How to Use Social Media: 5 Lessons From the PR World

You’re at a party with friends, having a wonderful time. There are lewd jokes, quality banter, knowing winks, laughter, and sly references that only years of bonding together can bring.

A stranger awkwardly stands behind you, as if wanting to be part of the conversation.

He seems familiar – you think you know him from somewhere, but have never met until now. You invite him into your circle of friends and strike up a chat.

He doesn’t seem to be interested in answering any of your questions though, nor listening to a word you say. To your horror, all he does is talk about himself.

It’s normally about this time that you’ll politely ignore that person for the rest of the evening – and potentially, the rest of your life.

And yet, in my experience, most companies are approaching their social media with the exact same finesse. I think whoever coined that term has done our industry a bit of a disservice.

Why? Because companies tend to focus completely on the ‘media’ part, and willfully ignore the ‘social’ part. It’s become all about ‘transactionship’, and not enough about relationship.

For example, all too often, I hear clients ask how they can build up a large social media following so they can send out more coupons and offers (just in case consumers didn’t see the TV ad, press clippings, websites, SMS messages, or emails).

And they want the communication to be one-way: they don’t actually want to respond back to customers (“just have them visit our website!”). It’s just another media channel like all the others.

Imagine for a moment that Vint Cerf, the father of the Internet, called his invention ‘networked televisions. Whilst it’s not an entirely inaccurate description, it would also completely underplay the role, the potential, and the approach for what is a much more a powerful concept.

There may be a sense of déjà vu for many industry veterans, as ‘customer interaction’ was a war-cry of the early dot-com days. Social media should be a natural extension of that, so why have the lessons not been learnt? In truth, social media is probably more the love child of PR and the Internet, a fluid mixture of influencing conversation and the interactive Internet.

As such, there are some lessons from the PR world that should apply if you want to use social media effectively. Here are five very basic pointers to get going:

1) Listen. Before you even start talking, have you taken the time to understand what the conversations are about? Do you understand the setting, the context, and what is appropriate for the situation? If so, then…

2) Respond. Having a social media presence is not the same as a billboard or TV; you are actually expected to be (shock! horror!) social. You may always have all the answers, but at least having a genuine acknowledgement is a great start. Which leads to…

3) Be human. Corporations are easy to hate: large, faceless corporations that care only about money. Humans however, have thoughts, feelings, emotions, dreams, hopes, and desires, and form communities around those. Humans also make mistakes – and they can be forgiven when acknowledged. Your behaviour online determines what you are. To be more human, you should…

4) Have something interesting to say. Yes, a corporation in a social media setting can only mean one thing – you’re here to sell something. That’s understood, and accepted. But it’s the way you go about it that determines if I want to buy from you or not. If your social media presence is the equivalent of talking to an automated phone system, or something I can already get from your email newsletters, then I’m definitely not interested.

Here’s a tip though – people who follow you are probably interested in the category of products you sell. Surely you have something interesting to say about your industry? If so, great! You should…

5) Share. Every company wants a viral campaign (usually because it’s code for maximum reach with lowest cost). But there is a simple word that lies at the heart of every great viral campaign: ‘kudos’. It’s the currency of the social world – whoever finds the coolest, funniest, most interesting information first and shares it gets credit for it. So don’t hoard information – make it interesting and set it free (and acknowledge where it came from).

As a final word, not everyone goes from wallflower to life-of-the-party overnight. What it takes is a lot of practice and a genuine love of conversation with others. If that doesn’t sound like you…well, there’s nothing wrong with just being the computer geek with a brilliant website (I’m looking at you, Apple).

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