Influencing perceptions through social media

January 9, 2009

Social media has given rise to new ways to shape perceptions and influence buying decisions. From Twitter to Facebook to Friendfeed, these new social networking tools are forcing communications pros think and act differently when telling…or selling…stories. It’s a wild west out there, and there doesn’t appear to be a “right” way to use social media tools to tell stories.

Whereas the currency for traditional PR/AR is press releases, pre-briefs and buddy mails, in the realms of social media the currency is conversation. It’s a conversation about politics, the evolution of technology, what Fred is having for dinner and how angry he was for having to sit in two hour traffic on his way home. Promotion in social media doesn’t work. Participation is the principle to live by if you’re going to engage bloggers, twitterers, and the like.

So how do you get started? Having thought about this and researched it for the last couple of years, I’ve come to the some conclusions about how to effectively win “fans” in the virtual hallways of social media and online communities. I’ve identified five pillars that any communication pro should consider when trying to shape perceptions using these new tools.

1. Build your network
The first thing you need to do is build a network of friends/followers. This isn’t easy given all the noise that currently out there. You’ve got to be compelling to win friends/followers. We’re all busy and increasingly being pushed to be more accountable and productive. However, here are some key things to consider when building your network:
    a. Identify people (friends/followers) with similar interests, but don’t limit yourself to like-minded people
    b. Do not try to control your network; they are organic by nature
    c. Be yourself, authentic and transparent

The key thing to remember is that social networks are informal conversations. Traditional means of communication riddled with marketing fluff does not resonate. Trust should be your key objective when trying to build your network and that can only be achieved by adding value to the conversation and offering informed opinions where appropriate.

2. Listen
Once you’ve got a network, you need to start listening to the conversation. Keep in mind that listening really means hearing what your friends/followers are saying. If they’re talking about football, talk about football. If they’re discussing recipes or venting about their children’s grades, follow suit. Do not force the conversation to map to your motive to win “fans.” You will fail. Listening is perhaps the most important element to any effective social media influencer strategy.

3. Prioritize
You cannot follow everyone with an interesting opinion (although Tweetdeck makes it easier). You have to determine your threshold for the topics that are of personal interest to you and those topics that you’re responsible for in your line of work. If your goal is to identify a subset of people who are talking about a specific solution use a tool to identify the proper community. Free tools like Technorati can help, but if you want a more comprehensive view of the conversation look into TruCast or Radian6. These types of tools will save you time, and help you hone the list of influencers that are most relevant to your business.

Once you’ve identified the folks who are talking about your areas of interest, you’ll need to start monitoring the conversations to see who the thought leaders are. This can be tricky. There are pundits that offer opinions and those who perform more of a redirecting/retweeting function. Both groups wield influence, but it’s an important distinction that must be considered when developing your priority list.
Suggestion: I wouldn’t get too caught up in assigning so much value on followers and number of posts/tweets, as they may not be the best metrics to consider as you prioritize your list. Sometimes individual contributors can wield a lot of influence on a given topic, so you’re scope and objectives must be well defined.

Those at the top of your list should be those with whom you strive to make stakeholders in your cause. These are the A-listers that you bring in for consultations, break early news/pre-brief, invite to special events. While the A-listers are the friends/followers that can have the most impact for your cause, the B and C-listers should also be engaged on a consistent basis as well. You don’t know who they’re influencing and the impact that they’ll have on shaping perceptions in the future. My advice would be to devise tactics to engage all levels of influencers.

4. Participate
Now we’ve got a network, we know what they’re saying, and we have an idea of most influential members. It’s time to jump in the conversation. Social media is not for the timid. You will be criticized, but you’ll also get praise. It’s important to keep in mind that these people are just that…people. They don’t want to be told, they want to be informed. They don’t want to be marketed to, they want to participate in a meaningful conversation.
You can participate in many ways and in many forums. God knows there’s not a shortage of social networks or tools out there! Find a topic that’s interesting to you personally or professionally and jump in!

5. Evolve & Measure
Social media is the farthest thing from static. Any influencer program designed around social media must be nimble, agile and highly flexible. Structured programs seeking to reach new influencers across social media are doomed to fail. Again, these are informal networks, and underpinning that informality is an inherent flexibility. Businesses seeking leverage the power of twitter, Facebook, Friendfeed or blogs need to internalize the “pasta” business strategy. If something doesn’t work the first time, try a new tactic.

Determining the ROI of a new influencer strategy for social media is ill defined. Sure there are some key metrics that we can consider. Story resonance, linkages between networks, shift in perceptions, tone of posts, and number of followers/friends are all good candidates, but these are early days so the bottom line value of such programs are not as straightforward as traditional PR/AR. You’re not doing traditional PR/AR, so find what works for you and your organization by way of measuring success.

Conclusion
There are many ways to tap into the new influence peddlers out in the virtual world. Understanding who’s shaping perceptions, where they’re getting their information from, listening to the conversation and testing different engagement strategies/tactics are table stakes. While the ROI may not be readily apparent and the institutional barriers in any organization may be cumbersome, the cost of not joining in could be enormous.

I’d be very interested to hear from others how they’re using social media to shape perceptions. Please let me know your thoughts.

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