Why isn't social media working for my company?

Because you are a broadcaster.  Here are six simple steps to fix it.

The vast majority of companies are still getting social media badly wrong. Nearly every company LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook feed I see are sporadic and soulless broadcasts of boredom, sending out endless yawn streams.

The first hard truth is that very few people are interested in your corporate news and events and they almost certainly don't want it in their timelines. If you are honest, do you? Even on LinkedIn?

The second hard truth is that — for various reasons — most people won't see your posts anyway. Unless you are paying (advertising) your transmissions will either get lost in the fast-scrolling noise and confusion, or ignored by the algorithms that choose what we all see.

All is not lost. It’s time to stop transmitting and time to start being social. Here are six simple steps to make sure that your social media voice is heard.

1. Give it to someone sociable.

They don't have to be in the marketing team, but they do need to be friendly, easy-going and preferably a pretty prolific user themselves, so all of these tips will be instinctive anyway. They don't have to be a garrulous extrovert, just a natural conversationalist.

Never outsource your social media unless you are the kind of company that outsources all essential customer services and support (clue: it’s the same thing/just as important).

NB: It’s probably an almost full-time job.

2. Be human.

Your social media should be real exchanges between real people. Do I need to roll out the ‘people do business with people’ cliche? Yes, sadly I do. Your company is full of people interacting with customers, so your social media should do the same.

When a client a comes for a meeting do you start pronouncing about the white paper you've written or do you greet them and ask how their journey was? So do that more.

Facelessness is not attractive, it’s a bit scary, so talk in the first person and act like it too. Name people, quote them, praise them, thank them, show their pictures.

3. Join the conversation.

This is the most important tip and the best way of making sure that your audience hears you. Talk to them directly. Say something to individuals that demands a response (nicely). Ask questions, comment on their posts, give praise if you like their posts, retweet their tweets, share their posts and say thank you if they share your posts. People notice and like good manners. They will reciprocate.

Have a look at your posts and tweets. How many are conversations and how many one-way broadcasts? Are you talking to people or talking AT them? If less than half are chat, you are doing it wrong. 75% or more should be human interactions.

NB: It’s probably an almost full-time job.

4. Talk to your industry influencers

Exactly the same as #3, but with the kind of people who can amplify your voice. Strike up a conversation with business leaders in your sector and even people who work for your competition. Journalists and influential industry thinkers are all usually delighted to answer questions and to respond to thoughtful comments. Once they get to know you, they may comment on your posts and even share them, which is how you bypass the algorithms’ censorship.

NB. Never argue or squabble in public. If you disagree strongly, take it out of a public forum. Keep your social media as places of politeness and civility.

5. Share other people’s stuff.

Even your competitors’ posts. Perhaps especially your competitors’ posts. If they’ve shared something useful or interesting, pass it on and acknowledge the source. That is a very classy, confident and generous thing to do and everyone likes generous, confident, classy people don’t we?

There’s so much dross and junk flowing through our social streams, that we appreciate an inspired curator to sift out the rubbish and show us the gold. I bet that you can name the handful of people who post interesting stuff in your timelines — and those that are boring dullards. So be the first guy.

6. Listen first.

Listen and reply, listen and respond, listen and share, listen and comment, post an article you've read based on that, listen and reply, listen and respond, listen and share, listen and comment, post a relevant article, listen and reply, listen and respond, listen and share, listen and comment, post your own thing, answer questions, reply to comments. Have a break. Listen and reply, listen and respond, listen and share, listen and comment….. [repeat daily]

What good will doing all that do?

Firstly, it will help get your company’s voice heard without leaving it to chance. It’ll help establish your credibility and expertise, and that’s valuable brand recognition baby.

Secondly it will make you more human, more likeable and ultimately more trustworthy. If your customers like and trust your company’s humans you have, rather obviously, brand trust — which can't be bought.

And finally those two things open up a channel where customers feel comfortable asking you the vital commercial questions like ‘can I have some of what you're selling please?’ Brand loyalty anyone?

There’s a growing understanding that all good marketing has to be a thoughtful series of many lightweight interactions over time.

Social media is the perfect medium for that so it is still a very potent business tool for businesses of all sizes, but it’s a customer contact tool, not an advertising broadcaster.

Advertising is not Marketing.

So stop shouting and start a conversation.

I don't think many people in the big tech corporations understand that Advertising is not Marketing.

Advertising is only a small part of the brand-building and sales process for most companies, so when networks like Facebook spend all their time trying to find new ways to deliver ads — at the expense of facilitating real conversations — it winds me up a treat.

Last week I had a brief Twitter conversation with the respected tech journalist Ian Betteridge, who had written a piece for PC Pro, “Facebook wants to redefine the future of business communications.” I felt that it was a bit too gushing, and as is often the case with the technology world, focussed on tools that might suit a handful of global mega-brands, but that will be out of reach for of 90% of normal companies.

Ian pointed me to an excellent article by Paul Adams (former Global Head of Brand Design at Facebook) that rationalised Facebook’s new tools and approach very eloquently. The tile is a perfect synopsis:

“The future of advertising: Many, lightweight interactions over time”.

He’s absolutely right, and he makes lots of great points, but I would playfully suggest that he’s several years behind. That’s been good social media practice since the last decade, and it’s been a golden rule of PR for several decades. He’s refining the point, of course, and adding some very interesting tech-powered angles for Facebook and advertising generally, but the philosophy is far from new. I think that advertising might just finally be catching up.

I've quoted him before, but former Disney CEO Michael Eisner, was right on the money when he said (in the 90's) that:

“A brand is a living entity — and it is enriched or undermined cumulatively over time, the product of a thousand small gestures.

For me, advertising has always been the big, brash, loud and shouty part of marketing, soaking up the lion’s share of budgets, attention and kudos for success — but it’s always been entirely one way. Advertising has nearly always been a powerful transmitter, set to broadcast far and wide, but with little or no capacity to receive and vitally, to listen.

And most people don't like to be shouted at. They want to be listened to and to have a conversation.

A Sales Director I used to work with neatly described advertising as ‘air cover’ for his sales team troops. You will struggle to win a big war without the shock and awe of mighty airpower, but the battles are always really won, man to man in short sharp exchanges. Hundreds of lightweight interactions indeed, but they sure as hell weren't advertising exchanges.

His sales team also knew that you’d never get a sale with your first ‘touch’. It’s one of those truisms that regularly get posted around LinkedIn, that it can take up to eight touches to get a sale. The customer sees an ad, reads an article online, reads a review, watches a YouTube video, connects with an account manager on LinkedIn, sees an ad on the tube, reads another article, hears a mention on the radio, visits your stand at a show, Googles all your competitors’ websites…. before giving you a call to discuss a purchase. Advertising plays its part, it may even start the process, but it’s only one small cog in the machine.

I've written before about my experience of the role of digital tools in the B2B sales process, and I think that this, from a couple of years ago, when I was at tech company Novatech, is still very relevant:

“ My company is a business IT supplier with a powerful e-commerce website that turns over tens of millions, but last year we grew over 70% in the direct sales part of the business. That’s the bit where ambitious sales humans call put-upon IT managing humans and together they banter and haggle and bitch and moan and share stories of goals, stroppy wives, fast cars, missing shipments, excellent service and deals are done. The sales team use digital tools like email, IM, social media and website monitoring to oil the wheels of commerce and to fan the flames, but the real deals are cut between people. Mano y mano.”

And this is why I no longer think that Facebook is a worthwhile place for small and medium sized companies (anyone who isn't an FMCG/Tech multinational) to spend their time and effort. They don’t really understand the difference between broadcast ads and intimate conversations.

It used to be a great place to listen to your customers; to get to know them; to share lolz and to have relaxed and helpful conversations. For a while it looked like a great place to have hundreds of valuable ‘lightweight interactions’ that would be a dynamic part of the brand-building process. But not anymore.

Facebook is deconstructing itself as a social media network and unbundling its services. Its purchase of Instagram and WhatsApp are part of this strategy to own all the essential tools for every exchange we make, so the separation of Messenger was always going to be a prime target for ads sooner rather than later.

What they are aiming for now is to make Messenger a very direct way to communicate with customers — for example with delivery information and simple follow-up purchases — to replace email or texts. Which sounds great and answers my main point. But it’s well worth reading Ian’s article, because it he does report several rather key caveats that all centre on the Big Blue’s intentions to target you with more and better ads in every way they can think of.

When Messenger was part of the main Facebook page/app, it felt like a very personal communications channel and people I talk to still see it as far more intimate than even texting. I suspect that most would have been horrified to be contacted by ParcelForce via Messenger. I know I would.

Facebook’s real modus operandi is to sell advertising, not to provide a free brand-building tool, so this should be no surprise, but that’s why I caution against seeing Messenger as a killer tool for business. Theoretically it checks the lightweight interaction/conversation box (if your customers choose to hear from you), but Facebook still just want to use it to serve you ads really.

Most SME companies don’t have big enough ad budgets to make any of this really work for them, and the brands I have personally engaged with most hardly use advertising at all. But they do all do lightweight interactions very well.

For them and for me, advertising is just one part of a complex and delicate marketing process and for many people it’s often the part that feels the most bullying and most obtrusive.

Ultimately I haven’t seen anything from Facebook yet that says that they will help your company with anything other than the ‘air cover’. My advice to any brand is to look carefully at the tools you use and to make sure that you're not just shouting with air power. Better to send in the infantry for a chat.

A good bit of business can be very bad for business.

Patagonia killed their multi-million dollar shoe business to protect their brand. Which is quite a lesson.

I wanted to buy a pair of strong walking shoes last week. I'm hard on my shoes and I wanted a pair that would last and I wanted to buy from a company I could trust. So I went to Patagonia’s website to seek out a pair of cragmaster approach shoes that I’d looked at last summer.

There are no shoes on the website. No hiking boots, no walking boots and no sandals. There are specialist boots for wading when you’re fishing, but that’s it. I was nonplussed. When I’d last looked late last year, there were hundreds of styles and models for every kind of outdoor pursuit. But no more. And repeated searches brought up nothing but the river-boots.

So I filled in the contact form with a brief ‘dude where’s the shoes?’ message. Shortly afterwards I got a personal (non-automated) response from a named member of staff.

“As you know from our mission statement: “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.” We are committed to provide customers only the best quality. However our shoe business has not lived up to our standards, thus we will cease the production of shoes for now. There is a chance that we may revisit the shoe business in the future.”

What an insanely courageous decision that must have been. I was deeply impressed, especially since a little light digging online revealed that Patagonia’s footwear was profitable, popular and well-regarded by the outdoor press. It was clear that plans for 2015 models and designs were well advanced. There was a full pipeline.

The factors and details that drove this pretty momentous volte face are actually not that important, what matters is that — once again — Patagonia put their ‘purpose’ way ahead of profit. They recognized that what might be a good bit of business was actually not great for business. We all use the phrase ‘customer experience’ far too easily, but Patagonia’s customers hold the company in extremely high regard and will hold the company to account if their experience does not meet expectations.

What the footwear thing shows is that Patagonia held themselves to account too and they nixed a problem before it became a major issue. At stake was Patagonia’s good name and that’s an irreplaceable and supremely precious asset, so despite the million dollar reduction in turnover this year, it was probably a very wise move.

Yes but it’s ruddy Patagonia isn't it? Their corporate courage is unmatched and the Patagonia brand promise is almost unique which means that the power, scale and scope of their business ethics are very hard for any other business to match. They're a mad west-coast hippy-led law unto themselves aren't they?

Or are they? All they did was look at the pros and cons, weighed them in the balance and made a sensible business decision.

I've experienced both sides of this in much smaller businesses where big changes can be the difference between breaking even, or not. More than once I've been part of noisy meetings to argue if what we were doing was a good bit of business (made some much-needed dough) that would be bad for business (caused loads of problems down the line and damaged our credibility).

Once we took a scary and tricky decision to kill a popular service that made a small profit, because it was growing to be a financial burden and a distraction from what we were really good at doing. It turned out to be the right decision and sales and profits rose with the clarity of purpose — and improved use of resources.

Once I watched helplessly as senior managers persisted with selling a bad, cheap product because they knew that they'd sell a load of stock and hit profit targets. Those targets were not affected by the the fact that 30% of the products came back from dissatisfied customers because the suppliers credited our company, so there was no immediate financial loss.

Those managers didn't understand why I (as head of brand) was getting so worked up. We had sold a couple of thousand, which meant at least 300+ unhappy customers that we knew about, and countless more that we probably didn’t. A couple of thousand pounds profit cost us 400 or more people who'd never buy from us again.

Patagonia are a very important company precisely because they are setting attainable standards that the rest of us can — and must follow. If a bit of business is profitable but bad for your brand then you have to kill it before it gets going.

Your customers can only think better of you if you say ‘sorry it wasn't good enough for us so it’s definitely not good enough for you’.

I was disappointed not to be able to buy the shoes, but very happy with the reason why.