Here’s vibrant proof that some folks still don’t understand social engagement: McDonald’s (@McDonalds) mucked up a social conversation on Twitter recently, and then their own social media director, Rick Wion, demonstrated an embarrassing lack of awareness, when he tried to explain the whole thing away. One particularly shocking phrase stood out for me: “…With all social media campaigns, we include contingency plans should the conversation not go as planned…”.

How many times do I have to say this
?! Social Engagement is NOT a “campaign”, it is a commitment, and sometimes commitments require weathering rough spots in the relationship; forging through together; learning to listen as much as talk; and – should some control be necessary – controlling in an invisible manner that can never be resented. By admitting that (a) McDonalds continues to desire control of the social media landscape within which it operates, and (b) it considers Twitter conversations as nothing more than advertising campaigns, their Social team has exhibited a McRoyal lack of awareness, with cheese. That the brand thinks it can openly control social engagement initiatives, and then impose “contingency plans”, when the outcome doesn’t match their projection, demonstrates not only a lack of experience, but a mentality that will consistently fail to leverage the potential of social engagement, until said mentality changes. A good social strategy is a responsive and flexible one, not a rigid and controlling one.
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So, let me repeat: As I first said in 2007, and have repeated each and every year since: Social Engagement is a COMMITMENT to connection and bidirectional relations. It will not work to its full potential if it is treated as an advertising or product marketing CAMPAIGN tool. Gone are the days when you could blatantly push or pull the consumer in one direction or another, without any regard for their own instincts. The power of marketing has transformed in to one of influence, rather than impact. That’s not to say you cannot use social tools to support, and even push forward, certain marketing campaigns.  It’s simply that there are too many variables at play within the social ecosystem for a brand to want to control things all the time. How long would you stay married to a spouse who was *always* and obviously controlling? “Leveraged influence” and “moderated transparency” are the buzzwords today.
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“…All right stop.
Collaborate and Listen.” – Vanilla Ice

Moderated transparency
One must be prepared to let the consumer peek behind the curtain a little more than previously, and even fiddle with some of the levers. A smart brand will create levers with which the social community can interact:
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Leveraged Influence
A brand should always have a vision and an objective, and all strategies and actions should be manifest and pursued within the context of the brand objectives. Properly managed social engagement can help to strengthen the brand vision and more effcieiently attain the objectives, both internally and externally:
  • Inspire employee and consumer evangelism and sharing
  • Challenge dormant employees, distributors, and consumers to reengage
  • Educate and redirect potentially hostile influencers
  • Instill brand values without imposing them
  • Crowd-source creative opportunities at little to no-cost
  • Empower stakeholders to truly feel a sense of part ownership in the brand’s success
  • Boost ROI
  • Advertise incrementally (no need to invest tens of millions if there’s no pick-up whatsoever)
  • Blend resources (social brand engagement is not just about marketing, it’s about engaging (thus the term!) the whole ecosystem of stakeholders in a manner that brings them closer together, and able to more effectively enhance the brand value. It could be a matter of activating a previously dormant employee population, creating a more tight-knit community out of a global sales force, or bringing end-users closer in to the fold, so that an offering can benefit from their insights, and presell itself in the process.
  • Year-round presence – social engagement is a full-time enterprise, thus the need for commitment. However, while a conventional marketing campaign requires aggressive “full-bore” tactics, a social strategy can be far more leisurely, and thus far more manageable. The community will hold the brand up alongside the social team, so long as everyone is playing well together.

Oh, and one more thing…social engagement brings humanity and humor back in to the mix. That’s never a bad thing.

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My friend, Mike Brown recently posted a short piece on his own blog, entitled “Who is creating social media content in your organization?”, exploring where the departmental responsibility for social media (or “social engagement”, as I prefer to call it) lies within an organization. I added a comment to the posting, which drew some very flattering responses via Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and email – so I thought I’d post my comments here below (as much to remember what the heck it was I wrote, as to keep the conversation going!):

Perhaps above and beyond the obvious impact Social Media is having, in terms of offering new opportunities for brand evangelists to introduce and moderate their platforms in existing or new constituencies; for product and solution marketing teams to try and launch “campaigns” via new channels; for corporate representatives – be they CRM, legal, or otherwise – to try and cautiously bring their brand and offering connection closer to the end-user, in response to an increasing demand by consumers and clients to participate in the valuation of offerings, further up the value chain….above and beyond these and other immediately evident opportunities, benefits, or enticements (presented across the still primordial social engagement landscape), there is growing one even larger opportunity that has been only tangentially addressed here, and deserves to be directly examined:

Instead of attempting to qualify which existing department should or does own or lead social engagement activities, within traditional corporate infrastructures and silos, the real question of deepest worth may be “has the advent of social engagement, greater organizational transparency, transversal responsibility for failure and success alike, and deeper demands from every part of the process (including consumers) for collaboration in development, innovation, productization, distribution, and iteration (breathe here) created not just an opportunity, but a demand, for organizations to review their org. charts, and functional infrastructures, in order to best respond to and manage new models and ecosystems in customer and client relationships, product sales and management, and other aspects of B2B and B2C business?”.

Perhaps the answer lies not in shoving social media activities into one or the other pre-existing pigeon hole, but instead taking this opportunity to stir the pot more than just a little, and take some time to divest ourselves of 1950’s functional structures..?

This is the moment to loosen our grip on the past and present, and see this undeniably disruptive practice of social engagement as a chance to reinvigorate and possibly reinvent the way we manage innovation, human resources, market penetration, customer service, and so much more. Let’s not get carried away with a presently rather shallow tide, but let’s recognize that the tides have nevertheless shifted, and the currents are moving in compelling new ways which will certainly change the landscape. Where your ship lands depends on how well you learn to navigate these currents and tides, and how efficiently you reassign your crew.

My fundamental suggestion is that corporate and organizational models are ripe for transformation, reflecting massive evolutions in internal and external communications, operations, personnel management and education, marketing, and customer relations – to name but a few areas that are both deeply impacted by and – in turn – heavily influence hierarchies and processes within organizations. The way social engagement permeates an infrastructure could prove invaluable in effecting valuable transformation: watch the practice as it flows through the organization: something akin to a corporate blue dye (BDT) and modified barium swallow (MBS) test! Should Marketing and Communications continue to be lumped together (“MarCom”)? Is the skills set of Marketing best maximized as a Sales support function, or is there a more strategic opportunity therein? Should Communications really be a satellite support function, activated only whenever a Business Unit or other department determines there exists a need to “push” information outward, or is more potential just itching to manifest itself? The communal nature of social engagement gives organizations the priceless opportunity to move beyond legacy charts, developed to manage the 19th Century industrial revolution. Several revolutions have taken place since then, and this latest one – effectively disrupting how we connect, communicate, and transact with one another – presents an opening that should not be overlooked.

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The notion (and practice) of community driven consumer activity is, as with so many other things, cyclical.

For years, people lived in small microsocietal enclaves, relying on one another for word-of-mouth news and shopping recommendations, and sharing health and nutrition tips as they were discovered. Local gossip spread locally, and all was well in the Middle Ages.

As the world expanded, so did communities, becoming less microsocial, and more macrosocial. Urbanization supported mass technological, scientific, and industrial evolution, but at the cost – arguably – of social health. Social dynamics experienced a metamorphosis, from one reliant on group dynamics, to more individualized and self-centered ones.

In the latter 20th and very early 21st centuries, this self-centered societal infrastructure reached its zenith and, in keeping with the aforementioned cyclical nature of things, began to reverse its arc, affected by both internal and external influences.

Recently, driven both by personal impulses and available tools, platforms, and supporting business-models, individuals have begun practicing an exponential degree of community-thinking and action. No longer do all people rely so heavily on corporations for their information, news, and activity choices – preferring instead to rely on their peers for suggestions, and themselves for determinations. Admittedly, some corporations and agencies are attempting to co-opt this trend, but the most successful brands are those that have engaged WITH these new paradigms in media engagement, as opposed to those that have attempted to dominate them for their own short-term ends. Good case in point, Ford just posted record profits, and is the automaker with the most successfully manifest social media strategy (kudos to Scott Monty)…

We are cycling back, as a society, to an almost medieval microsocietal infrastructure of consumerism, wherein we form smaller enclaves, or networks, and assign to those networks values, depending on the context thereof. What used to be the medieval “guild” is now our professional network; the erstwhile “pub” or “inn” or street corner now manifest as our social network; and a slew of other networks have risen up to mirror, to one degree or another, the sewing circles/ curanderos/ mother’s groups/ secret societies, et al.

No longer can large corporations confidently “push” their products or services into a population, en masse. The population has become too diversified. While it may not yet be firmly evident, I believe that the world has become less homogeneous, as individuals seek out smaller communities to match their interests and skills, and become empowered to act as participants in the establishment of market trends, rather than followers. It has been a long time since Main Street Michael was invited to share his opinion about a major brand. Average Joe is beginning to get the hang of letting companies know what he thinks via Twitter and other feedback channels, and these companies are responding! Plain Jane loves the idea that she can be discussing her love (or hatred) of a particular product on her blog one day, and have the creators or distributors of that same product invite her to speak to their product development team the next day.

The quality of any particular demographic is now going to be as crucial a measure of its value, as much as (if not more so than) the size. It’s not enough anymore to rely on Nielsen numbers. While a certain audience may be smaller than another, it may practice a more intense form of brand evangelism, creating a wider grassroots adoption than can be tracked through conventional means. We are currently experiencing a “shakeout” period, wherein marketers are evaluating, through experimentation, to what degree it is advisable to bow before the consumer and listen more than talk. It is clear, however, that “brainwash” product marketing can only manifest itself if the target consumer is willing to brainwash him/herself in the face of a supremely well-positioned enticement (see “iPad”). It will be the consumer network that drives adoption, not the seller. The local guild will share their preferred mobile business apps, and your friends on FB will parse the news for you. Expertise will percolate by mass vote on Quora, Founders Space, and elsewhere, and – in the short period we are currently entering, when the advertiser has not yet fully determined how to manipulate the landscape to their advantage – we will enjoy a dynamic and somewhat tumultuous period of social behavior not unlike the marketplaces of hundreds of years ago, when we developed a stronger sense of what we wanted and needed BEFORE we went to the market; and yet relied upon our fellow citizens to recommend the best vendors, and turned to the recognized experts for additional guidance.

Communities are helping to clarify the value of marketing as more than just a product pushing mechanism for increasing sales figures. Marketing should never have been relegated to the status of “sales support”, “collateral creation”, and “Press Release spewing” that it was in so many companies. Identifying the nature and need of the customer, and connecting it with impact to the identity and value of your offering is far more than just sales, advertising, PR, or branding. It is these things and a panoply of intangibles, sprinkled with a big handful of common sense, and served upon a bed of freshly grown business acumen. It’s no longer about making sure that the customer gets it, but rather reaching that moment when the customer understands that YOU get it. Enlightened marketing today must engage and activate specialist communities to become evangelists for your offering. Today’s customer is too busy sharing their views to adopt something about which they have not had the opportunity to establish an opinion. I want to believe that most companies and marketing agencies will embrace the notion of sharing the responsibility of developing awareness with their target customers, but I’m afraid – in time – some agencies will find a way to manipulate customers one again, and where companies used to tell people what to buy, unscrupulous brands will find ways to tell people what to think, and the cycle will continue, moving in and out of moments of rightness, as the poet Wallace Stevens once put it.

For now, we should revel in the short period surrounding us, when marketing is able to exercise its full range of capabilities, respectfully connecting the offering to the market in a manner that reveals a relationship between brand and consumer more fruitful than has been evident for a long time.

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If you ask a CMO at one company what social media represents to her, she will likely provide a starkly different answer to that proffered by the CMO at another company. The difference in answer might be exacerbated if the companies work in different market sectors, or if one is B2C and the other B2B, of course. However, the largest source of differentiating interpretation would lie in the fact that social media marketing is perhaps the most abused instrument available to corporations at present (though in some businesses the employee may hold that dubious distinction), simply due to the fact that its potential value is undeniable, but its specific function and application is as yet unwritten.

Let me correct myself on that last point: the function and application of social media marketing is not unwritten, but rather so buried in the ink of prognostication and postulation, that it would suffocate even an arctic seal.

For my money, Social media marketing is NOT an exclusively online or digital undertaking, but rather a relatively recent opportunity that recognizes the influence and power of the end-user, as a partner in the introduction and evangelism of products, services, and solutions. This recognition can be manifest via myriad platforms and channels, including the Internet, mobile applications, WoM, and more. Successful social media marketing is a transversal commitment to manifest and nurture a brand valuation across multifarious sectors. In this way, one is able to both maintain the vitality of a brand, and also reinvigorate it almost instantly through the maintenance of carefully managed yet open dialog with the users of this brand proposition. The cost of such an undertaking are not, as some have suggested, greatly lesser than conventional marketing practices. They are simply transferred, from media to labor.

This factor, along with several others, deserves clarification, and I am pleased to therefore present the musings of my colleague, Tom Pick, below.

As an independent consultant and through B2B technology marketing firm KC Associates, Tom shares expertise in SEO, search marketing, social media, content marketing and interactive PR. In this article, he explores some of the myths surrounding social media marketing.

Though social media marketing is rapidly advancing in terms of adoption and sophistication, many marketers and business executives still struggle with it. They wonder if their organizations are doing enough, if they are doing things right, even if they should be involved in social media at all. This confusion is partly due to some still-common misconceptions about social media marketing…:

1. Social media is so easy we can hire an intern to do it. Because social media is fundamentally about conversations, the individual(s) behind your social media activities is often perceived as the public face of your company. This person is answering questions about your products and/or services, responding to or redirecting complaints, sharing interesting content, providing more information…you’ll probably want to be a bit careful about who gets this responsibility. ->

2. Social media marketing is really hard. True, there are techniques that work better than others, guidelines that are good to know, rules of etiquette to follow and common mistakes to avoid, but the general skills called for aren’t all that uncommon, and the specifics are teachable. It helps to be creative, curious, articulate, friendly and helpful. Okay, so not just anyone can do it, but it’s not rocket science either.

3. Social media is only for the young. Argh, no! On the consumer side, the largest cohort of Facebook’s user base is the 35-54 age group, and the fastest growing is the 55+ cohort. On the producer side, the most important attributes are interpersonal skills and industry knowledge. Age is irrelevant in social media usage, and life experience is a plus for social media marketers.

4. Social media is free. Um, no. While recent studies show that about half of marketers say that social media reduces their overall marketing costs, it is by no means without a price. The primary budget effect of social media marketing is to shift costs from media buying to labor. The tools of social media are (mostly) free, but the time, effort and expertise required to make social media marketing effective has real costs.

5. Since social media marketing is labor-intensive, we should offshore it. Ooh, not a good idea. While offshoring works well for tasks like IT consulting services and software application development, it tends to be less efficacious for market-facing activities. Thoughtful companies keep their SEO efforts local (to avoid link-spamming, for example) and after evaluating all of the costs, many are even moving call centers back onshore. And see myth #1 above.

6. Social media marketing success is all about rules and best practices. Not really. True, there are guidelines as to what works well (being sincere, helpful and knowledgeable) and what doesn’t (trying to use social media sites as one-way broadcasts of your marketing brochures), but the field is new enough that many of the “rules” are still being written. While there are some techniques that seem to work well and are worth replicating, and others that should clearly be avoided, there’s also a great deal of space for creativity in this rapidly expanding and evolving area.

7. Social media marketing has no rules. Now, just because there isn’t an established cookie-cutter approach to social media marketing success doesn’t mean there are no rules. Don’t be excessively self-promotional, don’t try to automate everything, be sincere, add value—there aren’t a lot of rules, but these are a few very important ones.

8. Social media marketing gets immediate results. Almost never. Sure, you may run across an example somewhere of this happening, just as you may hear about a couple who got married three weeks after they met. It can happen, but isn’t common and shouldn’t be expected. Social media is about building relationships and influence. It takes time, but the payback can be much more lasting than a typical “marketing campaign” as well.

9. Social media marketing is too risky. This fear is most common in the medical, financial services, and other regulated industries. And it’s certainly true that there are situations where a company has to be somewhat cautious about its social media participation and content (another reason to keep myths #1 and #5 in mind). By all means, be aware of your specific industry and regulatory environment and put necessary safeguards in place. But people in your marketplace—customers, prospects, analysts, journalists, shareholders and others—are talking about your company and/or industry across social media channels right now. The real risk is in ignoring those conversations.

10. Social media marketing is new. Not really. Certainly the tools are new: Twitter has only been around since 2007, Facebook since 2006, and even blogging has been popular for less than a decade. But social media marketing is fundamentally about participating in and influencing the direction of conversations about your industry and brand. Those practices are timeless, but social media has increased the velocity and magnitude of such conversations.

11. Social media marketing doesn’t apply to my business. There are isolated niches where this is true. For example, if you build weapons systems for the U.S. military, you not only don’t need social media marketing, it would probably be best to avoid it. And there may be a few other such situations. For virtually every other type of business however, someone, somewhere is discussing your brand, your industry or your competitors in social media. You’re missing out if you’re not listening and participating.

To read more of Tom’s articles, go to his award-winning Webbiquity site, where he covers B2B lead generation, social media, interactive PR, SEO and search engine marketing. In fact, he has an article coming out soon that I think will be especially representative of one of my biggest pet peeves: the very mistaken notion that social media marketing can be undertaken in much the same manner as previous, more traditional, marketing campaigns. I’ve said it before, as have several worthy business friends (such as the wonderful Paul Dunay), and I’ll say it again: Social Media is a commitment, not a campaign.