How to Get Any Work Done
(When Connecting Is Your Job)


If you’re doing any social media marketing at all, you know the drill. It’s all about showing up. Being your authentic self. Showing that you’re a trustworthy human being, making a connection, reaching out one-to-one.

The cornerstone idea of this blog is that if you can create more remarkable relationships with your customers, you’ll have a more remarkable business.

It’s fun and it works and it’s a great model. But it does have a significant downside.
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Social Media Workshop: The Imaginary Friends Who Live in Your Typewriter

anonymous internet protest

“Imaginary friends who live in my typewriter” is my friend Gavin‘s term for people he knows from online. I met Gavin on The WELL and he’s a classic example of the friends I’ve made in online communities–smart, accomplished, and interesting.

The WELL has a long tradition of supplementing online community with offline get-togethers. That might be why it’s known for the amazing depth of connections that were made there.

Yes, there were exceptions, but for the most part, people who were delightful online like Mr. Jalopy and Howard Rheingold were also delightful offline. Each realm showed you stuff you wouldn’t have seen from the other. Online community was a way to get to know someone in a different way. It didn’t replace face-to-face relationship, it deepened it.

If you didn’t have that kind of introduction to online community, it’s easy to imagine that it’s all a giant computer game. You sit at your keyboard and type in different things to find out how the game works. This lies at the heart of trolling, or (by my definition), shaking up the ant farm purely for the pleasure of watching the little buggers swarm.

The complicated fuel behind social media

Although there’s a strong human tendency to anthropomorphize technology, there’s also a countering tendency to view human beings–if you know them only through their technological shell–as data.

If you’re going to enter the world of online community and social media for some reason–maybe to build a larger customer base or get something big done–you need to remember an important complicating factor.

Behind all those blinking cursors and strings of text are confusing, troublesome and resourceful human beings.

They will do stuff. They will almost certainly do stuff you wish they would not do. And if you’re lucky, and smart about how online community works, they might take action in a massive way that moves (sort of) in the direction you were hoping.

The inverted Matrix

The addictive game World of Warcraft added a social component and became ten times more addictive. Millions of teenaged boys became scarcer and scarcer at dinnertime as they burned tens of millions of hours playing “Warcrack.”

On the other half of the world from suburban kids in the States, young men in China are making a living playing Warcraft for 18 hours a day as “gold farmers.” Earning real money to buy real food to support real families in the real world.

This is the other side of The Matrix. Strings of computer code are powered by real people doing real stuff that has real effects.

The Church of Scientology is learning this to its dismay, as a collection of people under the rubric “anonymous” has been organizing systematic protests against them.

This is a pretty good description of what Internet-based collective action tends to look like.

  • It protects itself by masking its identity.
  • It’s heavy on the inside jokes.
  • Mockery is a given–sometimes witty and sometimes not.
  • It’s peaceful but also potentially pretty intimidating.
  • It tends toward the ridiculous and the profane, but it is not cynical.

If you think you want to mobilize social media for your business, your nonprofit, or your cause, you need to get comfortable with what that might look like. Whether it’s monks in Burma, music fans in Myspace, Diggers, Sphinners, Stumblers, “anonymous,” or any one of a thousand other online communities that mobilize for collective action, you’ll find some common traits.

Your group will be messy. They will be chaotic. And they will never do quite what you wish they would do.

Make peace with that and get good at influencing the direction it takes, and you can move the world.

Related Reading

The Three Bears of Social Media Marketing: Part 3 (Baby Bear)


By Sonia Simone

OK, if Mama Bear is about conversation and connection, and Papa Bear is about listening more than you talk (sometimes known as lurking), what's Baby Bear?

Baby Bear makes friends easily, and he always has a lot to say. He can be awfully cute—even adorable, if you do it right. So I hope you'll forgive him for not really being a bear at all.

Baby Bear makes himself useful

One of the smartest things you can do with social media tools is to make yourself useful. Take information, which we all have too much of, and turn it into something people can use.

Compile a bunch of good advice into a simple, readable format, or come up with a great framing metaphor to make a complex subject easier to understand. Take complicated stuff and make it easy. Take overwhelming stuff and make it manageable.

In other words, create a Baby Bear strategy: put together a whole bunch of killer content that solves a real problem or fulfills a real need.

A lot of folks mistakenly think that great content is the same thing as great writing. It's not, at all. Great content is useful. Great content does something to make people's lives better. It might save time, frustration, money or brain damage. There's lots of great content that just makes people giggle.

Great writing is nice, but completely optional. The audience for great writing is small (and shrinking), and there's an overabundance of great writing out there to consume. There are more brilliant novels than any of us can ever read in a lifetime, and that's not counting all the stellar nonfiction plus weekly doses of The New Yorker.

Please understand, I'm no fan of crummy writing. If good writing matters to you, by all means, learn to write well, and take pleasure from that. But great content is a lot easier to create than great writing, and has a much wider audience.

Baby Bear is friendly, whether or not he's social

There are true "social media" uses of a content strategy (like blogs) and then there are not-so-social uses (like email newsletters). But whether or not you have a mechanism for your readers to engage you in a true conversation isn't actually very important. Either way, having lots of useful, relevant content makes you look friendly.

The smartest content providers make their stuff feel like a conversation even when it isn't. Most good content uses a friendly, accessible voice and feels more like a letter from a pal than a textbook.

Most of us are influenced by our friends and by authority figures. A solid content strategy turns you into both. Every piece of useful content you create is like doing a small favor for your readers. It also establishes you as a smart, thoughtful authority on your subject.

Your content might suggest a rather chilly personality, like Jakob Nielsen's, or you may come across as a lovable train wreck like Dooce. It doesn't matter. Either way, readers who tune into your stream of regular content develop a connection with you over time. That connection translates into trust, which can be translated directly into dollars.

Baby Bear can't shut up

The tricky part about Baby Bear is you have to keep it going. It's work–enjoyable work most of the time, but it's still work.

A blog falls on the time-intensive end of things. The whole point of a blog is to provide lots of fresh content. Even blogs with good search tools (I'm working on getting that for you guys!) don't really invite dipping into your most compelling past content.

You also have no control over how readers work their way through your stuff. Which means if your great article on LOLcats requires a whole bunch of set-up, you don't have any way of making sure your readers have the right context.

Lately I've been falling hard for my email autoresponder. These are email programs that send a predefined sequence for you (like my 10-part marketing tool kit), which you can expand, move around, and generally evolve and refine to your heart's content. You can create a sequence of 3 messages or 3,000, the system doesn't care.

If you're already sending out an email newsletter and you don't use the autoresponder feature (you may have to dig, I didn't realize for months that Emma had one), you need to start now. You can create a sequence of your brainiest, most useful content and put it in front of every fresh reader.

And if you flake on getting your newsletter out in a timely way (like I do every month), you'll at least make a great first impression. Plus your readers stand some chance of remembering who the hell you are when you send something later.

If you've never thought about doing broadcast email but you think you want to start, in my opinion there is exactly one vendor to consider: Aweber. Their deliverability (percentage of messages that reach readers vs. spam filters) is just better than anyone else I've seen, their system is extremely easy to use, and they just added a whole bunch of gigantically useful analytics tools. Plus they're cheap.

Tell them Baby Bear sent you.

The Three Bears of Social Media Marketing: Part 2 (Papa Bear)


By Sonia Simone

OK, the Mama Bear of social media marketing is the customer conversation model. It's about connection, warm fuzzies, community, all that good stuff.

The Papa Bear model isn't quite so fuzzy. I call it Papa Bear because it's the model that makes the most sense for gigantic organizations, but it can also be an important social media strategy for individuals or smaller companies. It has a common sense side and a potentially creepy side. So let's get into it.

Their eyes and ears are everywhere

Let's say there's a gigantic packaged food company. Now let's say the gigantic company has a program to listen in on public blogs and forum discussions, and learns about a novel use for one of its products. Maybe they make a chewing gum that's particularly good at clearing dust from your throat. That might not be a feature anyone in the marketing department has ever promoted, but customers have noticed it on their own.

Maybe, then, people are chatting in forums and military support blogs about sending that gum to their family members fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, to alleviate the choking dust that soldiers are facing there. The idea turns into a modest craze, with earnest volunteers coordinating sending cases of the stuff to soldiers deployed overseas.

Armed with the knowledge of this interesting new use of their product, the gigantic company now has all kinds of options. They can create ads around this particular feature, to reinforce the conversation that's already taking place. They can put special displays in supermarkets, saying that for every package of gum sold, the company will send a package to the military. Or the company could get their PR agency busy pitching the story, maybe coordinated with making a massive donation of the gum to the troops.

None of these has the gigantic company actually sending a representative to the online forum and chatting with the folks there. But it is still communication. The customers talk, the company listens and responds. It responds with action rather than literal conversation, but does that make it less meaningful?

Remember that adage, you have two ears and one mouth? You should therefore . . .

Listen twice as much as you talk

Papa Bear knows how to keep his mouth shut. He listens to what's going on. He finds out where his customers are hanging out. If he's really big, he might engage a company like Collective Intellect to analyze what's most significant about the conversation. (Subscribing to Sonia Simone in Google Alerts is pretty darned manageable to follow. Subscribing to "Coke" or "Mercedes" or "iPod" is not.)

Papa Bear watches the conversation and looks for themes. What are people upset about? What do they get really jazzed about? What's bugging them? What problems aren't getting solved? What great stuff are people saying about Papa Bear's competitors? Are Papa Bear's support people doing the right thing by customers, or are they prompting near-AOL level rants?

If Papa Bear isn't a multinational conglomerate (or possibly even if he is), he might be able to morph into Mama Bear and enter the conversation on a human level. But it's a good idea to spend at least some of your time in Papa Bear mode. People will always speak a little more freely about you if they don't realize you're in the room.

Is it too sneaky?

Online media have an unappealing word for this behavior: lurking. It conjures up a picture of some creepy guy hiding in the bushes outside your window.

So what do you think of Papa Bear? Is it sneaky and deceptive to listen quietly on the public conversation? Should we always step out of the shadows and make our presence known?

And is listening (and following up with action) "real" communication, or just eavesdropping?

I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

Next in the series, of course, is Baby Bear. He's adorable, cuddly, and . . . not actually a bear at all. Subscribe in a reader or by email so you don't miss him!

Flickr Creative Commons image by thelearnr

The Three Bears of Social Media Marketing: Part 1 (Mama Bear)


By Sonia Simone

The Ad Contrarian Bob Hoffman, who can always be counted on to spice things up, wrote a thought-provoking post for Copyblogger last week about the lack of real interactivity for the huge majority of Web users.

Bob has long held that the idealistic social media model of a rich, layered conversation replacing traditional advertising doesn't scale, and makes no sense for products like frozen chicken, floor wax, etc. Actually, I believe the expression "complete bullshit" may have come into play.

While I definitely fall into the category Bob calls "online zealot," I also think it makes sense to look at this stuff with your critical faculties fully engaged. One thing I've noticed is that the follow-up conversations I've seen talk about "social media marketing" or "conversation marketing" like it was one thing. In fact, there are a lot of different flavors.

There are three I find particularly interesting, so I thought I'd share those different models with you, along with my take on the pros and cons of each. To make them a little more memorable, each one is associated with one of the three bears. Yes, it's a dopey gimmick, but if I can use cute pictures of bears, you'd better believe I'll take advantage of it.

The customer conversation model

Customer conversation is what I think of as the "Mama Bear" model. It's all about love and connection–except when it's pissed off, at which point it becomes one of the scariest things you will ever encounter.

This is the classic Cluetrain Manifesto paradigm. Instead of mass advertising that gets broadcast to duped, mindless consumers, companies have complex conversations with their customers. Geoff Livingston expands this to say that there are no more audiences or consumers, only communities.

There are two common criticisms of this model. One is that it can't scale–not everyone who likes Budweiser can engage in a conversation with Budweiser.

The other, which I think is more pertinent, is that no one in his right mind wants to engage in a conversation with Budweiser.

There are a couple of things to keep in mind about the conversation model.

It's always a spectator sport

In any given online community, usually no more than 1% of users ever post anything to the conversation. In fact, that number can be far, far lower.

It's a common mistake to assume that the only people influenced by the conversation are the ones who actively add to it. But customers can and will watch how you conduct yourself in a conversation of this kind and make decisions about how trustworthy you are.

Hoffman's certainly right that those lurkers are not really "interacting" with the conversation, they're consuming it. But the interactive model informs their buying decisions all the same.

For bloggers, this means that your commenters may very well not be your customers–but they're providing the entertainment for your customers, and making you look good in front of them. This is not to be sneezed at.

Does that mean it's "not really social media," or that the customer conversation is just a really complicated ad? You can decide for yourself if it's "real social media" or not, and if that question is even important to you.

It works for some organizations and not for others

Southwest Air gets an insane amount of goodwill from its blog "Nuts About Southwest."

At least from my casual observation, the scandal over Southwest's safety rules hasn't cost them their community, although it must have dented it. People feel less LUV when it looks like you're willing to roll the dice with their lives. In fact, when you've convinced them to trust and care about you, it makes the betrayal hurt more. But fresh-faced Southwest employees continue to make heartfelt posts, and those posts receive comments from at least some customers who are still drinking the Kool-Aid.

Scandal or no, Nuts About Southwest works for a couple of reasons. First, Southwest has a folksy, little-guy corporate culture. Most of their employees seem not to hate their jobs, which is actually pretty damned astonishing. Southwest's warm, friendly workforce effortlessly (it seems) give a human face to their blog, and so to their company.

A United or a Delta are never going to be able to successfully reproduce that model. Neither their employees nor their management are wired for it.

Probably more important, there are people out there who actually want to have a conversation with scrappy, personable little Southwest. No sane customer wants to have a conversation with any of the giant airlines, unless it includes a lot of inventive profanity.

It ain't the only way

The customer conversation model has a lot going for it if you have the right kind of organization.

Namely, you need enough articulate, dedicated employees who can keep the conversation going. Even harder (and more important), management needs a heroic level of trust to allow those folks to be honest, even to the point of allowing them to knock the company every once in awhile.

But there are a couple of other models I find extremely interesting–what I call the lurker/spy model (Papa Bear) and the friendly authority content model (Baby Bear). I'll unpack both of those for you in the next few posts.

If you want to learn more about the model I personally find to be juuuussst right, subscribe to the blog feed to make sure you get the rest of the conversation! Catch you in a day or two . . .

Monkeys and Bloggers and Tribes (oh, my!)

By Sonia Simone

hangin' out at SOBCon08

Have the past couple of days been driving you nuts (here and on some other blogs you might be following)? All this inside baseball from SOBCon–lots of us Twittering like crazy, mostly for the benefit of the other 130-odd bloggers who were there.

The worst part is, most of us are so exhausted that our notes are terrible. "Brogan said we should care about people! OMG he is such a freaking genius. BRB, I have to go schmooze Brian Clark."

(Note: this is in no way to suggest that Brogan is not a genius.)

There were exceptions, but I’m afraid I wasn’t one of them! I hope my fragments held some value for some of you, at least.

But I did pick up a lot of ideas to riff on, and the heart of SOBCon itself is one of them:

Community Is Fundamental
Community, along with ego and family and mortality, is one of those primal driving forces. If you want to tap into something deep and fundamental in order to deliver your message, community is one of the options.

When we were just starting out as upright monkeys, you kept your tribe solid or you all died. Finding stuff to eat was not so easy, and finding stuff that wanted to eat you was way too easy. We needed an intense bond that kept us connected, even when we wanted to kill each other. Connection was not optional. It’s why we, as a species, are still here.

Creating a community around what you do is still a great way to survive in a hostile landscape. If your customers can form a tribe around your product or service (or church or nonprofit or whatever your particular gig might be), you win. Their loyalty to your tribe can become completely disproportional to the merits of what you have to offer. (cough Apple cough cough).

Tribes Aren’t Indestructible
They can be wrecked by cluelessness, carelessness, shifting priorities. Back in the day, there was a rich collection of tribes on GE’s online forum (GEnie). Gardeners, romance writers, gamers, Forth geeks–you name it, there was a GEnie RoundTable for it. Then one day, GE decided to sell its weirdo little project to a company that couldn’t handle it. Chains were yanked, prices skyrocketed, and eventually GEnie was killed off by a failure to patch it up for Y2K. Bye-bye tribes.

Those of us who were there can tell you that the tribes didn’t die because they weren’t real. They died because tribes are fragile, and (assuming you’re not an Inuit on an ice floe trying to survive the winter) we have other options.

As powerful as community can be, it hurts to be on the outside looking in. Inclusion feels safe and natural. We find our little monkey place in the community, and that feels right. Exclusion feels dangerous and wrong. There is no hatred like the hatred of the monkey who feels she’s been shut out.

If you build a community for any reason, you owe it to them to figure out how you will keep the infrastucture going. And you owe it to yourself to figure out–early–who you’ll bring in and who you will keep out. There are many excellent reasons to put up some boundaries (ever been in an AOL chat room?), but you also have to realize it’s going to be acutely painful to someone.

While I’ve been monkeying around with my blogger pal tribe, I hope I haven’t done so to the exclusion of the community that’s grown up around this blog. I’ve just been on vacation one tribe over.

They’re nice folks, thank you all for indulging my postcards. The weather was beautiful, wish you’d been there.

How to Build Stronger Customer Relationships

By Sonia Simone

For those who don’t read Copyblogger, I have another post there this week on using conversation to create more remarkable connections with customers. Come by and say hi!

Relationship Marketing or Social Media?

relationship marketing duels it out with social media

I met a woman recently who’s a relationship marketing expert. Her expertise lies with big, household name companies–she uses different tactics, but most of them are various flavors of "frequent flyer" programs that reward ongoing customer relationships.

She says that she gets the question all the time, "We only have budget for one thing this year–should we do relationship marketing or social media?"

She works with giant companies and I work with small organizations, but this question drives us equally nuts. So here’s the answer.

You do both.

Most forms of social media are great for attracting attention
A YouTube video, a Squidoo lens, a Facebook app, a Digg or or Stumble strategy–all of these do one thing particularly well. They capture attention.

The proliferation of advertising messages is starting to approach something out of a Philip K. Dick novel. The thicker the stream of messages, the better we get at tuning them out. In marketing jargon, this is known as "clutter" and it’s a serious problem if you’re trying to get the word out about what you do.

Social media is particularly handy at "flipping the funnel" to cut through information clutter. It works by convincing people who like you (a lot) to tell their friends about you.

The idea is, advertising messages are basically wallpaper, especially for the "most desirable" demographics (young people & rich people). Traditional advertising is invisible to the people it most wants to convince. But recommendations from friends are inherently relevant and interesting. So when you convince your customers to talk about you, you can capture the attention of potential new customers in a very quick and very vivid way.

There’s one downside: capturing attention for attention’s sake gets annoying in a hurry. Once you have someone’s attention, you need to build on that and start creating a relationship.

Some forms of social media are great for building relationships
Blogs and customer forums will help your company create a relationship with the people you attract. Rather than bungee-ing in and out based on price or where you’re ranking on Google today, your customers get to hang out and form tribes based on what you have to offer.

These tribal relationships can create a powerful bond, but they’re also demanding. As the "social object" at the center of that particular tribe, you need to participate in that messy, complicated conversation in order to keep your own credibility.

Forums and interactive spaces give customers a handy platform to talk you up. Of course, you may have figured out the scary part already–the same platform is just as handy to knock you down.

But if you’re good (and you have to be good to survive any more, there are too many businesses and services and products and organizations that are scary good), your fans are going to douse any flames started by your detractors. An army of rabid fans is the best crisis plan there is. When you can convince someone who isn’t you to defend you from the slings & arrows, you’ve officially moved your game to a whole new level.

There are plenty of relationship tactics that don’t involve social media (you can find some of those described in my relationship marketing series). There are hundreds of ways to create better connection with your customers, and lots of them fit into a more traditional marketing & communication framework.

So there’s your answer. If your culture can adapt to it (you’re highly flexible, comfortable with radical transparency, and willing to be insanely responsive), social media can be extremely effective. But don’t bother "doing social media" unless you have some solid ideas about how to build on the relationships you start.

You can have the cleverest YouTube video ever shot, but if you have no way to create a relationship based on the attraction you create, that cleverness will evaporate when the next motorcycle-riding monkey comes along.

Can Social Media Be Analyzed?

Is Social Media like Burning Man?

There are a lot of questions floating around about whether or not it’s possible to apply methodical analysis to business uses of social media, including buzzword-rich realms like content strategy, permission marketing, social media marketing, online community, virtual reality, PR 2.0, and whatever the hipster term of the week might be.

The diehard old school will tell you that conversation can’t be measured, that information wants to be free, and p.s. take poison and die.

(See Bill Hicks’ hilariously bitter and profane riff on advertising, Twittered by DoshDosh and not remotely safe for work unless your boss has a very good sense of humor.)

There is a traditional belief among social media oldsters (some of us have been doing this since the late 80s, god help us) that normal business ideas like ROI have nothing to do with the brave new world. It’s too weird, it’s too chaotic, and it changes too fast.

This view basically holds that online community is like a vast, 24/7/365 Burning Man, each participant vying with the next to be less predictable, less ordinary, and less interested in any conceivable commercial engagement.

Here’s my take
There is some truth to the oldster view. You can think of social media as a kind of hopped-up primal ooze, with various critters evolving out of it in no predictable order.

Trying to run predictive quantitative analysis on a MySpace or Facebook or Twitter campaign is a sucker bet. And a blog or content/community strategy isn’t like direct mail–the results aren’t linear. You can’t build a mathematical model and start plugging numbers in, unless your spreadsheet has a way to quantify "8th dimension," "monkeys" and "naked girls riding bicycles."

Taken as a whole, the social media world is not manageable or predictable. It’s a swirling ocean of chaos. The fashionable 5% of social media is in love with the weird, the disturbing, and the radically new.

Consider Boing Boing
Once you get the sensibility, it’s not hard at all to predict a Boing Boing story. But it’s impossible to manufacture a Boing Boing story (there is nothing on earth that shines brighter than faked weirdness). And it’s impossible to know how getting onto Boing Boing would affect your business.

Other than a brief but massive traffic spike, none of us knows what a Boing Boing hit would bring. "Make something Boing Boing likes" is a strategy for dopes, unless you’re doing it for the pure fun of doing it.

But, you know, there’s a lot of social media that is not Boing Boing. There are stay-at-home parents who blog about air freshener. (Really.) There are a whole bunch of normal people with day jobs who blog about their commute, or the jeans they like best, or who they’re thinking about voting for.

The great secret of social media is that most of its participants don’t have much desire to drop acid and wander the desert wearing only a feather boa.

Because social media is vast (and growing at a breathtaking pace) and populated by human beings, it’s inherently unpredictable. It’s a classic chaotic system. The weirdness of social media, on the other hand, has been overstated.

Sure, you can still find magnificent weirdness if you know where to look, (and some of us dig that) but you can also find rather nice, normal people who just want some good advice, some useful tools, and a place to hold a conversation. Possibly even about air freshener.

Additional reading:

  • Ranching Butterflies
  • Flickr Creative Commons image by MikeLove

    Social Media Workshop: Ranching Butterflies

    1522199012_862dab06b0_2By Sonia Simone

    There is one highly predictable aspect to social media.

    Your best results will come from the least predictable part.

    An interview with Seth Godin revealed all of the smart, sensible biz dev deals he cut to promote Squidoo, and how miserably they all failed. Smart deals with media companies and major magazines, with celebrities and major sites, pfffft.

    What worked, massively, was individual people picking up a useful tool and doing something unpredictable with it, then talking with their friends about how cool the experience was.

    Not unpredictable like a Fellini movie, but unpredictable like breastfeeding, banana bread recipes, and American Idol.

    If you make something in the social media world that is highly useful to a bunch of folks, whether it’s a great content series or a fantastic new tool, you can guess you’ll do well, but you probably won’t be able to predict exactly how. That part isn’t up to you, it’s up to your community. Your part is to avoid getting in the way and to make yourself helpful at the right points.

    The social media universe is an intensely chaotic system that’s highly susceptible to the butterfly effect. A butterfly flits its wings in North Texas and ten days later you get a hurricane in Singapore.

    There’s some question about whether you can analyze social media at all. I know from experience that you can, but it calls for a special skill set.

    Social media analysis calls for an exceptional ability to filter out irrelevant BS, an acute ability to sniff out patterns and undercurrents, and a thorough knowledge of butterfly ranching. The more butterflies you can get flittering, the better your odds of a hurricane down the line.

    Photo courtesy of aussiegall on Flickr Creative Commons.