Tuesday Apr 23, 2013

Social Media Flashback: Tips from 1997

Prevent your social campaigns from being a Titanic failure Do you remember 1997?

The Dow Jones Industrial Average cracked 7000 for the first time. Hong Kong was preparing for “The Handover”, ending 156 years of British colonial rule. Princess Diana, Mother Theresa, Allen Ginsberg and The Notorious B.I.G. all died that year, but Rebecca Black (of YouTube’s “Friday” fame) and Kylie Jenner (of Jenner-Kardashian fame) were both born. So it was clearly a transitional year.

So aside from 1997 being the year of the Spice Girls, Titanic and the first Harry Potter book, it was also they year I started working with social media.

“How is that possible,” you may ask. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg was only 13 years old in 1997. Twitter wouldn’t launch for almost another decade.

Well, according to Forbes, the term “social media” first appeared in the news in 1997, when current Groupon CEO Ted Leonsis uttered the term while working as an executive at AOL. So the concept wasn’t totally unknown, even if the big social players hadn’t emerged yet.

But in 1997—while Leonsis was helping build one of the dotcom era’s signature companies—I was employee #2 at an independent record label in New York. My office was in a stock room, my desk was a card table, and my job was to make sure the CDs stacked up around me somehow got into the hands of people who would pay to listen to them. No small task when my PR and marketing budgets were based on available cash. And when our bank balance approached $0, I had to get creative.

So I inadvertently followed Leonsis: I logged onto our company’s AOL account (where we had our “corporate” email) and started to get friendly with existing and prospective fans of our music. Most of the bands I was working with featured former hair metal stars with surprisingly devout followings. This was back in the day of “message boards,” where it was relatively easy to identify users by tastes and interests based on the forums they contributed to. So I connected with people on these message boards, which helped me let fans know when our bands were coming to their towns, the local music stores where they could find our CDs, and generally create excitement around the products we were selling. All things that would be done today via social media channels.

This story has a bittersweet ending: despite my social marketing efforts, I couldn’t motivate enough interest to keep the record label in business. But my experience talking with customers on the internet got me a new job at an internet marketing firm, where I was assigned to lead “grassroots online marketing” for one of the world’s largest media companies. That was a nice validation of my strategy.

Flash forward to 2013. I recently told someone I had 16 years of experience in social media, referring to these days in the late Nineties. It seemed like a strange claim to make, until I realized many of the principles I followed in 1997 still apply today. For example:

Offer Something of Value: Often, the first question people asked me during my early social marketing efforts was “Aren't you spamming these conversation threads?” My answer then—as it is now—was that because we were offering something of value to a targeted list of people who announced their interests, our marketing messages should be well received. We did not bombard a Natalie Imbruglia message board with anonymous posts, shouting at people to buy her new CD. But when Imbruglia did one of the first concerts to be live streamed on the internet, we made sure her fans knew. And they were appreciative. And they watched the webcast. Everybody wins.

I believe the same holds true today: if you don’t give users something of value or a reason to care, you’re just cluttering their wall, news feed, or inbox. Give people access to exclusive content, discounts, or limited-time offers and you’ll be more likely to get their attention.

Be respectful of the community and conversation: When marketers get together to create campaign strategies and build social campaign assets, it’s easy to forget that the conversation they want to join is already in progress outside the conference room. So when a campaign is launched into the flow of user interaction, it can easily be perceived as disruptive. I definitely saw this in my AOL message board and Usenet (remember those) marketing days. If I didn't enter a conversation delicately—and with respect for the reason the users had congregated online—flame would follow.

Today, I believe it’s essential for social marketers to respect the communities and conversations they join—first and foremost. People can smell when a marketing message has been blasted into a social channel with little regard for context. This reveals that the person or brand that contributed the message has little respect for the recipient, other than the demographic they represent or the influence they wield. Even with the proliferation of powerful marketing automation tools, the human touch is key. And respect is a top human priority.

Prepare for rejection: Back in the late 1990s, I would occasionally encounter a user who would complain about my team's presence on their conversation thread. Because we were typically transparent about our identity and motivations, we were easy targets for anyone who wanted to complain about our participation in discussions among fans. Since we were in somewhat uncharted territory in those days, I didin't exactly know how to read the negative feedback. Until other people started coming to our defense. Then I realized that there will always be detractors, and it wasn't the mere presence or absence of negative feedback that defined success--it was the proportion of negative v. positive comments that mattered.

There are plenty of articles on the 2013 internet about how to respond to negative feedback on social media (here's one example). Most of them include "be prepared" as an important step. You can't be surprised when you make a mistake or encounter a troll--and the result is a snarky, pointed, or downright combative response from a user. Develop a plan and develop a thick skin. And do everything in your power to avoid one of these scenarios.

Go in for the long haul: One of the online grassroots marketing campaigns we ran for a mid-tier national band spanned more than a year. Getting a commitment from our client to continuously interact with fans for that period of time allowed us to build a rapport and identity in the online communities we frequented. This, ultimately, was the most valuable asset we generated: the trust and support of the users we targeted.

Consistency and commitment both seem to be critical aspects of current social media best practices. And I know from the anxiety I feel when I don't update this blog that an empty or untended social media channel is a sad thing. And it was as true in 1997 as it is in 2013: be present, be persistent, and take your social media seriously.

Before we leave 1997, here are two amazing songs released that year:


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