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What’s the Rush?: Creating Meaningful Dialogue with Social Media Messages

August 23, 2010

With the constant litany of “shiny new objects” in the social media space, it’s easy to latch on to the latest one. Those in the PR profession are particularly guilty of this.

It’s true that communicators helped establish platforms such as Twitter, which has captured wider public interest — and it’s certainly important for PR professionals to stay in touch with the latest developments. However, companies too often take a copycat approach, adopting a new platform not because it makes sense for their communication strategy but rather to seem trendy.

As Web 2.0 becomes pervasive, we’ve seen one social media fad after another. At one point, a few companies had success using the virtual world Second Life, so everyone jumped aboard. While some used the space for particularly innovative purposes, the vast majority had satisfied their goals just by being there and were shocked by the lukewarm response.

Unfortunately, the takeaway from Second Life wasn’t to question the strategy that took companies there in the first place. Everyone just moved on to Facebook, Twitter and iPhone applications instead.

The mentality was reminiscent of a famous “Saturday Night Live” skit, featuring Dana Carvey as then-president George H.W. Bush. In addressing the country’s conflict with Iraq at the time, Carvey’s Bush said, “We learned well the simple lesson of Vietnam: Stay out of Vietnam.”

Sure, there have been successful uses of these platforms, but the rush to these new spaces has ensured a large amount of bland and quickly outdated content that doesn’t resonate with target audiences.

The biggest problems are when companies don’t have a long-term plan for these platforms, or if they haven’t considered where these efforts fit into the overall communications mix.

Similarly, little thought is given to whether a substantial audience for the brand even exists in a particular space or if the audience will respond to the company’s messages.

For most brands, the tactic is the strategy. No “strategy” exists beyond putting the brand on an ever-expanding list of places where the marketing teams can claim it is. Thus, little effort is dedicated to sustaining these presences over time.

In his latest book, “Chief Culture Officer,” anthropologist Grant McCracken argues that brands need to understand what is happening in our society, but focusing exclusively on “fast culture” often does more harm than good. (Editor’s note: McCracken features Ford in his book.)

McCracken says that the “trendspotter” is perhaps the enemy of a corporation truly intent on understanding larger cultural trends.

Instead, companies must understand both “fast” and “slow” trends. PR teams should aim to move the corporation toward a more meaningful dialogue with the key audiences they seek to engage, developing content and stories that audiences will ultimately want to spread.

Start by listening

At Peppercom, we follow a framework that we’ve identified as common to all sustained success stories involving social media.

Companies must start with listening as the cornerstone of all their social media efforts. In fact, many brands in the social media space today would have been better off by first developing effective listening tools for tracking what their audiences are saying, both about the brand and the areas of thought leadership the brand is looking to own.

If you’re not listening to your audience, then social media touchpoints are of limited value. The knowledge acquired by listening helps a company customize its efforts in customer service, sales, human resources and the marketing and communications branches.

Companies should engage with audiences first, participating in larger conversations regarding issues the company cares about, instead of expecting audiences to come to them. Then, when your brand creates a platform, it is one that is already embedded in the community in which you are seeking to become more deeply involved.

Long-term success in social media relies on a continual process of listening and engaging. Brands should never enter an online space unless their presence fits their communication goals, addresses the needs and wants of their audiences and can be effectively and consistently maintained. Forget being trendy and focus on being responsive.

A Four-Phased Process for Putting Messages in Motion

  1. Listen: Find the audiences who are talking about your brand and understand the issues they care about, the language they use and the nature and culture of the community.
  2. Converse: Reach out and address your audience’s concerns and issues those audiences you are listening to raise. Find where they are already having those conversations.
  3. Build: By launching social media platforms and initiatives in ways that link to and draw from the places where audiences are already talking, you stand the best chance of building a blog, microblog, social network presence or mobile application that people will care about.
  4. Maintain: Never look at listening as an initial “research phase.” To build a long-term relationship with your audience, it’s crucial that listening remains a cornerstone of your social media strategy.  — S.F.

Sam Ford Sam Ford is director of digital strategy with Peppercom Strategic Communications. He’s a research affiliate with the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium. Follow him on Twitter: @Sam_Ford.


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