google made it easy!), a collection of quirky forums in the wild west days of the internet, forums with names like alt.coffee, or rec.food.coffee. Those forums could be harsh on those who ignored their social conventions, but their tough love made many good online citizens whose names I see highly respected in other places today. Lurking on Usenet before participating was not just accepted, it was encouraged. Kids today, they just don’t know how to lurk anymore. It’s time we revived that lost art.
#8 Social Media Tools and Rules, They Keep A Changin’. Roll With It.
Bill Gates has been credited with a quote I love: “We always overestimate the change we’ll see in two years, and underestimate the change we’ll see in 10.”
Remember AOL “keywords”? Us, too. But working on your AOL keyword strategy today is kind of like trying to be the world’s best buggy whip manufacturer, you time has passed. I can’t predict what social media will look like in 10 years, but I’m pretty sure the word “Tweet”, unless we’re talking about birds, will be part of this decade’s trivia. It’s funny to pretend you’re some kind of technology luddite, making jokes about letting your teenager set up your wireless network (remember when that joke was letting them program your VCR?). It’s not funny to actually BE a technology luddite if you’re an entrepreneur. You don’t have to be an early adopter, or an expert, or even like everything you learn about and use. But keep up with tools that millions of people are using, for God’s sake, as some are bound to be your customers. At least know what those tools are and why people like them – for example, I’m not a fan of the iPhone or the iPod (I do have a smart phone and a music player, I just haven’t drank Apple’s Kool-Aid), though I’ve tried them both and understand why some people may like them.
#7 Have a Social Media Strategy. Then Try to Stick With It
This one is hard, I admit. Figuring out why, which, and how you will use these tools is not easy. Having strategies for things like multiple tweeters in a Company is not straightforward. Figuring out which topics are in scope and out of scope may not be any easier. Our company has struggled with whether we should talk about coffee only. Coffee is grown by farmers. Should we talk about farming? If so, just coffee farming, or the issues that are common to all farmers? Like organics, and sustainability, and price premiums for beautiful sustainable food? These topics are of interest to many of our customers. But it’s really easy to get far off-track, even for entrepreneurs who don’t share my raccoon-like propensity for being distracted by every shiny object. But I do know that customers tune in for a reason, and tune out when you fail to satisfy that reason, so you need to figure it out as best you can and stay on-topic. (I know my friends are laughing at this now – I am the WORST person to suggest others stay on topic!)
#6 Everything Old is New Again, or, What’s True Offline is True Online, too.
For some reason, this seems difficult for some people to remember, me included (or especially). People say the darndest things online, things they might never say in person. For example, unless your business is religion or politics, it’s probably best to stay clear of discussing religion or politics (coincidentally, a few hours after I typed the last sentence, I heard a news report that the Pope is encouraging his clergy to blog. See that?). Does that line blur? Of course. We’re in the food business. That’s food, and business. Politics are an integral part of both. Is it OK to discuss the politics of school lunch? Or political candidates’ propositions to help small business? Only you can decide. But a rule of thumb is, if you wouldn’t say it to a gathering of customers, both known and unknown, then you probably shouldn’t say it online.
#5 Be Interesting, and Magnanimous
Social media informs, and entertains. Try to be informative and entertaining. Or both, ideally. And remember that it’s not all about you. Part of the challenge in using social media to promote your business (key words being promote, and your) is the balance between talking about you, and talking about other people and other stuff. This discussion is about using social media in the context of your business, so of course it’s expected that you will talk about that business (you!). But try to talk about others, too, and in a positive way. Even if your sole motivation is to sell things using social media (not advisable!), remember that people buy things from people they like, and nobody likes an self-centered, egotistical blowhard (and you all know who you are, in your heart of hearts).
#4 Sometimes You Should Just Have a Nice, Big Cup of Shut the Heck Up
I’ll admit it’s sometimes tempting to jump on a trend to get some exposure for yourself. You see a rising hashtag and try to find a way to talk about the topic yourself in hopes of getting a little visibility. But ask yourself what you’re really adding to the discussion. You may be uninterested. Or uninformed. If so, shut up. Don’t consume people’s limited bandwidth with a lot of nothing. It’s impolite. And you look as stupid as you are (on that topic).
The other time you might consider shutting up is when you are tempted to say something completely off-topic (for you). Pear Analytics did a study that found more than 60% of the content on Twitter is what they categorized as “useless babble”. That estimate seems low to me. Despite the apparent uptick of location-specific social media tools (e.g., Tri-Out), it’s safe to assume that nobody cares to know, in real time, that you are in Wal Mart shopping for baby wipes (unless, of course, you are in the baby wipe business). That said, sometimes a little humorous, albeit pointless, babble can be enjoyed if you’re genuinely entertaining, e.g., you use those Wal Mart trips to make mobile, real-time contributions to The People of Wal Mart.
#3 Followers and Fans – Quantity, or Quality?
Having a lot of people follow your work is a gratifying thing. Right? Maybe, but I can tell you there is definitely a joy in having a genuinely engaged audience. I have entrepreneur friends who do the “you follow me, I’ll follow you” thing, regardless of whether that pairing reflects mutual interests. Without a fancy quantitative analysis, I’m pretty sure that our strategy of selective following produces more measurable results. For us. Maybe it depends on what your company does. But I don’t think you can measure influence, or effectiveness, based solely on numbers of fans or followers. We’ve liked FriendOrFollow.com to keep an eye on those reciprocal relationships.
Watching follower numbers can be a proxy for how relevant your content is to them, however. Especially when you post something you know can be polarizing, like “Topless Maine Coffee Shop Burns Down” a few months ago. If you gain or lose followers, you can take that as a queue to moderate your content and/or style in the appropriate direction.
#2 Don’t Be a Hog. Bandwidth-hog, That Is.
Speaking for myself, I hate than logging on to a social networking site, only to see the opening screen dominated by chatter from one person. You’ve seen it, too, I’m sure – it reads like a menu or an iPod playlist. One mention of “had a great espresso at Neomonde”, or “listened to some old Lou Reed, forgot how good he is” might be cool, but remember… it’s a discussion, not a filibuster. And your customers don’t need a 60-vote majority to stop listening to you read the contents of a Bruce Springsteen box set.
#1 Keep At It.
So now you’ve read my top takeaways from 2 years of social media consumption. And I’m sure there are other lists like mine, and you may already have your own. It can all be quite intimidating. It’s tempting to just forget about the whole thing, and hope you wake up in 2011 to discover Twitter was a bad dream. Don’t do it. Being a user of, and contributor to social media will make your business stronger. You may even have fun. As Nike would say, Just Do It. You’ll make mistakes. Some days you’ll be more relevant than others. But you have to show up and participate.