Thinking About the Social Web? Do Something!

I’m nearing the end of writing my book, “Social Media in an Hour a Day,” due out late this summer. The central theme of control versus influence has been on my mind a lot. Admittedly, I broke from control as it applies to media a long time ago, around 1990 when I bought my “Kill Your Television” T-shirt. I’m a decided advocate of social media, something I started working on in 2003. More recently, the social Web became a place where I, as a consumer, can get the information I need to make a purchase. Control versus influence neatly sums up the tension between what was and what’s next. And if you’re in your 20s, make that what was and what’s now.

In traditional media, control is a given: plan and devise a positioning that expresses the essence of what you offer and why in language that resonates with your current and potential customers. You choose the terms of engagement: the channels, the media, the message. Even online, this basic process is the norm, where page takeovers, pop-ups, and banners are purchased from an essentially identical perspective: control of the message and its delivery via an interruption. You roll out your campaigns and measure the results in terms of reach and frequency on the front side and in terms of changes in attitudes or inclinations on the back side. In some channels, such as some online offers, direct marketing, rebates, and coupons, you even tie directly to sales.

When you shift to the social Web — the collection of Web 2.0 technologies and practices that support the shared use of social content, including photos, videos, text blogs, podcasts, comments, ratings, reviews, and more — the notion of control gives way to influence. To be sure, there are some things on the social Web involving social media that you can actually control, but in general your role is as a participant and your objective is influence.

What can you control? You can control your own behavior. You can choose whether to participate, and you can choose the terms under which you will do so. You can choose to fully disclose (strongly suggested), and you can choose the channels you use. You can control the content you create and place on the social Web. For example, you can choose to use YouTube to show contestants’ entries into a $25,000 home makeover giveaway as Home Depot did, and in doing so you can directly control the production of the video content that you create to support this effort.

What can’t you control? For starters, the response to your participation and the content you place on the social Web once you’ve let go of it. With TV, it’s also true that you can’t control water-cooler talk about a commercial, but at the same time the only thing that stands between you and 100 million messages received is your checkbook. Sheer scale can overcome a lot.

On the social Web, you can’t buy message spread; you must depend on others to pick up your message and spread it for you. As this happens, commentary is added. The combination of interest and added commentary snowballs as your message is pushed around the social Web. Your goal as a marketer is to influence the social Web participants who are important to you. You want people to show an interest in your content, and you want the added commentary to be beneficial. It’s a lot like working in a matrix organization (define): you really need the people who can impact you — but who don’t report to you — to help you. You can’t control them; you can only create an environment that results in their being willing to align their work with yours. In that way, you both succeed.

The social Web is the same way. Your customers and potential customers are out there. Right alongside are some folks with an axe to grind. Assuming you aren’t directly building those ranks, your way forward is through influence. If you’ve got a customer service policy that inflames current customers or a product design that creates more opportunities for your competitors than it does for you, fix it now. With your house in order, your next move should be onto the social Web as a participant.

Start by listening, then expand to talking after you’ve gotten your social Web legs. In a great post, Jeremiah Owyang provides examples of brands hurt by social media. In nearly every case cited, the misstep was either disclosure (specifically, a failure to do so) or lack of participation, letting the social Web run, unchecked, based on the misguided belief that not participating meant the conversation wasn’t happening. It was.

Compare Owyang’s collection of brand-jackings with Daniel Riveong’s post about the beneficial application of social media, in particular Twitter. Riveong cites Zappos.com (a personal favorite of mine) for making brilliant use of the channel and of social media in general. The brands mentioned are getting traction because they participate. Because they participate, they exert an influence on the social Web. And this influence helps them across all their marketing efforts: digital, traditional, and PR efforts, including TV appearances and the like. Marketers’ and their agencies’ goal is no longer centered on control.

IQ Interactive founder and CEO Tony Quin last month wrote, “Increasingly, the majority of brand touch points for most people are digital. The job of the agency is no longer about media and messaging. The job becomes influencing behavior.” Look back at Riveong’s and Owyang’s posts and the brands referenced in them. It’s pretty clear which would get a gold star from Quin and which would not.

Thinking about the social Web? Don’t just stand there. Do something!

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