Social Media for Small Business: Organic and Human

I wrote this article in October 2013 while pursuing my MFA in Creative & Professional Writing. 

One thing I’ve encountered countless times while working for a marketing and advertising agency in the mid-2000s was that small businesses, non-profits, and self-employed individuals had a lack of knowledge when it came to self-promotion. It wasn’t uncommon to walk into a new client situation and view a history of bad advertisements, low-grade television spots, malfunctioning websites, and other underperforming efforts, usually self-produced by a family member with an interest in computers mid-way through their first year of college.

I understand the desire to save money, particularly for these small-scale entities and sole proprietors. Covering overhead month-to-month is critical. You do what you have to do. And I respect the DIY attitude – Do It Yourself for those who don’t know – as a hyperactive DIY streak courses through my circulatory system. I do know how to recognize, however, when I need the help of a pro, especially when it becomes an investment in the business. Chances are, the work a professional produces will outperform any low budget attempt and earn back the expenses at an exponential. The key is to continue the endeavor: a marketing campaign is only effective for as long as it lasts.

This is where social media comes in to play, as an affordable (free) DIY undertaking. Guidance by a professional marketer or advertiser will help if the funds are there to support it, but any small business or organization has full access to this broad medium.

Twitter was born during my final year at the agency. At that time, it wasn’t even a consideration as a marketing tool. If the term social media was coined by then, I don’t recall anyone ever using it. It certainly wasn’t part of the discussion at work beyond a colleague once telling me, “you haven’t heard about Twitter? You have to check it out!” Facebook was not available to the public yet, MySpace was enjoying its short-lived heyday, and LinkedIn was an up-and-coming professional networking tool. For the purposes of our clients, however, there didn’t appear to be anything in this realm worth investigating.

Fast forward six years, and I’ve spent that time working in a corporate position, managing corporate communication, and more recently transitioning to ecommerce. Social media has become a crucial medium in both disciplines. Even though I work in a corporate setting now, I still keep the small business mentality in perspective, it’s where I come from, after all, and I always want to see them succeed. And the first step in using social media to do this is to use it.

Whether we are talking about a two-person design agency, a local non-profit providing care for AIDS patients, or a freelance writer, building awareness is critical to developing new business. A web presence is standard for any business or organization that wants to be found. Not a yellow pages listing, not a classified ad in the local weekly paper, and definitely not an illegible paper sign taped to a lamppost at a busy intersection; an easy to find web presence is the norm. That’s how consumers look for services they require now, how they conduct competitive research, read first-hand customer reviews, and compare prices without leaving the couch. Consumers aren’t necessarily customers; they can be potential patients and students. And to use this to your advantage, you need to be easy to find.

Easy to find means having proliferated your web presence in various social media channels sharing interesting and insightful information relative to the services offered. More importantly, is your development of thought leadership, achieved over time and by example, through sharing knowledge and insightful information on blog posts, articles and other web media that establish a level of confidence and trust in the researching consumer. You want that potential customer to read or watch your content and feel they found exactly what they were looking for, and more.

Small organizations have a unique advantage in the realm of social media over larger corporate entities. Being small, the human factor is always prevalent. The individuals behind the business are not separated from the customer by automated phone services and faceless product websites. As a result, they are able to capitalize on their individual uniqueness made up of the services and the humans involved in providing them, not to mention local community involvement and level of volunteer commitment for the non-profits. These intrinsic human assets provide the strength and empathy required to build relationships with others who hold shared interests – as a provider or recipient – critical in developing a following to spread awareness and grow the business.

Regardless of what type of small entity I’m talking to, the rules are the same in social media. After a thorough presence has been established – an uncluttered website emphasizing your prowess, which can be achieved through a blog if you’d prefer – the second major step is relationship building. That is what social networking is all about, building relationships. There are several ways to do this; here are some I recommend based on my own experiences and successes:

  1. Join conversations. When you see a discussion topic on a social network, blog, or forum, join it. Offer your perspective rooted in your area of expertise. Be wary of offering opinions or statements you cannot back up, however, particularly in discussions with high emotions and sensitivity. Your goal is to win friends and influence others, to borrow from Dale Carnegie, not fall into arguments. Overall, maintain professionalism. And use your true identity with links back to your web presence. You’ll build credibility and potentially earn a few new followers.
  2. Share relevant and interesting information. Occasionally you will stumble across a current event that relates to your area of expertise – share it on all of your social networks. You will be surprised at how many in your audience (potential customers) appreciate reading articles they might not have otherwise encountered. This puts you in the know, you become a centralized resource for aggregating this information with a human touch, not an automated script sitting on someone’s web server delivering stories that match keywords.
  3. Insert yourself in the story. Take a page from marketing and public relations guru David Meerman Scott. In his eBook Newsjacking, Scott describes a marketing niche of inserting your perspective into a current news story. That is, you release an article, a blog post, or other communication that answers the situation at-hand in the current event, such as offering a free service to help the subject in need, or to immediately position yourself as the authority on the topic. Two important details cannot be overlooked: authenticity is a must, and timeliness is everything. The longer you wait – we’re talking minutes, maybe an hour – the sooner another will grab the opportunity before you can. It’s aggressive, but it can yield a ton of free publicity in the form of syndication by other blogs and the mainstream media, including follow-up interviews from reporters covering the event. As long as you are confident in handling what surprises come your way, newsjacking can open some major doors through social media at no cost.
  4. Be yourself. You are human. Your audience is human; they can detect the difference between authenticity and nonsense without much more than a gut feeling. Developing credibility in social media is a necessity in growing your business. Therefore, be honest and sincere, don’t exaggerate facts, and don’t speak in hyperbole. And don’t put on airs.
  5. Consistent activity is key. Setting a cadence in publishing content to your social networks and blog helps develop reader loyalty. Readers come to know your rhythm quickly, such as expecting to see a new blog every Sunday morning. There are automated tools that can help you maintain a publishing schedule, though I prefer to do it manually because it feels natural to allow some variance in the hour of day I publish. And that lets readers know I am actually performing the task, not automated software.
    You cannot forget the operative word activity in this matter; there is nothing worse to a loyal audience than a social media account or blog that has unexpectedly become dormant for a long period of time. It implies you’ve lost interest, have nothing more to say, you’re out of business, or other more tragic matters. Should a business closure occur, keep your social media presence alive, continue building your reputation, and make sure your loyal audience knows where to find you after the business closes. And if you’ve decided to discontinue your blog, give your audience the courtesy of knowing.
  6. Silence is the worst kind of response. Since social media makes businesses directly accessible to customers, feedback is bound to occur. Whether positive or negative, you need to respond in a relatively short time. Sometimes a simple message of gratitude is all that’s necessary to let your customer know you are listening and care. The same applies when a customer voices a negative response – offer to help that customer resolve the situation by replacing the product or whatever remedy is most appropriate. An unhappy customer who receives argumentative or apathetic responses is likely to share that negative experience with his or her own network. And negativity has a tendency to spread much faster on the web than positivity, an unfortunate truth.

No matter what your profession is, the size of your business, or the role you play in it, all of these guidelines are applicable. Building and maintaining relationships with your potential and existing customers is now the standard method of doing business. Once you begin this endeavor it becomes a commitment, and a valuable piece of your business growth.

Lastly, have fun with it. The best kind of work is produced when you enjoy doing it. Post content you like to write about or read. Help others by answering questions and offering suggestions. The concepts of karma apply here, through basic humanity and goodwill. Social media is an organic process; it is as human as you make it.

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My dream job

Storm cloud | source: instagram.com/dtgriffith/I was recently asked by my friend, former MFA classmate, and successful entrepreneur Joe Klemczewski, PhD, what my dream job is in terms of stepping into a company and how I would contribute to improve it. This is a question I’ve heard in various forms on job interviews, which has never been easy for me to answer. After reviewing what I had written in my response to Joe, I thought it would be worthwhile to share and elaborate on my final dream job answer here on the blog.

While it’s hard to pinpoint a specific dream job title and role, I want to ensure that I am contributing in a meaningful way, like helping employees by creating growth opportunities and a positive culture, giving back to a community through volunteerism and donation of goods and services, and improving the business’s bottom line, of course. That said, I would take a holistic approach to any type of business, big or small, by addressing the following broad areas:

  • Branding, which includes public perception that goes far beyond logo design and corporate identity, such as how employees interact with the public, how products or services are presented, and corporate social responsibility initiatives.
  • Publicity, public relations, and corporate communications. These tie directly to branding, in how brand initiatives are communicated internally among employees, and externally for promotions and in crisis situations, to name a few.
  • This, too, falls branding umbrella: the elevation of products or services wherever there is an opportunity to improve public perception, improve quality, and increase profitability.
  • Work with marketing, sales, and creative teams along with other stakeholders on strategy to achieve the above points.

Within the points listed above tactics and projects would include, but are not limited to: all forms of advertising, web and social media, print and out-of-home media, streamlined internal networks like CRMs to support these initiatives, implementing collaborative tools for employees to improve productivity and efficiency, improvements to the product and service development and management, and corporate storytelling.

I realize this is a broad scope description of a dream job with several functional verticals, but it is how I perceive businesses I become involved in. Everything listed above can be boiled down to my two core skill sets – creativity and communication. These endeavors are applicable to large multi-national corporations and small independent book publishers – the objectives and thought-processes are the same regardless of the scale and the methods are adaptable.

Some may call this commercial development or holistic branding; I’m sure there are more that aren’t coming to mind right now. No matter the term, this is what I do … this is my profession.

 

 

 

 

Banksy, my quiet hero

The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised

The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised Source: independent.co.uk

I already knew Banksy’s arrest was a hoax by the time The Independent published the story, but I’m happy to see an artist receive on-going international attention, even if it was due to the publication of a completely false news report.

The Independent: Banksy arrest hoax: Internet duped by fake report claiming that the street artist’s identity has been revealed

Banksy has struck a nerve in the global collective consciousness and I love it. I almost as equally enjoy laughing at the poorly misinformed National Report, which seems to dig for dirt on anyone who doesn’t coalesce with their political agenda while not vetting the source material. They reported on the arrest hoax as if it was a true event, detailing his alleged crimes of counterfeiting and vandalism. The undertones of the author’s excitement exuded from each account of how bad a guy Banksy is.

This isn’t nearly a one-time thing with National Report, for those of you not familiar with the agenda-driven publication, wrap your head around this headline from October 8, 2014: “Potential Ebola Outbreak Prompts Martial Law.” The president did not declare martial law. It never happened. There is no ebola outbreak in the US. In fact, it was announced yesterday that several dozen people were just removed from the ebola watch list in Dallas. Read this USA Today article for more about the good news.

It’s saddening to think our culture has produced the need for fake journalism that has only one purpose: propaganda. Rile up the base, persuade new readers to hop on the ideological bus ride into the abyss! When authentic information can’t sell an audience, the subject must not be worth selling. The intermingling of fake news with the real news is exhausting. We’ve reached a point in our culture that the audience wants only the correct news and and agreeable news, not necessarily the factual authentic news. It’s tough to determine what’s even real anymore in our jaded and skeptical society, nor do we have the time to sort out fact versus fabrication and hyperbole. You can thank 24-hour cable infotainment news networks where negative news and politically-biased news means higher ratings, increased advertising revenue, and higher stock yields.

I crave authenticity now more than ever and I always find myself turning to the creative world. There is an honesty that cannot be disputed in creative works; whether you agree with its message is your individual right. For me, Banksy’s work is the epitome of art in that it is authentic, it challenges popular opinion, questions the news media, provokes thought, evokes visceral responses, rises above expectations, and continuously catches the audience off guard.

Does a news source exist out there that meets some of my definitions of art? I have some ideas on who might, but I don’t know anymore. I don’t usually know who or what to trust. Absorbing information from one source is a risk; from several sources a comprehensive story develops filled with self-conflicting statements. I don’t have the time or resources to fact check every item of news I read, so I question everything and challenge popular opinion every day. Facts and authenticity are king and queen, and they are Banksy’s work.

The dreaded “full creative freedom”

full-creative-freedom“Do whatever you want, you have full creative freedom!

I cringe when I hear those dreaded words. You should too. No creative ever wants full creative freedom. We need parameters, deadlines, timeline, budgets, brand identity guidelines, licensing guidelines, whatever. You might as well be clearing snow from the tarmac at Liberty International with only a toy beach shovel knowing a 747 could come barreling in from any direction at any moment with no notice. Yes, the idea is really that stress inducing.

So why do I bring this up? Because I’ve heard this probably a billion times now and I bet you have too. It’s not out of malice mind you, it’s not like your manager or the VP way up the line intended to cause you turmoil, they think it’s what you desire. To the outside world, the one thing all of us creatives desire more than anything else – more than a pay raise, recognition for our hard work or a long overdue promotion – is full creative freedom. They can’t be more off the mark.

It’s a simple fact for those not in the know: full creative freedom paralyzes us with fear and anxiety. And that leads to less than desirable execution of the job at hand. And an even less than desirable job performance flag on our annual reviews.

For everyone else in the know trying to curb this problem from damaging your ego and corrupting your portfolio, I offer you these recommendations derived from my many years of trials and tribulations:

1. Ask for parameters, i.e. deadlines, intended goals, all that stuff you need and want to know.

Demand it, set a timeframe for reviews. Confirm the intent of the creative work at hand. When they say, “whatever works for you” tell them tagging your street name on each of the south-facing cubicle walls probably won’t accomplish the goal. Fun, yes!

2. Be polite and respectful, but don’t be a doormat.

It’s easy to feel compelled to say yes to everything the boss tells you. The reality is, saying yes to everything creates two problems: 1. you take on more work than you can or should handle for the timeframe; and 2. you become the go-to-guy for doing all the garbage work because no one expects you to say no. Bottom line: learn to say no, respectfully, and for valid reasons. Most importantly, don’t be pompous about it.

3. Be honest.

Tell the boss that full creative freedom is much too broad and therefore vague. She or he should appreciate this perspective, most likely having to endure a similar matter in their own job history. Honesty goes a long way in the professional world, and is often appreciated and admired.

4. Don’t bitch and complain to your co-workers about the burden you allowed yourself to take on.

First, if you allowed it to happen, you have no one to blame but yourself. Suck it up, deal with it. Don’t complain. Secondly, if you do complain to your peers, guess what? Rumors spread, faster than that blood rush to your head during that dare to hang from the hotel balcony by your feet at Spring Break. No, I never did that, I just had to create a far-fetched scenario to make sure you’re paying attention. Point is: follow the first three steps and this fourth will not need to apply. You’re  a smart person, do the right thing.

Whether you follow my advice is your ultimate decision. I share it based on a career’s worth of successes and mistakes made in the creative field. And my goal is to help you, the reader, learn from my experiences. All I ask is that you accept or decline what I have to offer with respect and dignity. I wish you all success in your creative endeavors, and to pay it forward.

Good luck.

On writing in business: 5 Steps to avoiding tone-deaf emails

going 2 lunchSince I’ve been writing about work-related communications on this blog lately, I thought I would touch on a subject that makes my teeth hurt – tone-deaf emails. Now I know the proper usage and definition of tone-deaf, but I find its concept applicable to this subject on a multidimensional scale.

Tone-deaf emails are simply emails written with a total disregard to the tone, or emotion, the message conveys. I have received a lot of them in my professional life, I’m sure you have too. There are the gratuitously angry messages like, “you NEED to do this NOW!!!” in the subject line with a blank body. And there are the five words or less messages like “thanks – got it” or “can you do it????” They seem harmless enough, but consider receiving them several times an hour – all day every day. The sheer quantity of these simple messages adds up to piles of resentment and gnawing frustration as a complete lack of humanity grows apparent.

We all need humanity in our relationships with other people; communication, emails included, is a critical element in all relationships. But you already know this. Thing is, this applies to business relationships too, they are no less valuable than one with a spouse, child, or parent. So why treat business relationships as lesser status?

Here are five steps that should take up residence in your subconscious to avoid being tone-deaf in your work emails.

1. Mood is everything.

Think about the emails that piss you off. You feel like the sender is a nasty, ego-centric ogre who shows no gratitude or respect for your valuable time. These emails suck. They throw off your mood. Don’t be one of these tone-deaf senders. Don’t be an ogre.

The solution is actually quite easy, it just requires care and attention to detail, and an extra minute of your time for review, to avoid a tenure of acrimony. Start by maintaining professionalism. Be cheerful if appropriate, but don’t ever spew anger or frustration in an email. Simply stated, be nice and respectful. Even if it’s to communicate a negative topic. It makes the recipient more likely to cooperate rather than throw a chair at your head at the next meeting.

2. Timing is everything too.

You have full control over the time when composing an email. There is no prize for clicking that send button quickly. Save a draft for later if you’re in a hurry. Review, revise, and edit what you wrote, you can avoid mistakes that would otherwise lead to several back-and-forth question and answer sessions clarifying what you originally wrote – how annoying is that? I’ve seen it happen to people I work with, it becomes stressful on both ends.

3. Be decisive.

It’s incredibly unnecessary to include your thought and decision-making processes. No one wants or needs to read, “hmmmmmm … let me think about this … maybe … not sure … well, okay …… yeah … let’s go with it.” Be decisive and direct, leave out the garbage.

4. Brevity counts, but only if it’s clear.

Like my examples in the introduction, those five words or less messages can lead to many questions wasting a lot of time. “That project from a few weeks back – status?” does not accomplish clarity, especially when considering the average person has several concurrent projects at any given time. Going back to mood, it’s easy to be ambiguous. What you may consider a good-natured message may come across as negative to a recipient who is having a bad day.

Keeping it short is fine, generally a good thing, but be specific in message and mood. Humanity matters here.

5. Good grammar and punctuation shows you care.

Just like good manners at the dinner table, good grammar and proper use of punctuation show you care about what you do, that you care about others, and how you want to be perceived. Sadly, I see a serious decline in all forms of online and digital communication. I cringe at ninety percent of the content I see on Twitter and Facebook.

There are thousands of articles on this topic available online, so all I will say is this: think about how you want others to see yourself before sending a message like: “Hey, r u going 2 lunch at 1??? Ill prolly b late.”

Take a minute to look at what you wrote before hitting send.

It’s the difference between being a good communicator or a tone-deaf pejorative you don’t want people calling you behind your back.