When a child steps up to bat for the first time in its life, the playing field is a strange, overwhelming and confusing place filled with strangers.
Similarly, when I think about crafting a social media plan for a client, I freeze in terror. My eyes cross when I see the plethora of social media platforms (check out this social media diagram). Where, why and how do I begin? In his book, Engage!, and in his blog (www.briansolis.com), Brian Solis answers these questions and guides readers in how to design, implement and improve a social media plan for their organization. Solis’s main argument is that social media has become a pervasive force in business and a tremendous opportunity for organizations to advocate for their causes (or brands) in a new, directly relational way with consumers. Solis argues that social media is so pervasive that companies can no longer afford to avoid it. They must, as he mandates, “engage or die” (xvii). Social media is changing everything about the way we “create, decipher and share information… [and] forever reshaping how brands and content publishers think about their markets and the people who define them” (xx). In order to stay relevant, we must both listen to and take part in the conversations; we must represent ourselves, and our brands, to clients where they are – and they are almost constantly consuming and participating in social media from their laptops or smartphones.
While social media may not replace traditional marketing, it calls into question the old ways of reaching customers with expensive television advertisements and billboards. According to Solis, businesses can use social media as a means of “unmarketing”, that is, personalizing brands by being genuine and human (171). We are human, after all. Solis views social media as “the great equalizer” (19), extending the reach of small organizations, opening the market to competition that might not be able to afford or wish to participate only in traditional marketing, and creating an opportunity for relationship building in which companies are engaged with and accountable to consumers. I was inspired by Solis’s call to action – so inspired, in fact, that I couldn’t put the book down one evening and took it to my son’s T-ball game. For Solis, social media is an equalizer, leveling the playing field for businesses. For me, social media is like t-ball in that it gives (sometimes for free) everyone the same opportunity at bat. Social media gives us all the same chance to get our message out, but just as some T-ball players will be stronger, have better coordination or run faster than others, stepping up to the T is only the first step. What differentiates us is how we play the game.
This semester, I’ve been charged with creating a social media plan for my client, The LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland (The Center). I read Solis with The Center in mind, and my takeaways are akin to what I’ve learned as a T-ball mom about setting the team up for success:
- Assemble the players: You need a group of people for this to work and you need to know who you are (and respond when your name is called or the ball could hit you in the face). Key to a successful social media plan is an understanding of who you are as an organization. Ask your people: “Where are we? Where do we need to be? How do we get there?” (101). What are we here for? Do we have a clearly defined mission statement and is it tweetable (103)? Who will be on our team and what roles will they play?
- Familiarize yourself with the game: Before you can understand the rules or how to play, you need to know the names of the players, learn the different positions, practice hitting the ball a few times, and understand the give-and-take of throwing and catching. As an organization, we need to know what others like us are doing in social media, what keywords people use when they look for resources like the ones we provide, etc., so we can best determine where to begin.
- Know the rules (no biting on the infield): No matter how sweet we think our kids are, we are still letting our four-year-olds loose on a field armed with baseball bats. No matter how responsible and respectful we think our employees are, we are still letting them loose in the World Wide Web to represent our organization. It is necessary to share an understanding of behavioral expectations before sending them out, and to be prepared to intervene if needed. Guidelines for the use of social media will be necessary for the success of any social media plan. As Solis said: “With social media comes great responsibility” (154).
- Are we playing the same game?: We raise our kids with our values and put their baseball gloves on for them, but when we send them out on the field, we relinquish control over what happens. It is their game. For some children, that might mean watching butterflies and blowing dandelion puffs in the outfield – not the game we intended them to play. Using social media as an organization means that our employees, members, donors (and haters) all weigh in on our products and services. Solis refers to this as the paradox of oneness: we’ve trained our participants and they know our mission, but the very act of participating in conversation means “relinquish[ing] control of the brand and message, either unknowingly or willfully” (91). It’s important to keep those that represent us on message. We all play different positions, and all of our voices are important, but we need to work toward the same goal to avoid brand dilution.
Armed with Solis’s guidebook and practicing more every day, I’m ready to play this social media game. My son celebrates the conclusion of every game, so it only seems fitting to end this post with this, calorie-free version of ice cream: Social media is like ice cream.