Is New School Marketing Really That Different From Old School?

oldschoolhouseMy online friend John Cavanaugh’s recent post got me thinking about the hot rivalry between new school vs. old school marketing. We all know those feel good buzz words like transparency, conversation and engagement, but I question their truth in meaning in the online world. I am realizing that the new way of marketing is not as different from the old way as we are often led to believe. It all depends on your perspective and your approach.

Putting a business out there with a blog and on Facebook and Twitter is a good thing. It allows consumers to at least feel like the company is accessible, but does it really offer that transparency that everyone says is so essential? I think it’s more like translucence. No company is going to be completely transparent. Most companies and organizations highly monitor their Facebook posts, blog posts and Twitter feeds. They are most often manned by PR, marketing, communications or customer service people within the organization. In other words, trained professionals well-versed in the company’s mission, style, philosophy and message. These people are in fact crafting their posts to serve the best interest of the company. You know, just like advertising, only folksier.

I submit that social media usage by business is simply a newer form of advertising. Let’s face it, a Facebook page is designed to generate interest in and attention to a brand (just like advertising), with the added bonus of actually hearing and seeing what people are saying about you (just like focus groups). The point of a business gaining fans, followers and subscribers may seem like it’s about building a “community,” but when it gets right down to the core, it’s about getting a following of existing or potential customers to like your brand, with the end goal of selling whatever it is that you are selling to them (just like advertising). It’s a powerful way to get consumers to try your Kool-aid, like it, then buy it (just like handing out free samples in the grocery store). The more fans, followers and subscribers you get, the more people start talking about your brand or business around the web, which in turn builds brand awareness (just like advertising).

So I propose that we stop the bickering between the new school and the old school and realize that we’re not as different as we may think. I suggest we stop using the word “transparent,” adopt the more accurate word “translucent” instead, and just feel hopeful that businesses can no longer get away with being opaque.

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Are You Hiding Behind a Corporate Gorilla Suit on Twitter?

GorillaMaskI remember a Halloween party that I went to back in college. Great party, lots of friends, incredible costumes. Then the door opened and someone in a full body gorilla suit walked in. He/she did not speak, only made grunty gorilla noises. No one knew who it was, and the gorilla refused to reveal his/her identity. At first it was funny, but then we all started looking around the room to see which of our friends was missing from the group to try to ID this gorilla, but everyone was accounted for. It left everyone with a creepy uneasy feeling. Who was this person and why wouldn’t they reveal themselves? Was it a serial killer, a thief, a rapist, a crazed psycho? What did this person have to hide? It spooked everyone so much that we collectively threw the gorilla out of the party.

That story came to mind because I’ve been noticing that there are a lot of businesses hiding behind their own corporate gorilla suits on Twitter. Twitter, as most of us know, is a great place to connect with people, get the latest hot topics and find out what’s going on before it even happens. Those in business know or should know that Twitter offers up an amazing opportunity to connect with consumers directly, serving as a pipeline back and forth and building a community around a brand. One thing though that many businesses with a Twitter presence don’t realize is that it’s important to let people know who is behind the corporate tweets.

One of my pet peeves is when a company has a Twitter page and all that is there is the company name and logo, but no humans in sight. The tweets are coming from someone, but for some reason the company feels that it’s best that the person remain anonymous and just tweet as THE COMPANY. Bad move, in my opinion. It comes off as impersonal, and suggests that there is something hiding behind the mask of the brand name, like there’s some mysterious reason why they should be afraid to come out from behind the shadow of the giant logo and reveal themselves.

I always think in social media that if community and relationships are going to be built, then you need to show your face, if not literally, at least figuratively. People don’t want to connect to a company, they want to connect to a real person at the company who has some level of power to listen to what they say and to take action or at least interact. There’s an accountability issue that starts to rear its head. If someone from the company takes ownership of the Twitter interactions, then they might be put on the spot at some point and have to face what consumers have to say. It’s a lot easier to be anonymous than to show your face. I like to know who I’m talking to.

Another thing that a lot of companies don’t seem to get about Twitter is that no one wants to only read tweets or look at links to the company’s website or pictures of their products. Sure promote yourself now and then, but Twitter isn’t primarily an advertising venue, it’s a social media venue. Have a conversation. Interact. Promote here and there, but get to know your consumers. Give them a reason to follow you besides listening to you tweet on and on about your brand name and how great your products or services are. Let them know who you are and that actual humans who are not afraid to show their human faces are on Twitter ready and waiting to connect, listen and chat, and if need be, face the music if something negative comes up. If you are wearing a corporate gorilla suit, it’s time to take it off and show us who you really are.

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Are You Walking or Crossing the Personal Line on Your Blog?

lineinthesandThere are a lot of people talking online these days about the importance of injecting personal information into your blog. Although I completely agree that you have to show who you are as a person to your readership in order make a connection and create loyal readers, I think the level of personal exposure completely depends on the type of blog you have and where you draw your line personally.

If it’s a business related blog and it’s connected to a business of providing professional services or products, then I think there’s a line that shouldn’t be crossed. Your business blog should offer your personality through occasional anecdotes and snippets of personal experiences as they are relevant to your viewpoint. On the other hand, if it’s a blog about a personal journey as a parent, cancer survivor, traveler or any other “journal” type blog, then revealing more intimate information would be appropriate and relevant.

In both cases it’s important to establish boundaries that are right for you. It’s also important to remember that anyone with a computer has the potential to read what you write, which on one level is an exciting thought and on another is kind of a creepy thought. I think some people tend to reveal a bit too much information, almost forgetting that, although they may have a core group of readers that may “know” them, they are also revealing themselves to the entire blogosphere, including the good, the bad, and the creepy. We all know this to be true, but sometimes tend to forget while we are interacting with our circle of blogging friends. You wouldn’t hang your underwear out to dry on the sidewalk in front of your house or set up a speaker system so everyone in the neighborhood can hear the personal discussions you have inside your own home. The same should be true of your blog.

On the other side, a blog is not a white paper. Factual information is a good thing on a business related blog, but the person behind the blog needs to be revealed at least to some extent. Readers want to know that there is a real person behind a words, not just a machine or committee producing a factual, well researched report or crafted corporate speak. I think it’s important to know the difference between walking the line and crossing the line and being able find that magic spot that works for you.

On this blog, I do reveal things about my life to my readers, but only when it’s relevant to what I am writing about. I think most of my regular readers know about my right brain tendencies and my creative entrepreneurial approach to looking at things. They know that I am married to a designer and know we have an 11-year-old son. They know that I go to the flea market on Sundays looking for cool old stuff. They know that I used to watch the Jetsons when I was a kid and that I’m a huge fan of Dr. Seuss. But more importantly, I think they get to know me through my perspective on the various topics I write about. Your personal qualities should show through when you write, even some of your more imperfect human ones. Being a human is a good thing.

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Is Social Media Spookier Than a Vampire?

435_draculaI think one of the spookiest things some companies could imagine knocking on their door this Halloween is a social media specialist: Standing there at a company’s door, laptop in hand, surrounded by an army of Twitter followers and blog subscribers with their goody bags open,  asking for engagement, community, transparency and humanness. The company thinks: Trick or Treat? This image is more frightening to some companies than a vampire lunging in for a bite. There are many companies that want to be involved with social media, or think they should be involved, but at the same time they are deathly afraid of it.

I was contacted the other day by a children’s product company interested in engaging my services to “legitimately” (their quotes) populate their company’s website with positive reviews and photos of people using their products by tapping into my network of bloggers, providing them with free products and asking them to post accolades.  Apparently the company feels they don’t have enough reviews for their products on their site and many of them that have been posted legitimately (no quotes) have turned out to be negative because of ongoing QC problems that the company has been having. Her response was that “there are always QC problems in manufacturing, that’s just how it is.” She also wanted me to screen the product reviews before they were posted and intervene if anything negative arose. I explained the new FTC regulations  and that I thought this method of “legitimate” population might be considered questionable without a disclosure. I also offered other methods that could authentically populate their site’s reviews, but the conversation ended and I haven’t heard from them since.

I think in this case, there were missed opportunities. Instead of trying to drown out the bad reviews with manufactured good reviews, they could have embraced them, thanking the consumer for pointing out a problem and actually addressing the problem in a public way with a vow to fix it at the source and follow up with proof that it was fixed, instead of saying, well everyone has QC problems, that’s just how it is. That’s not how you engage your consumers. I know nothing is perfect in business, but when you put product out there to consumers, especially if you are inviting them to respond publicly on your company site, then you better make darn sure the product is as good as it can be, and if it isn’t and your consumers care enough to let you know, then you should respond with thankfulness, action and implementation to make sure it never happens again. To try to drown out negative comments with crafted positives just defeats the whole purpose of engaging people. It’s like inviting consumers to offer their opinions, and when they open their mouths occasionally saying something you don’t like, you cover your ears and say: “I’m not listening, LA, LA, LA.” This is what is meant by companies being human. To acknowledge mistakes or problems, apologize, promise to fix them and then actually fix them is the kind of thing that will gain a company respect in the marketplace with their consumers.

The thing about social media is that it can’t be completely controlled the way that advertising can. That is a very spooky thing for many companies.  There is some control, like determining the right person to manage your social media strategy and what to put out there to the public, but as far as trying to control what the public will perceive and say and do and manipulating things to look legitimate when really they aren’t, that is not what social media is all about.  That’s what advertising is about.

Here lies the problem for a lot of companies.  They know all this social media stuff is important, but don’t fully understand how to use it or why and how it’s different from advertising. They try hard to turn social media into just another controlled venue for advertising, and in my opinion, that is simply a waste.  Use your advertising for the crafted, controlled message, and use your social media for really listening to and engaging with real people.  If you are not ready for what may happen when you let go and start talking publicly with your customers, then maybe stay out of it for a while until you feel confident that what your company offers will be well received, or until known problems are fixed, or until you can respond to negative feedback with positive action. It can also be started in small ways. Start with a blog, talk about new products coming up or things in the industry. You don’t have to do a full-blown blitz to be involved in social media.  Start where you are comfortable, but understand that there is a certain amount of letting go of fear that needs to happen.

So if a social media specialist comes knocking at your door this Halloween, don’t be afraid, just drop a little humanness in his or her goody bag.

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What’s Your Key to Community Building?

keyoramaI’ve been noticing a bit of a trend lately with building community in the online world. It seems that some people believe that community is something that can be attained though purchase, either by cash, free merchandise or other means of artificial manufacturing. Whether it’s T.G.I. Friday’s recent free burger campaign or brands creating their name as a trending topic on Twitter by offering free merchandise, these methods may gain temporary attention, but most likely won’t create lasting loyalty, relationships or community.

Cash for Comments

One example of this trend recently came to my attention on the site Blogging for a Living. A post appeared there on Thursday that stated they are giving away cash as a reward to the person who leaves the most comments on their blog during the month of October, in an effort to rebuild a damaged community. Apparently, the blog used to have tremendous traffic, but a few bad apples with negative attitudes scared away the established community and hurt the reputation of the blog. Although I can sympathize, I don’t think a community can be bought back with the chance of winning a $50 prize for comments that are unlikely to have substance to them. After all, it’s clear that the motivating factor for the reader in this case would be the cash, not community building.

Focus on the Meaning of Community

According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, community is: “a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.” It’s important to keep that in mind when establishing a community. It’s the commonality, that sense of relating to what is being said, or an opportunity to express and share ideas or gain insight and opportunities that keeps people coming back.

Finding a Solution That’s Right for Your Community

If your blog’s focus is on finding and giving away great products or passing on savings, then material giveaways are relevant to your community, because your community would naturally consist of people who are looking for giveaways or savings. That is the common interest or goal.

If your blog, for example, is intended to serve as a community for freelance writers, then the “giveaway” should be information, resources, opportunities, advice and commentary relevant to your community of writers. Everyone needs money, that’s true. Everyone enjoys getting free stuff, that’s also true. But if you have lost your community, then you have to earn it back, not buy it back.

How to build or re-build community in a meaningful way is the challenge. Maybe re-branding is in order; starting fresh to show your community that things have changed or providing an opportunity to engage a new group of people. Maybe inviting and promoting well-respected guest bloggers who share in the same community could help both your audience and theirs. Maybe inviting your readers to comment with suggestions on what they want from your blog would demonstrate your commitment to serving them and that you want them to be part of the process. Ask them why they left and what can you do to bring them back. Taking a hard look at what you do, how it could improve and having the willingness to change is key to evolution and growth in community building as well as brand building.

What is your key to community building?

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