The Smoke Monster And Social Media

by Shonali Burke on December 17, 2010

smoke monster #1Yesterday, I shared a conversation with a friend who’s been pondering The Big Question in social media:

To follow back or not?

And since I promised that I would continue with my own thoughts today, here they are.

Personally, I fall somewhere in the middle.

I also roll my eyes at the fact that whether I friend or follow someone back is such a big deal to begin with.

My aforementioned friend and I run persona-branded businesses.

That means however many or few people are working to make our businesses successful, people only know the face or persona the business has branded as the front man.

For example, the publicity machine behind Beyoncé is probably made up of at least  several dozen people, if not a hundred. We don’t know about them, so we don’t care about them. It’s not malicious, but we wouldn’t want to subscribe to Beyoncé’s team’s Twitter account, we want to subscribe to her actual Twitter account.

One only has to compare the difference between Ashton Kutcher’s followers on Twitter, in engagement and number, to any other TV or movie star on Twitter to understand the difference.

You don’t have to be a marketing major to see what that could translate to for a business, even on a far lesser scale.

Now, normally you find this kind of persona-led thing with authors, politicians, and sports celebrities, but there’s a new sheriff in town with the advent of this new-ish media – and that cat is the “web celebrity.”

You can call them weblebrities for short but then you’ll sound approximately 95% sillier than me when I do it.

The weblebrity (see?) faces a special problem, whether they have a small business owner’s following of several thousand, or a web personality’s huge band of a couple of million devotees. And this problem is one that isn’t fully addressed by the social media  tools they use to connect with their audience.

That problem is, “how do I, with integrity, sincerity and fairness, show my return adoration for the fans who are friending and/or following me?”

And this is where the follow-back issue loses its pettiness and becomes a real issue.

I would hesitate to buy from someone online if I didn’t know beforehand that channels were open to air any grievances that might come up, privately first, then in public if I didn’t get an answer. And I base my decision to be as open as humanly possible on that, knowing that there’s no way in the world I could promise to answer everyone. I know just as well as anyone else that blogs and the rest of social media are not the best places for a first attempt at getting my support question answers.

But tell me it doesn’t make you feel a little better about buying something when you see that the owner of the company keeps a few direct channels open to you, and has a history of at least attempting to be responsive.

We’re all concerned about engagement.

You can call it a BS metric if you like but I’ll bet you that when the numbers come out on this recession, we’ll see that  companies that engage prosper. (Is the recession ended? Or ending? I’ve lost track ever since I unsubscribed.) Double or nothing? Everyone who didn’t, floundered.

That’s because engaged customers buy, and keep buying if you keep engaging them. It’s not possible for a sale to be made until the customer is engaged.

That matters more in a down US economy, when people aren’t shopping out of boredom or habit, or slight preference.

I believe, that if we’re being honest, it’s price or it’s engagement. It’s either Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks.

As a customer, any time times got hard, I cut my spending budget as low as I could, rich or poor. Flush or not, I kept luxuries like chocolate and Starbucks. I spent the same amount of money, but if I was tightening my belt, I bought beans and ground at home.

And what did I add back in when I got steady again? It was always my favorite luxuries, those few hobbies or interests I had. And I was usually interested in them because they connected with me somehow: engagement.

That’s not to say the less expensive brands don’t engage, mind you. Dunkin Donuts has brilliantly connected itself to the anti-Starbucks culture. And those of us who just want a simple cup of coffee are going to Dunkins. But those of us who love the Starbucks experience aren’t converting over either.

The point of that is to say that engagement matters, and it starts with things that in day-to-day operations are petty, but in the grand scheme of things are the difference between having a customer and not having one. Any business that couldn’t afford to adjust pricing structure, and didn’t have the engagement to rely on die-hard fan purchase,s struggled. Nothing like hard times to show us what matters.

So yes, I choose following back, because I choose engagement.

And yet, I do understand why people who previously attempted to open the possibility to connect to all 10,000 of their followers later reversed their decisions, and unfollowed everyone except the people they truly cared about.

I only disagree with someone saying that the right thing for them to do is the right thing for everyone else to do across the board.

There was a time I put my private email address on my site. Then I got so insanely overwhelmed with email that I had to dedicate two days a week just to answering it, and eventually had to assign it to an assistant.

So I see why they opted out of being open. And it’s true that you can only fully engage with 100 people at a time.

But see, there’s the thing. For me there’s a different 100 people every day.

There’s no way I would have found that out if I hadn’t left myself open.

You can’t watch every football player at the same time. Can’t you still enjoy the game, though?

So no, you can’t really follow more than, say, 100 people with any decent level of engagement. But you don’t know which 100 it will be that you’re interacting with from day to day. And I’d rather err on the side of opening the channel and being overloaded, than closing it and missing the chance to make a great connection.

Instead of constantly arguing and butting heads about this issue, I say those of us who have hung out on each side of the fence state our results and keep in moving. Then there will be more time for far more pressing matters, like figuring out what all that stuff meant in the final season of “Lost.”

Why the Smoke Monster? What did those friggin numbers mean?

Come on, do you really think we’ll be talking about whether or not to follow people back on Twitter in two years? I’m pretty sure we’ll have more conversations about Lost re-runs, though, don’t you?

Image: Susie Cagle via Flickr, Creative Commons

Tinu Abayomi-Paul is a website promotion specialist and author. She invites you to join her for a 90 Minute Google Search Strategy Crash Course. Talk to her on Twitter.

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