Much of the PR industry’s social media dialogue focuses on a platform-specific approach. However, I’m afraid that—amidst all these Facebook plans, Twitter strategies and Pinterest campaigns—PR executives and communicators have found themselves astray from truly strategic thinking. Part of the problem is the very idea of thinking about the people who you are trying to reach as “your audience.” However, they aren’t audiences. “Audience” implies a position or a person that only exists in response to what you have to say.
As much as our brands or clients may like to believe that they command that sort of attention, it’s the lie we continually tell ourselves. It deviates from the very title on which this profession was founded: “public” relations, meaning relating to a group of people who exist outside our desires, our marketing messages and our social media profiles.
The very structure of social network platforms for companies and individuals implicitly perpetuate the lie of “our audience.”
We can easily start believing the language that people are “liking,” “following,” or “connecting” to us—when the “like” might be more like “vaguely interested,” the “follower” forgetting why he clicked that button two years ago, or the “connection” loose and weak.
Brands talk about “creating” community when even those brands that have been most successful at it—the Apples and Harleys of the world—have really been more successful by finding what people are already doing and tapping into it/having their finger on the pulse of it.
In other words, you don’t “create” a community as a brand. You court people, and publics, who already exist.
If the publics you are trying to engage with exist beyond their relationship to you, then the key aspect of your social strategy must be to listen to them. Listening to communities that already exist means being able to put yourself in their shoes.
That requires paying attention to the culture outside your walls and being able to react, not only in real time but also in ways that are relevant and attentive to the wants and needs of those communities that you care about.
The difference between listening and “listening well” is the distinction between, for instance, knowing that #WhyIStayed is trending on Twitter and realizing, in context, that it was a temporarily trending conversation focused on why people stay in relationships where domestic abuse is occurring—as DiGiorno Pizza recently learned.
And “listening well” means realizing that people may be tiring of posts that seem to capitalize on national holidays and memorials to try and hawk more products or force a brand into conversations where it doesn’t belong.
“Communities” are dynamic, transitory and, often, temporary. The most fervent discussions may pop up in response to a key issue and become an archive days later.
Those companies that are listening actively and daily and who understand how to contribute to relevant discussions—on the participants’ terms—are those best poised for success. These companies also understand when not to engage as well.
The publics you are trying to reach use particular platforms at particular times for particular purposes. If, at the time you want to engage on a subject, it makes sense for both you and your audience to participate via a particular social media site, you should do so.
But be well prepared for your audience to vote with their eyeballs, as they move onto other platforms that better serve their needs.
The teenager engaging on Facebook moves their most passionate conversations to Instagram or, even more temporarily, to Snapchat.
And the organization looking to share its photos finds that its Flickr stream will fit better in its audience’s lives on Instagram and Pinterest—for now, at least.
Where that activity goes tomorrow is anyone’s guess. Companies that dig in too deeply in building their elaborate home on one particular site might not notice that they are living in a ghost town by the time they’ve perfected their presence.
If you want to have the best chance at long-term communication success and building meaningful relationships, don’t have a Tumblr strategy or a Twitter strategy; have an engagement and participation strategy.
Special shout-out to Abigail Beal, writer/blogger for suggesting this article.
Sam Ford is director of audience engagement at Peppercomm and co-author of “Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture.” (2013). Follow him on Twitter, @Sam_Ford.
How to make your brand stand out on social media will be the focus of PR News Social Media Conference, which takes place October 9 in New York City. The conference, featuring speakers from such major brands as Google, GE and Transamerica, will offer practical knowledge that you can put to action as soon as you get back to the shop.
Topics include how to embrace “social mobility,” how to listen to the various social channels, such as Facebook and Twitter, and what’s next in digital communications. Steve Shenbaum, founder and president of game on Nation, is the Keynote Speaker, along with ample time for networking. To register, please go to www.socialmediaconfny.com.
This article originally appeared in the September 29, 2014 issue of PR News. Read more subscriber-only content by becoming a PR News subscriber today.