Friday, November 29, 2013

Owning a Key Topic on Social Media

 The Three-Team PR Approach
(originally published in a shorter form in PR News, November, 2013)

For the past decade, the blogosphere and the extended social media world has spawned a new and fresh cadre of industry leaders, men and women who have now transcended the Internet to become best-selling authors, convention keynoters and highly-paid consultants.  In almost all cases, these individuals have used a series of well-defined steps to become, in the parlance of social media, “subject matter experts” and even visionary “thought leaders.”  Social Networking pioneers in the public relations field include David Meerman Scott and Seth Godin, each of whom has truly excelled in this process.

This once-intuitive process is now sufficiently well-established that steps needed to capture perceived leadership in a given topic area can be replicated as part of a more comprehensive public relations program.  To do so, however, begin by really understanding the process.  Compare this online topic-dominating effort to the classic measurements of PR and advertising impact – reach and frequency.  Online success comes when the reach – the number of people contacted, and especially the number turned into followers or friends – reaches a critical mass of awareness. 

To do that, you must interact with those followers – in two distinct ways – and with sufficient regularity to become a “name” in their minds and in their word.

It is also essential that a real person be used as the public face on the effort.  In the world of social networking, “corporate” presences are not going to succeed.  Their very nature as impersonal non-persons defeats the whole concept of “social” media.  Instead, that named individual must become the visible front for this ongoing effort.  However, this person should know that it’s not really about him or her – it’s about turning them into an avatar, an image that will create its own online reality.

This individual requires a few characteristics.  First, and most obviously, his or her background should lend itself to claims of credibility in the topic matter.  Next, that person must be able to present well on camera for YouTube – as well as in front of the public as a platform speaker. They must also be effective and credible when addressing the news media during interviews.

In the social media world, the process of turning an individual into a credible subject matter expert and as a visionary thought leader begins with “content.”  This first involves creating and posting blogs and comments on others’ blogs, but it also includes creating and posting other written content, such as white papers, case studies, and eBooks.  However, because of the importance of YouTube in the online world, content should include video blogs, video white board presentations and even webinars.  To succeed, this on-topic content must be fresh, insightful, helpful and well-presented.  It must add value to the ongoing online discussion of the topic at hand.  Finally, this content must be refreshed with sufficient frequency to keep interested readers coming back for more.  Online, a steady drumbeat of new and vibrant content is essential to success.

The second step involves “conversation” – primarily tweets, Facebook posts, Linkedin comments and activity on other social networking platforms.  The more platforms involved in the process, the more impact will be created.  However, with so many social networking platforms out there, the law of diminishing returns quickly kicks in.  If staff-time resources are limited, focus conversation efforts on the big three.

The conversation process humanizes the front individual, the person who is credited with creating the content.  This begins by posting insightful brief topical comments on Twitter and other sites, posts that are, in essence, “mini-content.” These are used to establish credibility and attract subject-matter followers.  Many of these posts can be pre-written, then – using one of the social media posting tools, such as Hootsuite – this mini-content can be scheduled for posting at times and dates in the future.

However, to truly humanize the lead individual, this person’s posts must transcend the process of just adding content value. You can’t just talk to followers – you must talk with them as well.  These interactions with others must get into personal – or more accurate, seemingly personal. 

To make it personal, interactions must involve a timely and original response to all feedback comments received on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.  Interactions also involve looking behind the curtain and exposing a bit of the named person in a human sort of way.  However, these posts shouldn’t be truly and deeply personal. Instead, they should show a bit of insight into the man or woman behind the avatar.

The perception of accessibility is the goal here – conversation turns a source of useful information into a living, breathing individual, one who can be trusted by followers and friends, one who creates the perception of real relationships and online (business) friendships.  

By providing meaningful and valuable content on a regular and frequent basis, and by entering into the social networking conversation as a distinctive and humanized source, you can own a topic area – and because the Internet is so diverse, virtually any topic area is up for grabs.  No matter what your client does – no matter what area of expertise your client “owns” – the social media world is ready to entertain the bid for leadership.

To do this in an organized and professional fashion, create three PR teams, each with a specific assignment.  These teams cover content creation, conversation and the promotion of the content, both online and off-line. 

The Content Team writes the blogs and the major blog comments, as well as the case studies, white papers and eBooks.  This team also creates the video component – video blogs, white board presentations and webinars.  The content team must also create the promotional material – or at least promotional guidelines – that will be used by the Conversation Team to position new content on the various platforms for maximum impact.  The Content Team must also work with the client to become sufficiently well-versed in the subject matter to create new and meaningful content.  Finally, this team must become a high-output production house for the creation of new and exciting material for the social media world on a regular and frequent basis.

The Conversation Team handles the ongoing social networking interactions that not only promote the new content online, but also serves to humanize the titular source.  This team will then create and post – in the individual’s name and voice – a regular and frequent stream of topical and off-topic comments that will provide a three-dimensional framework for those who ultimately follow or friend the program.  The conversation team will also seek out other bloggers on the same topic, and post brief comments to their blogs – longer subject-matter comments will be written by the Content Team.  Because of the nature of the Internet, this conversation is a 24-7 process – if possible, it helps to have members of the Conversation Team located in different time zones to spread out the responses. 

Conversation is just as critical as credible content.  Without effectively humanizing the front individual, the whole effort will ultimately fail.

Finally, create a PR team.  This team will create wire service press releases about each of the key content posts, describing why they are important and providing links to that content, then follow them up with individual pitches to the top media targets.  This is where most organized social media topic ownership efforts fall flat.  To promote new content, they rely solely on postings online – on Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin and all the rest. Those online posts are absolutely necessary, but they are not sufficient.  BusinessWire-like press releases and direct media pitches to key  targets will bring new followers to the content, rapidly expanding the impact of the entire program. 

However, in addition to press releases, the PR team will also seek out breaking news on the focus topic.  Then they will reach out to the news media, including – when appropriate – talk radio and cable news or cable business news. To these news media, they will present the lead individual as a blog-published expert on the topic who can put the breaking news into perspective for the media’s various audiences. They’ll cite recent blogs or other content that demonstrates the individual’s expertise in the field and about the breaking news topic.  This will generate media coverage and broadcast participation, which will attract new followers and add credibility online to the named source.  This is another area where most purely online social media efforts fail – they don’t take it outside the four walls of the computer screen and into the larger media.

A side note:  publishing an eBook, or even announcing a forthcoming eBook, will enhance the lead individual’s credibility with the news media.  Authors have an almost automatic cachet that few others can claim.

Bottom line:  By coordinating these three efforts – content, conversation and off-line PR promotion – you can position your client as a subject matter expert on a narrow topic, and as a visionary thought leader in that same topic area.  Over time, this will all help make the person the Internet’s – and the media’s – “go-to guy” on the subject at hand, that one credible individual who is a touchstone for both online and offline discussions on the topic.

Sidebar – Creating the Conversation Team

 Creating ghost-written content is second nature to every PR professional, and that goes for media relations as well, making the creation of those two teams largely self-explanatory.  However, creating “Conversation” is far more personal, and more than a bit tricky.  Individuals on the Conversation Team are a special breed, men and women who need to be able to do the following:

1.     They should be able to look at new content, then immediately know where and how to position it online, by using social media platform posts and with various discussion groups.

2.     They should be adept at identifying, creating and posting items which seem to personalize or humanize the lead individual, based on that person’s daily calendar.  Instead of posting (in the lead person’s voice) “I’m in Las Vegas today to give a talk on such-and-such,” say something like, “I never realized what heat really was until I came to Vegas today to give that talk at …”

3.     However, the real trick is to win the confidence of the lead individual, then get inside that person’s head. It’s vital to understand their thoughts, their passions, their dreams and the things that make them eager to get up in the morning to tackle a new day.  This kind of information is essential to humanize this individual, but that only comes after trust is established. 

However, once trust is established and the client becomes an open book, judgment kicks in.  There are a string of topics that should be avoided – strongly-held political views that will polarize followers is one, of course, but taboo subjects include exposing this person’s family or intimate interactions while trying to create that humanization.  It’s a tricky tight-rope, one that requires real discernment, as well as real trust.  It takes a special, intuitive and insightful person to fill this role.

There is one other caveat to using an individual as the lead face in the program.  In most cases, the client will become the lead individual, but whoever takes the lead, that person needs to understand that this is about business, and not about them, personally.  Let me repeat:  this is not about them.  this is about the iconic “them” that you are creating to capture and own a key topic area on the Internet. 

This means, among other things, that the lead individual should not be posting him- or herself on these social media sites, and it should go a step further.  Their previous personal posts – if posted in their name – must come down.   This is a tough sell, but it’s essential to make the conversation part of the process really work.