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Smart Decisions to Grow a Social Business

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Our third required reading for “Using Social and Digital Media” was “Smart Business, Social Business: A Playbook for Social Media in Your Organization” by Michael Brito. I think it is a very informative book that companies should pay attention to as they move forward in their business practices. As I began to read it, I didn’t see much in the early chapters that would help AmericanVETradio. They’re more focused on steps established businesses should follow as they move forward with social media internally and as they allow their employees to engage with customers externally through social media platforms.

I could relate to the early chapters, though, because I saw social media initiatives grow organically through the government consulting firm (I’ll refer to it as ABC) I worked at for several years. Not surprisingly, the progression was much like the book outlines with an exception. We weren’t doing only to sell a product or service. We started hearing that several of our government clients wanted to delve into areas like Twitter and the blogosphere because they had heard how their peers were “using them so effectively.” Unfortunately, some were clueless as to what they actually were supposed to do with social media and were looking for advice and thought leadership. There were several forward thinking ABC employees (many of them in their 20s or early 30s) who were using their personal Twitter accounts and blogs quite effectively, but we needed more organizational experience and expertise.

ABC had internal blog and file sharing platforms, but some of the employees were wary of using them because it was an intranet-based system. Other employees not located within the main geographic footprint of the company had trouble connecting remotely so the intranet didn’t work well for them. One of our employees started a Yammer account to facilitate discussion and file sharing outside of the intranet but within a controlled population. “Smart Business, Social Business” (SBSB) describes Yammer as a microblog that allows employees to share files, send direct messages, and can grow as a company expands. For our company, it worked quite well. There were several “super users” who facilitated discussions and started thought-provoking topics. We could post a question and often get help more quickly than trying to find the same information through official channels or through our intranet portal.

Screenshot from ABC’s Yammer site.

We found a couple of key drawbacks as our organization’s population on Yammer grew. You have to establish rules about what posters can and should talk about. Brito discusses this in his chapter on Governance. Yammer is not inside a company’s intranet. It is subject to hacking that the company can’t control and the possibility of monitoring by unwanted outsiders. For example, there is also no way to have employee accounts auto-delete when they leave your company because there is no official link between the two networks. You have to have a good gardener who is diligent in managing users and deleting accounts when they move on. You don’t want a disgruntled former employee continuing to have access and possibly learning company secrets. You also can’t be sure that someone sneaks in, so you have to be careful about discussion client work. In ABC’s case, we were told not to discuss client projects by name or to give specifics that would make projects easily identifiable. It was these kinds of experiences and insights that helped us speak intelligently about micro blogging sites when clients asked.

The back sections of “Smart Business, Social Business” are more relevant to AmericanVETradio in its current state than the front chapters. The station is new so it doesn’t have any employee base yet. What it needs to develop first is an audience. Right now, much of awareness for AmericanVETradio is through word-of-mouth campaigns by friends and former colleagues and coworkers. Chapter 10, “The Rise of Customer Advocacy” will help as we develop a social media campaign. It describes two key audiences that companies must ensure are well informed, Influences and Advocates. Influencers are the most far-reaching experts that a product can have. Their reach is generally far and wide. An Advocate, on the other hand, has a smaller sphere of influence, but can be more effective if a company has a good advocacy awareness and empowerment campaign strategy. While we need both to help spread the word, Advocates are at the center of a purchase because they often share their likes and dislikes more readily across the web and through their natural conversations. As you see from this graphic from SBSB, these people go through the steps to become purchasers, and like a product so much that they  spread the word to others. This is what we want.

The “Advocate” Purchase Funnel,” page 181.

As we move forward, we will definitely have to ensure we grow our Advocate community by finding those people who are already Advocates and ensuring they help us find others. If we can build a database of listeners, say through a sign-up system, we can then send them out a survey to see what they like and dislike about the station. That will help us refine our programming to what people want rather than what we think they want.

“Smart Business, Social Business” has some great tips for organizations that want to move forward with social marketing.  If you are thinking of setting up social media for your organization, this book should be on your bookshelf as well!

Remember, AmericanVETradio is the internet radio station Veterans can tune into for news and information 24 hours a day, 7 days a week! Please let listen in and then let us know what you think.

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Applying ‘The Long Tail’ to AmericanVETradio

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I do a lot of driving so I often listen to books in audible formats. When my college reading list included The Long Tail by Chris Anderson, I was happy to find a spoken version so I could listen to my book when reading its hard-copy companion was not possible. As I started listening to The Long Tail, I was intrigued by the first chapter’s opening story about how a book on mountain climbing, Touching the Void, became a hit long after its first printing. Its rise, a decade after it hit store shelves for the first time, came because Amazon readers posted positive reviews about this earlier book when they were rating a newer book with a similar theme. This word-of-mouth advertising revived Touching the Void to the point that it was outselling the younger book. Had it not been for the consumers’ ability to share such reviews, and Amazon’s ability to handle the sale of such an obscure title through its virtual selling platform, Touching the Void may never have been resurrected.

I considered the rise of online retailers like Amazon and iTunes through the lens of Anderson’s Long Tail concept. It is impossible to deny that online sales are leaping madly ahead and leaving other, less forward thinking retailers to shutter their storefronts. Take Borders for example. They were the only true bookstore in my hometown. I liked shopping there, but the company’s online sales structure was a mess. I despised it so much, I stopped shopping Borders Online because it couldn’t meet my needs. Eventually, the entire company fell apart for a variety of small reasons and one large one, which happens to be linked to online sales and social media. Here’s how former CEO Mike Edwards described it, as recounted in a story in Publishers Weekly. “Borders’ most critical strategic blunder, he [Edwards] suggested, was not taking the Internet seriously enough in its early days and initially outsourcing its online business to Amazon.com. ‘We just handed our customer base to Amazon,’ Edwards lamented. ‘The view was that people were going to be in the stores.’ ”

He went on to describe exactly what The Long Tail points out, that brick-and-mortar stores can’t compete equally with online retailers because consumers can use computers and smart phones to find the same or similar products more cheaply through the web. They can also find obscure or unusual products that physical retailers can’t possibly stock and still make the rent. Borders leadership also underestimated social media, which, according to our previous reading, Engage!, can be a death sentence for any company. Borders did not consider that consumers would talk to other consumers online about products and want to purchase more obscure, out of-the-ordinary products than any one store could possible supply easily. Their thoughts were still in the “we built it, they will come” pre-Web 2.0 era.

Before you call me a harbinger of death for the brick-and-mortar set, I’m not saying all physical stores are headed to bankruptcy just yet. On June 6, 2012, Nielsonwire released data about where shoppers like to make their purchases, “Shopper Sentiment: How Consumers Feel About Shopping In-Store, Online, and via Mobile.”

From “Shopper Sentiment: How Consumers Feel About Shopping In-Store, Online, and via Mobile.”

It seems that we still think that in-store purchases are the most reliable and safest ways to buy merchandise. I definitely fall into this demographic for some of the products I purchase. As a consumer, I like the tactile nature of shopping. And because I have very narrow feet, I will not buy shoes without trying them on. The same holds true for clothes. I’ll rarely buy pants or suits unless I try them on first because I want to know they’ll fit. For hard copy books, though, I almost always go straight to Amazon. I also shop at an online company called Audible once a month where I download–you guessed it–audible versions of books. I’ve had a monthly subscription there since sometime in the mid-90s. My husband thinks nothing of purchasing expensive items like digital cameras online when he wants to upgrade. He just makes sure he reviews the seller with others first and investigates the possible hidden costs like shipping and handling.

The Long Tail is more than just “why mom-and-pop physical storefronts are failing” though. It is also about some places that are able to make their way because of the niche service or products they provide. AmericanVETradio is this type of supplier, one that exists in the long tail. It caters to a niche market, Veterans and others like them who need a specific product, which, in this case, is information about Veterans benefits, services, etc. We are going to take the guidance that Engage! and The Long Tail offer about getting our name, AmericanVETradio, out there and getting experts to help us gain recognition in order to best serve our Veterans. They have to know where we are or we will exist only for our own benefit.

We’ll be looking at various social media platforms and blogging options over the next several months to help us improve our social media optimization. In the meantime, please stay tuned … and listen to AmericanVETradio!

A Review of Engage!

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As part of my communications studies, I wanted to learn more about social and digital media. The first book we were assigned was Engage! by Brian Solis. Mr. Solis is considered one of the foremost experts on new media today so it makes sense to start with his book.

Summary: As a social media expert and evangelist, Solis makes a convincing argument that businesses that do not understand, use, and embrace social media will not be as successful as ones that do. Why, you might ask? Solis says it’s because people now have avenues to find and exchange information on their own. We don’t have to rely on what a company or organization pushes to us or the sites they try to persuade us into visiting. We contact friends, relatives, and others we think are experts, to give us opinions, ratings, and reviews. Therefore, organizations must understand whom they are trying to reach, what information they are trying to convey, and the social media tools we, the members of their audience, prefer to use for our information channels.

Engage! gives us the descriptions of the different social and digital media platforms that exist as well as how to effectively use them. The book goes into detail about how to choose the best platforms; how to optimize your content, sites, and tools to get the best results; and engage with your customers and potential customers.

Evaluation: As someone who is pretty uninitiated to the whole New Media realm (I have personal Facebook, Google+, and Twitter accounts and have recently gotten into Flickr), I found the book helpful and comprehensive, but a bit hard to follow at times. When you learn a new concept or way of doing something, you can feel like a linguistic outsider. I had to go back and reread some sections because Solis referred to concepts in later chapters that my mind hadn’t fully wrapped itself around yet on the first read. I also forgot what some acronyms stood for or what his new term meant. The Glossary and Index helped somewhat, but not for many of the acronyms.

This world of new media can also be overwhelming, as illustrated in this graphic that was used a marketing event for a company called Buddy Media.

For those of us not used to social media, this book, like the graphic above, initially made my head swim with all the new terms. It seemed like a completely different language. Like anything new, I’ll eventually “get” it, but it is going to take several trips back to the book before I feel comfortable incorporating much of what Solis advocates.

At times, I also felt like I was being preached at by an evangelist. I understand that social media is a new and necessary way of reaching our audiences. However, some of us have to take baby steps rather than jumping headlong into the deep end of pool. I had a client once who insisted he needed a blog to reach out to his employees and gather feedback from them. Against our recommendations, he got his blog. He posted to it and asked the employees to leave him feedback or ask questions. Being unfamiliar with this new way of interaction, they posted nothing, and he didn’t take it upon himself to write anything else for months. By leaving his blog idle, he lost all credibility.

Practical Application: For my client, Clark Taylor and AmericanVETradio, we have to start small. AmericanVETradio isn’t selling a standard product like a book or an airline trip; it is selling a service, an online radio network dedicated to bringing Veterans news and information in one easy, entertaining package. Clark’s goal is to provide information to American Veterans through a platform of online music and entertainment. Therefore, we‘re going to have to look at Solis’ Five Ws+H+E: Who, What, When, Where, How, and (particularly) To What Extent (Engage! pages 13-15) we want to engage with our audience. We need to understand which tools they are comfortable with that we can manage during our infancy. We want to ensure that what we start we will be able to sustain and build onto logically later.

Clark has talked about starting with a Twitter account and building from there. I think Twitter and Facebook might serve as the easiest and most fruitful paths to start down. With a Twitter feed, we can highlight stories coming up on the air and build a network of followers who can then retweet the updates to others. We can do similar posts on Facebook. I discovered another, somewhat similar, internet radio station, American Veterans Radio, which is slightly more than two years older than we are, but has only been on Facebook since last August. They don’t seem to have anything other than a Facebook account to support their station, and the site doesn’t seem to have a lot of interaction.

Since we won’t have credibility up front, we will be able to use Facebook and Twitter feeds from organizations such as the departments of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Defense who will own the information we will be using. For example, the Associated Press is hosting a Twitter chat with the VA on May 30 about Veteran benefits. VA, through its Twitter account, @DeptVetAffairs, is asking people to tweet questions using #APVetChat. AmericanVETradio could do a story about VA benefits and the chat, and then tell people to go to Twitter to tweet their questions. Our Twitter feed could also retweet the info for our followers. Once we have built a core group of followers and have established some credibility, I think we can move toward other new media such as blogs. It all starts with baby steps and confidence. Steve Radick, an innovator in government social media, wrote a blog called “Two Things You Need to be Successful When Using Social Media.” He says you need loads of self-confidence and extreme self-awareness. I think we’re working to develop both.