Virginia Commonwealth University
RICHMOND | “I don’t think anyone’s doing it right yet,” said Kira Siddall, a social media strategist for Siddall Advertising. “You can’t do it right because as soon as someone does it right, it changes.”
The “it” that Siddall was speaking of is social media, and its proper application for businesses. With the June 28 launch of Google+, the search engine giant’s attempt at social networking, it’s hard to disagree. In just two weeks, the number of registered users had reached 10 million, and speculation is rising that it will be a serious threat to Facebook. And while Facebook might seem untouchable, it’s noteworthy that MySpace once seemed the same way.
So it’s no surprise that businesses have spent the last few years scrambling to find the best way to use social media to their benefit. But so far, no one seems to know exactly what that means, and there are still a lot of businesses doing it wrong.
“The state is a mess,” said Siddall, who’s also a founding board member of the Social Media Club of Richmond. “It’s everyone trying to figure it out.”
Scott Dickens is one Richmond resident who’s helping people try to figure it out. As president of RocketPop Media, he and his employees plan, implement and manage social media campaigns for local businesses. And he said he definitely sees a lot of people who need some guidance.
“A lot of our clients are small organizations, entrepreneurial organizations, regional business that have anywhere from 10 to a couple hundred employees,” Dickens said. “And most of them don’t understand the strategy behind social interaction online. They think of it as one-way communication, as a mechanism for getting press out there. There’s a lot of shouting from the mountaintop, so to speak.”
Dickens stressed the importance of using social media as a two-way conversation with customers.
“Part of our job is education and making people understand that to utilize social media, you actually have to be social,” Dickens said.
Dr. Marcus Messner, a professor at VCU’s School of Mass Communication, has published academic studies about the adoption of social media. He said that thinking of social media as one-way communication is the biggest mistake businesses make.
“What companies do wrong is that they do not have two-way communication,” Messner said.
“You can really engage your customers if you have two-way communication,” he said. “But then, of course, you talk about staff. If you want this two-way communication you need to have designated staff members and employees that are doing this.”
A recent study from Pew Internet and American Life Project found evidence to back these assertions from Dickens and Messner. The study, developed from a survey of 2,303 Americans, found that Internet users are more likely to be active in voluntary groups or organizations. In fact, 82% of users said that they had been active in such groups in the last 30 days, compared with 71% of non-users. It stands to reason today’s Internet users want to participate and be a part of something, so companies should take advantage of that opportunity to interact and engage. You can check out the data from “The Social Side of the Internet” from Pew Internet and American Life Project here. And here is the accompanying survey questionnaire. If you don’t have Excel, try using this viewer from Microsoft.
The staffing issue is one that can hold a company back from using social media for maximum communication potential.
“A lot of companies that are new on social media, you see that somebody is designated, and that person is doing that at 4:45,” Messner said. “Before the person goes home, you see a flow of tweets coming out. And of course, that’s better than nothing, but that’s not really engaging in social media. And the community will not value that.”
“They have to be engaged, either through an organization like us or an internal resource like staff that they hired to do it,” Dickens said. “But probably not an intern and probably not in 10 minutes a day.”
Partly because of these issues, some businesses are still reluctant to even get in the social media game. But some local businesspeople said that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“I wish there was more reluctance because not everybody belongs there,” Siddall said.
Nathan Hughes, vice president of Bandazian and Holden Real Estate and a founding board member of the Social Media Club of Richmond, agreed with Siddall that social media isn’t for everyone. He said it’s largely an issue of sensitivity.
“I’ve seen executives of major corporations really lose it online,” Hughes said. “And those people obviously aren’t suited to be on there. And if they don’t have a little bit thicker skin, then they need to not be on there because it’s very transparent and people are going to complain about you.”
Leslie Bradshaw is the co-founder, president, and chief operating officer of JESS3, a creative agency that specializes in data visualization. Wall Street Journal named her one of “Tech’s Top Women Under 30,” and she cemented her position as an expert on the business of social media last month when she served as editor of the Social Media ProBook. She said that another mistake that companies make is having a lack of strategy.
“It’s one thing to be there and it’s quite another to be objective driven and to have measurements and have real results,” Bradshaw said.
“People say ‘I want a million fans.’ And they do that because they want to prove viability in the marketplace and they want to have more fans than their competitors,” Bradshaw said. “But I always ask, ‘What are you going to do with those fans?’ I mean, you’ve essentially invited a million people over to your house for a party and the expression is, ‘What are you going to feed them?'”
But Dickens of RocketPop Media said that social media is still new, and that businesses will surely figure out the best way to use it eventually.
“I think it’s in its infancy,” Dickens said. “I think the most creative organizations are using it to strike new conversations with their customers and find new ways of communicating with them. And I don’t think that’s going to get worse; I think it’s going to get better as the tools get refined.”
And Bradshaw said that future business leaders will have a huge head-start.
“It will be a native extension of their leadership,” Bradshaw said. “Social media will not be something that has to be retrofitted. It will just be the way we’ve always done things. That’s really where it’s headed. I’d say that’s still a generation or so away but the leaders of today grew up with television. The leaders of tomorrow grew up with cell phones. The leaders of the day after tomorrow grew up with social media.”