Antisocial media: Is this social media stuff really the future?

Hype aside, what does social media mean and how should a savvy executive approach it? Here are some suggestions from Executive Consultant Patrick Gray.

Over the past few months several friends and colleagues of mine have had their Twitter or Facebook accounts hacked, which was generally easily identified when fairly businesslike individuals sent out messages extolling the reader to click a link with a trite comment like "LOL." The link, of course, would download a virus or other unsavory character to the computer of anyone who clicked on it, and as one of those people unraveled the mess social media got him into, he wondered aloud whether any of this stuff was actually worthwhile.

If you buy the party line, social media is going to do everything from astronomically increase the sales of every product under the sun, to breaking the grip of ruthless dictatorships around the world. As the hype grows to a fever pitch, you could be excused for thinking that riches, enlightenment, and the dawn of world peace in our time will come moments after you log in to Twitter for the first time.

Social media is in that technical toddler stage, much like the Web in the late 1990s. Back then the thinking went that a mere presence of something between "www" and ".com" would bring instant success, and so too ring the claims of the Twitterphiles. This too will subside. So, hype aside, what does social media mean and how should a savvy executive approach it? I suggest the following:

Understand your market

While social media is a new medium, its newness does not preempt the traditional rules of marketing. Whether you're attempting to "sell" yourself as an industry expert or build buzz and kick start sales of that new breakthrough product, you must determine who the likely buyers are, whether or not they hang out on the social media circuit, and how to generate content that appeals to them. If you are attempting to market yourself as an imminently knowledgeable and employable CIO, your audience might not care about your child's soccer game, that wonderful burrito you just tore through and its associated aftereffects, or your epic struggles to complete the monthly TPS report.

There is madness afoot

The assumption that you will attract dedicated followers in the social media space is generally correct, but that can be a double-edged sword. For example, I tracked the social media response of a recently introduced motorcycle. The product was met with accolades and excitement as details of it leaked, then was rapidly and scathingly panned by these obsessive followers. Those most passionate about the product dismissed the most minor details, lambasting the manufacturer for not including esoteric and expensive components, while simultaneously complaining long and loud about the "shockingly high" proposed price. In short order, the only product that would have satisfied this bunch would have been a Ferrari sold at a Hyundai price. Imagine the peril should the manufacturer in question have taken this advice to heart. A money-losing, difficult-to-produce niche product, loaded with features that appealed to only the most technical and actually adversely affected rideability for the average user, would have resulted in a nightmare scenario for any company.

Tweet, don't repeat

If you spend a few moments on Twitter you will hear the phrase "retweet," which simply means repeating someone else's Twitter post (called a tweet), generally when it is a compelling snippet or link. If you are merely a hobbyist, repeating the tweets of others may be a fine way to experiment, and many on Twitter have developed legions of followers by merely aggregating and recycling the thoughts of others.

While this is fine for the hobbyist, if you intend to use Twitter to market yourself or your products, you must be a source of original content. Rather than obsessing over your number of followers or seeking to follow all the purported experts and pour over their posts, seek to generate quality, original content. With few exceptions, most of us are in the business of selling some sort of knowledge, whether it is a nuanced technical exposition or the emotive response you'll feel as you rev the engine of a new sports car, and those who succeed in knowledge-based marketing are those who generate compelling content, not those who mindlessly parrot the thoughts of others.

Like any marketing campaign, approach social media with a defined plan. Like many, I use Facebook to keep track of old friends but also to interact with clients and potential clients and paint a slightly more "human" picture of what is generally assumed to be a pretty dry and robotic lump of humanity: the management consultant. I work carefully to avoid less savory pictures or references or expose highly personal details, but I do try to convey a sense that I am a relatively normal and fun-loving person, under the presumption that you are more likely to hire someone you like and can relate to. I have yet to have someone throw a seven-figure contract my way merely for my artful use of Facebook, but it's one more low-cost, low-effort tool in my marketing arsenal.

Get good advice

When the Web was new, every charlatan who could spell "HTML" suddenly became a "consultant" and charged outrageous fees for lackluster or outright damaging advice. We're now in a similar situation, where one can hang out a virtual shingle on Twitter or Facebook, and overnight they're a social media maven. Even fairly rational people in internal positions may be choking on the social media Koolaid, bubbling in their exuberance for fear of appearing outside the loop but all the while advocating foolhardy and time-consuming experiments with the medium.

Approach any advisor with a healthy dose of skepticism, especially if they're unable to tie the purported wonders of social media to concrete results for your particular business, in a manner that is understandable and rational. Trust your gut, and if a proposed effort likely would not work in a more traditional medium, the "magic" of social media is unlikely to save it.

Track your efforts and have an exit strategy

Embarking on a social media campaign is time consuming and, thus, expensive. While hitting the "tweet" button has virtually no cost, a social media campaign must be planned, nurtured, tracked, and managed with the vigilance of any other campaign. Since this is often an intimate look at your brand, letting the summer intern run amuck posting on behalf of your organization is probably not the best strategy. Rarely will social media result directly in sales, and simple "brand building" is a poor excuse for an involved effort. Use social media to gather new prospects that you can track through the sales pipeline, and if the time and money required to maintain the campaign do not generate results, abandon the campaign.

Your company probably will not fold, and the Earth is unlikely to quake should you close your corporate or personal Facebook account if the effort does not pay off. If you discover trolling the social channels is taking more effort than it's worth, by all means, stop and focus those energies elsewhere. Don't maintain a poorly executed social media presence simply because the "experts" say you must.

While social media is certainly effective when used correctly, it is simply one more arrow in your quiver of marketing arrows. Those who follow the above advice and avoid seeing social media as a "magic bullet" will likely meet with the small, incremental success that the medium generally engenders. Those who expect miracles will likely end up shuttering their accounts with lighter wallets and increased frustration.

By Patrick Gray

Patrick Gray works for a leading global professional services firm, where he helps companies rapidly invent and launch new businesses. He is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companio...