To Monetize Social Media, Humanize It by @amyjomartin for Harvard Business Review

Hi, I’m Amy. A quick introduction is in order here because, while you don’t know me, you may know my work. I’ve spent the past three years building an online brand you may know called Shaquille O’Neal. It’s been an amazing voyage navigating the uncharted waters of social media with this Columbus-like pioneer of the medium. Through many experiments with @SHAQ, @DoubleTree by Hilton and @TheRock among others, I’ve created some best practices, and I’ve identified some worst practices. I’ve built my own twitter presence and started a company, Digital Royalty, which assists brands of all types in increasing their influence using social channels.

I’m here to share all of this with you in a series of posts that will focus mostly on what I deal with everyday, which is the tension that persists between serious social media advocates like myself and the CEOs and boardrooms that I work with. At the highest levels of companies, a remarkably naïve cynicism about social media remains. Put it this way: If I gained a follower every time a CEO rolled his eyes at me when I said “Twitter,” I’d be Lady Gaga (11.2 million followers).

The executives’ skepticism seems to be rooted in the remarkably persistent idea that social media somehow is not worth their time, a fad, or not for serious business. I’m here to argue that their position is not only foolish, but also irresponsible.

When I try to explain why — there are, after all, nearly a billion people using Facebook and Twitter alone — they of course play the “monetization” card: “Yeah, Amy, it’s neat, and that’s a lot of people, but how do we monetize it? We can’t make money off of social media, so why should I invest in it?”

Whoever invented the term “social media” didn’t do the world a favor because, while that’s the accepted term now, it’s completely wrong, and I believe it’s part of what drives this disconnect. Social media is not really media. I think of it as a channel, more like a telephone than a TV commercial.

And when’s the last time a CEO asked, “How are we monetizing the telephone?” And has a CEO ever threatened to not invest in phones because the company can’t make money off of them?

Truth is, companies monetize the telephone quite well, and if you don’t think so, take away your company’s phones and see what happens to your top and bottom lines. Likewise, companies can monetize social media, but they have to stop thinking about it as a way to market products and start thinking about it as a way to communicate and build a brand.

How do you do that? You start by avoiding these three common misconceptions that I encounter with almost all new clients.

“Investing in social media can’t save me money.” Wrong. In fact, costs savings are the low-hanging fruit for monetizing social media. It’s remarkably easy, with minimal investment, to decrease your spend on research, customer service and advertising.

Dana White, President of Ultimate Fighting Championship (disclosure: a Digital Royalty client), who has more than 1.5 millions followers on Twitter and a global combined brand reach of more than 10 million via social media, offers value in the form of accessibility and providing exclusive, breaking news. He bridges the virtual and physical worlds by using platforms like Twitter and Facebook to meet fans in-person or sharing his phone number with millions. The UFC is saving money, historically spent on advertising, because the company has built direct communication channels with high volume reach to their audience.

Formal research typically takes months and requires healthy investment and long planning cycles. Smart companies are trading in highly rigorous research for quick, nearly scientific data collected through social media platforms. Additionally, companies are now saving dollars previously allocated to outside recruiters by using these new communication tools to recruit talent and evaluate candidates more quickly.

“I have to build a huge following to monetize social media, and I can’t do that.” Wrong. Social media is not a popularity contest. Followers don’t equal influence. Don’t make this a volume game. Compete on how much value you can offer and how much trust you can build (more to come; I will share metrics on this in a future post). Focusing on delivering value when, where and how your audience wants to receive it is a far better strategy than focusing on growing the number of followers you have. Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, humanizes his brand via social media by exposing the humans behind the brand and leading with accountability when mistakes are made. Zappos has extended its brand promise, stellar customer service, to social media channels, giving customers a forum for providing feedback when, where, and how they want to share it. Well-trained employees providing customer service via social media is an efficient way to turn negative guest experiences around and amplify positive experiences, both of which impact the bottom line.

Social marketing is a brand-building tool first and foremost. For decades, traditional advertising media have been let off the hook when it comes to measuring direct financial ROI. You should do the same with your organization’s efforts in social media.

“I can just re-use my traditional marketing in social media channels.” Wrong. Traditional branding focuses on logos. Social media branding must be focused on people. Humanize your brand is the golden rule of social media, because humans connect with humans, not logos. Traditional marketing has always approached branding as a way to control the message. Certainly the executives who are asked to share themselves and their personalities through social media struggle becoming comfortable with this (except maybe Shaq). But it’s crucial for a brand to provide access to its personalities in some capacity because logos have zero ability to socialize. Controlled messages are distrusted in a world where social media can expose them so quickly. Revealing the people behind your brand builds trust. Trust is the first step to building loyalty.

This isn’t terribly surprising. If you think about your favorite brands, you’ll quickly identify the people associated with that brand that you connect with, whether it’s a CEO you saw speak, a celebrity who endorses the brand, or someone you know directly who works for or advocates for the brand. There’s always a human connection. If the president of your company, the single most influential person behind your brand, hasn’t tried to make that connection, then he or she is missing a major opportunity to build trust and loyalty.

That’s just the beginning. It’s time for your company to cast aside its fears of social media and get started monetizing the value that is ready for the taking. It’s time to start answering the telephone.

Thanks for the read and I look forward to communicating here with you in this “space.”

Well worth a few minutes of reading.

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