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Chapter 20: Making It Work for Your Company

We’ve talked about the changing landscape and how you fit into all of this. Let’s look more directly at how you can use social media, and the web in general, in your company’s brand building and marketing. I’d like to address a few things you can do well with these means, specifically concentrating on those opportunities that were lacking or absent in more traditional media. We’ll begin with a few thoughts on how to make your efforts in this area work best.

Figure out what you want to accomplish

One thing that bewilders me regarding the advent of new technology is how we seem to lose our minds for a short while upon its introduction. Take how conventional business logic was thrown out the window during the heyday of the web. All of a sudden people started talking like there would no longer be a need for traditional storefronts. In retrospect, this seems silly, but at the time, some really believed that the days of bricks and mortar companies had passed.

Social media may currently be the phrase on every marketer’s lips, but I have a prediction: we’ll soon see it less as a novelty and more as a means to an end. I believe it is as important as ever to determine clear goals prior to selecting the method of deployment. As sobriety overtakes our early hubris, we’ll act sensibly and measure how close we come to meeting our goals.

In my mind, the worst kind of marketing starts from a buzzword being thrown about in an overly cavalier fashion. This is often the result of someone in a leadership role hearing about a new “unmissable” phenomenon that’s quite likely spoken of as “game-changing.” Shortly thereafter, said company has the acquisition, or creation, of such a thing in the works. You can almost hear it right now, can’t you? “Julie, I don’t know anything about mobile, but my old pal Tom says it’s going to be huge! Look into this and find out how quickly we can do it too. I don’t want to miss out on this!”

I’m not criticizing those who get excited about new technology (heck—I’m one of those people), but I get a little uncomfortable with phrases like “the next big thing.” Such proclamations often leave me wondering if an ulterior motive is at work, and that such things are said to fulfill some kind of self-interest. I love new advancements, and I’m always interested in exploring how we might integrate these ideas. Still, I am made nervous by any strategy that is predicated solely on employing a new technology.

The web makes certain things easier for businesses, but it doesn’t replace the need for sensible thinking. Similarly, blogs are great for connecting with people and sharing insights; forums are effective in collecting user responses and minimizing telephone support; and, wikis can be useful in creating shared data resources. Still none of these can save your company from a poor product, bad service, or spending more money than you make.

Technology remains a means and not an end. Some companies will benefit from social media while others will find different tools to meet their marketing and business needs. Determine what you want to do, and then you can explore whether social media is suitable for the task at hand.

Find a problem and then consider the solution

I like buying things so much that I sometimes jump before I know what to do with them. My feeling is that a lot of us do something very similar when it comes to marketing our companies. We get excited about video intros for websites and rapidly put them in place. We hear about some new ads shown on televisions in elevators and we place ours there. Then this social media thing shows up, and we go a little bonkers, getting one of everything. “MySpace page? Why not?”

A friend of mine (who runs a firm similar to ours) recently asked what I thought he should do with their Flickr (a photo-sharing site) account. I didn’t really know how to respond. Although I could think of many things that one might do with such a tool, it seemed like a strange approach. I likened it to the notion of buying a screwdriver and then running around looking for something to fix. We don’t do this sort of thing, because such actions would be foolish. When it comes to marketing, though, we often behave in rather nutty ways.

By thinking more sensibly, we’re better able to find a sense of balance and perspective in our marketing and online efforts. It doesn’t matter that there are lathes, calipers, monkey-wrenches, and acetylene torches if you don’t have anything that needs to be built or fixed. Just the same, you can forget about all of the tools online until you have a project that calls for them. Photo pools, micro-blogging services, virtual worlds, and lots of other things exist. That doesn’t mean you have to burden yourself with any of them. Just start by figuring out what problem you have; then determine whether one of those tools might be right for you.

Leveraging shared knowledge

We might as well have started our company smashLAB in a vacuum. On our own, with little idea of how to begin, we hung up our shingle (figuratively—there really wasn’t much space to actually do such a thing) and got to work. We worked early, we worked late, we worked hard, and we worked for very little compensation, but we learned an awful lot. That was only a short while ago (2000), but what seemed so much harder to do then, was tap the information we needed. Search, for example, allowed us to find some information—the problem was that we didn’t really know what to search for. We could have saved a lot of time if we would have had better places to ask questions.

Not so long ago, I needed to find background music for a video we were producing. It was a simple podcast and we threw the piece together in a couple of days. Our budget was limited, so I couldn’t justify spending much money to license music. I thought there had to be other options out there. I spent the afternoon searching fruitlessly for some kind of music, but found it hard to know where to look. Thinking little of it, I made a quick note on Twitter about how frustrating the search had become. Within two hours I had received eight suggestions for places to look, and an offer from a band (The One Eyed Jacks) to use some of their music. We inserted the track and credited them for their contribution. As a result, they gained a little visibility and we got access to some great music. All it took was to ask. Social media makes it easier to do just that.

Connecting and asking people questions

In a world in which almost any information is readily available, the challenge becomes one of knowing where to look. From my experience, this can be incredibly frustrating. We know the answer is out there, but where do we start? As evidenced in my attempt to find background music, problems that seem challenging are often easily addressed by connecting with those who hold relevant expertise.

Part of the usefulness of social networks is found in how they help leverage greater access to a broad set of individuals with unique skill sets. This is beneficial for both the party in need of such expertise, as well as the one who can sell, barter, or exchange their knowledge or skills in this area. It’s also interesting to see how people can use their connections to help facilitate ones between otherwise unconnected individuals.

Last weekend a friend and I were chatting. She had left her job four months earlier and had taken the summer off. Along the way she decided to move from marketing for a public organization to a similar role in high tech. For all of her experience, she doesn’t have many connections in the high-tech sector. Not surprisingly she isn’t getting the interviews she should. As we spoke, I kept thinking that she’d make a great hire for someone and offered to lend a hand. The next day I took an hour out to introduce her—via my social networks—to some people in the industry, and a few well-connected mavens. By the end of the afternoon she had confirmed a half-dozen meetings and had others in the works. I had little to gain from any of this, but enjoyed lending a hand. Plus, it’s always nice to be the one who connects good people.

Social networks can help you reach appropriate people and ask questions about something you’re working on. I’ve noted my frustration with focus groups, but that doesn’t mean I don’t believe in research. Let’s pretend you’re having a new website designed and you need to find out if a key function is easy for users to figure out. Why not just crowdsource the question with those who actually use the site? Post a quick note on a forum asking people to try it out and share their thoughts. It’s so easy to do this and you’ll likely find that people are eager to tell you what they think.

Spreading the word

Asking for feedback is one thing, but social networks are truly awesome for getting the word out on something notable. Let’s say you designed something as playful as the Wario Land YouTube page: in it, video of game-play results in pieces of the screen shaking loose and falling off it.93 It’s a brilliant idea that’s nicely executed, and surprises the viewer. (Perhaps less so for you, as I’ve let the cat out of the bag; nevertheless, you’ll still probably think it’s neat. Take a look:

If you were one of the people behind this, a nice way to share it would be through social networks. Post the link, send a message to friends, and leave it at that. If it’s good, people will talk about it, link to it, share it, and sometimes even embed it on their own pages. It’s not that this couldn’t have been done with traditional websites—social networks and blogs just make it happen a little faster. Additionally, there’s a social currency of sorts for those who find these things and share them first.

What I’m really talking about here is using social media to seed a viral campaign. When viral works, it’s awesome; but I generally see viral like the pot-of-gold at the end of the rainbow. It’s a seductive notion, but I wouldn’t bank on it. If you by chance do happen to create something that “goes viral,” thank your lucky stars. It’s a rare day, and it many be the only time you are ever a part of something like this. (I hate to seem pessimistic, but frankly, these things are hard to predict and engineer.)

What we’re up to

Using social media to send updates about what you’re working on can be a nice alternative to those coma inducing corporate newsletters and email blasts. Let’s be honest, those things are generally about as interesting as Aunt Edna’s annual Christmas card and letter, “We did this, and then this, and then this.” (Ugh.) I do think some are interested to hear what you’re up to and what’s happening at your company though. Limiting your updates to the one-line status areas typically available on social networking sites is sometimes just enough. At smashLAB, I often make note of a new website we’ve launched, a blog post we’ve written, and other little occurrences.

The trick with all of this is to not bombard people with self-promotion. Don’t treat social media as a cheap way to broadcast your marketing messages. One of these days someone will work out a ratio of how many of these messages you can send before you start to irritate people. My guess is that it’s around one in twenty. I suggest you make note of things that are meaningful and of interest to your friends. Sending out numerous posts on how your moving business helped with another relocation—someone really did this to me—is probably not the best idea.

Alternately, when we sent out a free white paper on social media (you can read it here:, we had a great response. It resulted in speaking events, was published in part in Advertising Age, and was distributed widely on the web. Why? Because it wasn’t about directly selling anything. It simply helped people make sense of something new. Think twice about any promotional message you send. If you had to pick up the phone to share this message, would you still do it? If the answer is “no,” I ask you to stop, step back, and take an existing client out for lunch instead. Bugging people isn’t smart marketing in any way, shape or form—I recommend doing something meaningful instead.

Social media can be used to spread the word on almost anything. In my mind you’re only limited by your own preconceived notions of what the medium is suited to. If I were looking to make a new hire, I’d certainly use social media to spread the word. Your friends would likely suggest someone who fits the bill, or at least pass your posting along to others. The nice part with this approach is that you’re first connecting with people you know. When I bring a new person into our company, I’m typically on edge as I don’t want to get screwed by hiring someone who’s dishonest. I just feel more comfortable hiring someone who’s been recommended by a person I trust.

Forget viral

I’ve tempted you a little with the notion of using the web to spread the word. In doing so, I feel it my responsibility to temper this suggestion with a brief caution. The word “viral” has become a common term in marketing. It is intended to represent a message so compelling that it will travel on its own, in turn “infecting” many others. As I’ve noted before, it can be wonderful when this sort of thing occurs, but it’s not that easy to make happen. Additionally, people often confuse viral for just “getting lots of cheap publicity.” I don’t believe this to be a healthy strategy for marketing your company.

Viral success is like a lottery ticket… without an actual payoff. The odds of winning the lottery are low, but if you are so lucky you’re left with gobs of cash to squander. With viral campaigns the loot is more elusive. Most things that go viral just don’t do that much for your brand. Being part of such a phenomenon is certainly fun and exciting, but that doesn’t guarantee that you’ll see an actual sale as a result of it. I’ve seen some really neat viral things on the web, but few have led me to look more closely at the company. Instead, I tend to pass these things along and then look for something else amusing to watch.

I’m of the mind that “viral” is the perfect word for this phenomenon: it’s something many of us become infected with for a moment that is quickly kicked out by our collective immune system. If you’re a really big brand like Nike or Dove, you can likely justify these sorts of efforts as general brand building, and it may not be wrong to do so. Most of us have to acknowledge that we aren’t playing at their level. The rest of us need a smarter way to look at this, and perhaps even a better word with less dramatic overtones.

We need to coin a term that doesn’t lead us to fixate on clever gags and gimmicks. Ours needs to relate to saying things that resonate with people over the long-term. We should make it refer to a perpetual dialogue that people want to engage in, not just for a moment, but to return to time and again. We need stories that others want to share—ones that hold relevance beyond the first little rush of amusement. I don’t know what this word is; my suggestion is something along the lines of “tell-able,” “sharable,” or perhaps “reminisce-able.” None of these are particularly good, but they might lend themselves better to stories that resonate with us and lend themselves to being retold over the longer term.

As noted, I don’t think I’ve hit the right word here. Then of course, I’m probably not the guy to create it anyway. This is the beauty of the web today: as people come to this notion and explore it more, something will arise organically that makes sense—and likely sounds better than the ideas I’ve suggested.

Love your “fans”

I like to use social media to build stronger connections with “fans.” I hesitate to use this word but if you stay in business long enough, you’re likely to get a couple. Something about your company will resonate with people (perhaps not everyone, but probably a few) and these are the ones you’ll want to get close to. They are going to be your best advocates and spokespeople.

Some might consider the term “fan” to be a pejorative one. I do not. With every project that we’ve launched, we have connected with a few people who have in turn raved about it. If I talk about our stuff, people will inevitably think it’s a pitch (quite accurately). When others talk about these things, people tend to listen. Our fans get excited when we release new stuff; additionally, they tell us if they think that we’ve “missed the boat” on something. I appreciate how valuable each of these people is to our organization and I want to keep these people happy.

Perhaps the best example of how powerful these sorts of people are can be found in Apple fanatics. They are, in my mind, the most powerful aspect of Apple’s marketing arsenal. In the completely hypothetical situation in which Apple were forced to cast off either their marketing department or their fans, I’d be inclined to axe their marketing. If you’ve spoken with an Apple fan, you’ll probably appreciate why I feel this way. Truth be told, some of these folks seem half-nuts! Say one negative thing about Apple, and odds are that they’ll take the next hour to explain to you why you’re wrong, and how you should instead love Apple for this very same thing. This is outrageous loyalty, and it’s far more valuable and convincing than even the most entertaining ad campaign.

Do whatever you can to connect with those who are passionate about what you do. Afford them special privileges and speak with them personally. Give them access to see new projects and stock as it arrives/develops, and ask for their feedback. Find any way you can to engage them in what you’re doing; their enthusiasm is rocket-fuel.

Have a little fun

I believe fun to be pivotal in everything we do. Besides, how else do we keep ourselves interested for long enough to achieve breakthrough? It seems to me that most good things take time. Once this new thing is developed, it often takes even longer to make a connection with others, no matter how good it may be. This is why we hear about bands laughing at their apparent “overnight success”—often explaining that they whittled away in relative obscurity for a decade before reaching such a point. My bet is that if they hadn’t liked what they were doing, they probably wouldn’t have stayed the course.

Today we find ourselves with unprecedented opportunities to connect with others. Some have already found ways to make doing so as boring as oatmeal. Acronyms and vague references are thrown about by thousands of hacks self-professing their “guru” or “expert” status in social media—few of whom would you actually want to share a beer with. In years to come, “best practices” (how I hate that term) will likely be well-established for social media. Using these tools will become even more commonplace and systematic. Until then, I say it needs less “Kathie Lee Gifford” and a little more “Sid Vicious.” This is interesting stuff—let’s not beat all the fun out of it!

“Having fun” is rather difficult to prescribe. There’s no single formula for making things “fun.” I simply propose that you avoid thinking of marketing as a checklist of things to be completed. Instead, try to find opportunities to engage the people who like your stuff in a way that feels right to you. Some employ every single tool in a predictable fashion and have little to show for it. Alternately, others have done different, more personal things that have attracted massive attention and followings. Gary Vaynerchuk comes to mind for this. By taking a particularly irreverent and unpretentious approach to wine appreciation, he’s become well known by many and has been coined “the wine world’s new superstar.”94

I’m not proposing that you do something unnecessarily outlandish. I simply believe that you have a unique voice that some would like to hear. I don’t know what that voice is, and you might not have a handle on it quite yet. But in front of you is a massive control panel with all kinds of knobs begging to be turned. Say something that matters to you, and start to play a little. You never know where your experiments may lead you.

Watch the data

I’ve put off my cholesterol test for the past two years. I don’t want to go, because I don’t want to know. When I last had it checked it wasn’t particularly bad, but I somewhat dread finding out that it has gotten worse and that I’ll have to change my diet even more than I already have. Not knowing allows me to avoid taking action that might be less than pleasurable. Of course, there’s a down-side to this approach: I might be risking a coronary just because I don’t want to face facts.

I’ve seen almost identical behavior amongst businesses. They are happy to keep their heads in the sand regardless of how easy it would be to gain insight into the effectiveness of their marketing. It’s hard, but not impossible, to create a smart and beautifully designed campaign—it’s doubly-challenging to market in a way that results in action. Many happily put effort into building something beautiful but then fail to check the numbers and determine what works and what needs to be re-examined.

There’s little excuse for this. It’s easy (and cheap) to access data about incoming traffic, conversion rates, visitor click-paths, competitor comparison, and so on. Admittedly, a lot of this is what I call “wobbly data”; it can be misleading and does demand interpretation. Monitoring it regularly will help you gain a better feel for what’s occurring, and how you might act, in order to achieve what you desire.

Just because it worked for them

Guy Kawasaki (the author and venture capitalist) has gotten far on Twitter, but you probably won’t. Amber Lee Ettinger’s “Obama Girl” videos had a lot of views on YouTube, but I don’t expect the same for you. Heather Armstrong’s blog Dooce is huge, but yours? I think not so much.

The words “Who’s this guy to tell me that no one will care about what I do?” might be passing through your mind at this moment. I admit, I may come off as a jerk here, but I’m likely right. The success that a few have found through these new communication tools is admirable, but that doesn’t mean you’ll do as well as they have. Don’t bother. Really—don’t even compare yourself to these people. What worked for them can likely be traced back to a specific set of circumstances that would be nearly impossible to duplicate. This is the strange—and wonderful—part about connecting with people using the tools at our disposal: you can cut your own path.

There’s no single way to do this, but I think there’s something to be said for isolating stories and themes that mean something to you. As you tap into these and start to define a voice for yourself, you give people something to identify with. From there, you open up the possibility of creating a unique dialogue that others would be hard-pressed to copy. You might do it with a blog, podcast, weekly video, or animated series. Or you might bypass some of the technology altogether and instead write a column for the local paper, put on workshops, teach classes, start a conference, or put on your own festival with other like-minded businesses.

I don’t know what you’ll do, but there’s no reason to not make it uniquely yours. Who knows? In a couple of years time, people not so different from you might look at your success, trying to find a way to imitate it. At that point, you can tell them that they should “cut their own path,” just like some noisy bald man once suggested.


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Ten (Digital) Marketing Stories




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