We don't have a social media dictionary...yet. Concepts like engagement and measurement mean many things to many people. We do have best practices per se, but even those seem subjective. We hear experts telling us we have to interact with all our fans, that social media is about one-on-one conversations, and that we need to be personal in order to be successful. So, can big brands really build social media engagement?
Are the best practices the same for the brand with 500 fans as they are for the brand with five million or more? The answer to that is yes and no. The key to the discussion has to do with scale, which is one of the most misunderstood concepts in marketing, in my experience. Scale has to do with the question of proportion and size. If I build a model of the Empire State Building, I have to do it to scale. There are features of the original design I have to alter to make it work, but when the model is done, it should look the same as the original.
When a small school tries to copy a social media campaign by a bigger school, it probably doesn't fail because the audiences are different in demographics, needs, or online habits, it is because the campaign wasn't scaled correctly. You can engage with five million people without conversing with every fan--there, I said it. You don't have to like every post, comment on every picture, or retweet every tweet that praises your brand. Honestly, that would look just plain silly and unauthentic.
So what happens when you're too big to interact with every fan? The key is to scale the strategy and not the tactic. In other words, your definition of engagement doesn't change, but how you execute engagement does. And how you execute engagement depends on a number of factors, one of which is size.
Begin by understanding the brand operations where customer/fan interaction takes place, and how they can be scaled. One example is customer service: You do this whether you are a brand with 50 fans or 50 million fans. What changes as you grow in size is how you execute/scale that strategy to fit the 50 million. You may not be able to answer every phone call personally at 50 million, but you have systems in place at every stage of the sale (before, during, after) that scale to provide excellent customer service. Do you have an easy-to-find and relevant FAQ page on your website that can address customer's basic needs as your first step? Do you have personal representatives on call, by social, email, and phone, that can answer priority questions? Have you developed brand advocates that will help you troubleshoot issues within their reach on social media? What makes a company like Zappos successful is not their extraordinary products, it's their extraordinary service. And that scales at any size.
Next, look at the methods you use to communicate in social media. How do these scale when you are a big brand?
Broadcast has become a dirty word in social media, and I am not sure why. Maybe it's because it sounds impersonal. Broadcasting just means to send out and scatter over a large area. Sometimes, that is the necessary way to communicate. You can still broadcast and be personable, creative, receptive, innovative, or adding value. Those attributes don't always require two-way interaction. It is possible to broadcast and connect.
One easy way to change the way you broadcast is your voice. One of the biggest mistakes I see big brands make is writing in journalistic style rather than conversational style. There is a way to make your social media posts personal and connect emotionally to fans, even when you are broadcasting. Another one of the best ways is with good visuals. A picture is worth a thousand words and, if done well, they can connect deeply with our emotions. One word of warning: if broadcasting is your only method of social media communication, it will not build loyalty very quickly. And if you broadcast only to get your own message out without a thought to how it connects with your fans' needs, you will fail.
I can hear you already. How in the heck can I interact with 50 million people? Well, it takes some work, but all interaction takes work. To me, social media is more about making a connection to a need than it is about actual back-and-forth interaction. The difference maker in connection is that audience size dictates a need to scale your tactics. Begin by understanding what it is about your brand that connects with people. If you are a sports brand it might be your players, your traditions or history, the real-time games, the fan rituals surrounding your games, your win/loss record (yes, they are called fair weather fans), your coaches, or even the statistics. If you understand those connection points, you can offer fans access to those connection points without having to actually touch base with everyone individually. Find ways to make your story their story.
Just by looking at the partial list above we can see that different fans have different connection points. So, we interact with them by solving their problem-connecting them. Our social media content should be designed to give them access to all of the above-to make our story their story. It's not just all about the fans, or all about you, it's about bringing everybody into one experience. And remember that all content is not created equal. A picture may be worth a thousand words but some are only worth a few.
So how do we facilitate the connections? This is where the rubber meets the road. All a brand needs to do to succeed in social media is facilitate the connection that meets the needs of the fan. You've got something they want-give it to them in a way that makes a connection, not just hands off information. As Jay Baer said in Youtility, make yourself useful. The highest form of engagement comes when we facilitate a story that includes everybody's needs. When we focus on what we want to say, we drop the ball. When we know what our fans want and give it to them, we are building a relationship because we are adding value to them. And in doing so, we are also meeting our own needs as well-dedicated loyal fans that will stick with us even when we lose. The need to connect doesn't go away when we lose, it just looks different. Knowing those differences and understanding the tactics that facilitate that connection will carry big brands a long way towards building loyal fans in social media.