A journey of engagement.

Social media is about people – people engaging with each other. So simple, and yet this basic concept has, I believe, been the major stumbling block for companies trying to embrace social media.

Lots of people like using social media. They like the social interaction, the sharing and collaborating. But companies aren’t people and, I believe, are inherently at a disadvantage when using this technology.

So many companies use social media so very poorly.

On Twitter, I hardly even follow any companies anymore. If I have a reason to tweet with a company, I actually feel a little vulnerable. They know who I am, they can see my profile, my photo, links to my website. I’m a person. Who are they? Who am I speaking with? When I deal with a company in person, I deal with a customer service representative, often wearing a name tag. On the phone they always tell me their name (or at least a name). The interactions get humanized, at least somewhat.

But on social media, a very human way of interacting, it’s all anonymous on the company’s side. Some have taken steps to add tags indicating which person on the social media team is tweeting, but I don’t think that really works – it’s unintuitive and clunky. And, ultimately, who the hell wants to engage with someone on a company’s social media team?

Why can’t social media connect the network of employees at a company to their customers? Why not decentralize the staffing of an organization’s social media presence? Why can’t this model of human interaction actually drive the social media strategy?

Over the next few blog posts, I’ll explore some of my evolving views on social media. I think we’re finally coming out of the experimentation phase and embarking on something much more interesting. I often reflect on something Ron Shevlin once said to me, that social media will be as profound a change as people think, but it will come at a much slower pace (did I get that right, Ron?). In the meantime, here’s a professional Vancity example I want to share.

Vancity’s Twitter pilot.

Vancity got on Twitter “late”. And there are good reasons for that – mostly we weren’t ready to do it in a way that was as authentic as how we like to show up in community. Now that we have jumped on board, we’re taking a slightly different approach. My view is that social media is about illuminating the network that makes up Vancity. As a co-operative, Vancity is a network of employees, individual members, business members and not-for-profit, social enterprise & co-operative members. Social media should make it easier for those people and groups to connect directly with each other. That’s an exciting part of our value proposition as a financial co-operative that we’ve only just started to really explore.

Vancity on TwitterA couple of months back, we quietly started a Twitter pilot at Vancity. We recruited staff across the organization who met basic criteria, like having their manager’s approval, gave them some basic training, our super-simple social media guidelines, asked them to use the #VancityCU hashtag and unleashed them to represent us, just like they do in real life. We had a nice mix of staff sign up and the group slowly expanded to represent a decent cross-section of departments across Vancity and the geographic regions of our branches.

My own view is that on Twitter, mostly the @Vancity account should merely retweet what our employees have to say. When a member walks into a branch, they don’t speak to Vancity, they speak to a specific person, with whom they hopefully develop a relationship. I believe that, in a perfect world, the @Vancity account would have nothing original to say, and all news, information and interactions would directly originate with one of our employees (but life isn’t that pure).

At Vancity, our approach is on community engagement, not straight-up communications or member service. We published our employees’ social media guidelines transparently on Vancity.com for all to see, and trust that the people who interact with members on a daily basis, handling large cash transactions and financial advice, can handle social media equally responsibly.

This subtle difference in approach is, I think, fairly profound. Allowing any responsible employee to be on social media, and use @Vancity to amplify their voice when what they tweet is relevant to the Vancity world is a pretty cool model. Not a model just any organization can replicate, because it gets to the heart of the culture we have.

I’m learning a lot from our employees, because we’re harnessing the wisdom of crowds a little. I’m only as smart and creative as I can be, but 25 employees across the organization bring their own ideas to the game and make us all better. (I distrust rules for stuff like this, but I have started preaching the 1% rule, where I’d like 1% of Vancity’s 2,200 employees engaging authentically on social media.)

It’s an exciting time, and we’re embarking on some new ways of doing old things. I’ll be posting more about our journey in the coming weeks and months. Please stay tuned, and leave a comment so I know what you think.

16 thoughts on “A journey of engagement.

  1. Great Post William. Social Media should be an extension of who and organization is. Authenticity is key and will come through in spades if a company is trying to be something that they are not.

  2. I agree with Lesley-Anne (and not just because her name is a variation of mine) – as someone who started referring to Vancity in the first person (“we”) a long time ago, it kind of hurt my feelings that @vancity wasn’t really there much. It’s like dating someone you are crazy about who…well, just doesn’t feel the same way about you.

    I knew, however (as per the Rules) if I ignored @vancity long enough, eventually he’d start calling. And I was right.

    • Thanks Ted, nice to hear from you, it’s been ages!

      Lesli, you were right, as always. It just took us a little while to get on the right page with it. Still lots of opportunities ahead!

  3. Insightful as always my friend!

  4. Hi Lesley-Ann! Nice to have you here. I completely relate to what you are saying, I felt that scrutiny, that absence acutely. But we needed to wait until we were ready. Lots of difficult conversations with people ahead of that curve, asking for their patience.

    Thanks for your patience, and I look forward to more of your comments over the next few posts. You are, in your own important way, a critical part of Vancity’s social media experience. I am still a fan!

  5. Leslie-Ann Drummond

    I patiently waited and waited for Vancity to enter the social media world. You’re always on the forefront of ‘new thinking’ so I found it puzzling you weren’t an early adopter. Then I concluded, ‘yeah, they’re just giving it some thought to make sure they do it right’. Social media is much trickier for financial services (especially on the investment side where industry compliance rules put up hurdles).

    It’s good to see you ‘there’ William and Vancity. Thanks for the post…and now the tweets.

  6. @Volker, you said it, you gotta put the social back into social media.

    @Tim, thanks for your comment. Not all those services have value for Vancity, in my opinion. Twitter seemed like the easiest place to pilot, prove the model and try it out. Others will follow, but having said that, most of them we won’t strategically jump onto. But, with our approach, if we truly harness the wisdom of our employees, perhaps they’ll figure out a way to use some of those tools in a way my team hasn’t. If a single branch starts doing something cool with Foursquare, all the better.

    @Christopher, thanks dude!

  7. Agree 100%. Once again, Vancity steps back and does things right.

  8. Excellent post William. I like the hashtag approach. I too have the same aversion to the faceless corporate logo avatar. I suppose this approach will also surface and highlight those that have a bone to pick, but it will also transparently show how you handle things. Kind of a public record of sorts (or at least as far back as Twitter search is working today!).

    Twitter is just one piece of the puzzle. How do you see this strategy playing out with other social media services (Facebook, YouTube, Foursquare, etc.)? Is it portable, or will you approach each service differently?

  9. @ Jim, thanks for your comment and your Tweet. Very kind of you.

    @Ron, thanks for your comment. It’s been tough staying off of Twitter until now, but there was no alternative to waiting until we were ready to do it “right”.

    I neglected to say in my blog post that we (obviously) have massive support right from the top. Although this was an approach that a few others and I wanted to launch a few years ago, this pilot started with a conversation between me and the CEO, Tamara Vrooman. Nice having a modern, young CEO to approve crazy ideas like this.

  10. What do you mean “we weren’t ready to do it in a way that was as authentic as how we like to show up in community”?

    This is social media. Don’t you know that you’re just supposed to “do it”? And that “failure” is OK, because it’s important to “experiment” and “innovate”?

    I can’t believe you actually thought this through before doing something. What’s wrong with you?

    All sarcasm aside (for the moment), what this blog post does is highlight something else that you and I have talked a lot about: Using social media to better express what the organization is all about versus using social media to become something that the organization isn’t currently about.

    Vancity is the best example I know of a financial institution that uses social media to better express it’s commitment to the community, communicate authentically, etc.

    There are too many financial institutions out there that DON’T know what they’re all about, and that struggle with communicating authentically — not just in social media, but in EVERY communication channel. For some reason, they think that being in Facebook or Twitter will magically change that. It won’t.

  11. As I just tweeted (naturally): “Perhaps the most promising experiment on Twitter by a financial institution. Good luck.”

    And thanks William for sharing…and for a very well written post that i know took a lot longer that you ever expected! (it was worth it). –Jim

  12. Jeremy Osborn

    This reminds me of some of the discussions we’ve had in the past about master narratives, like Redefining Wealth. The org that creates a strong purpose and effective overarching narrative will have room for a multitude of voices within it, so the need for control lessens if the higher purpose is designed effectively – because individuals can locate themselves within the higher purpose and lend their own story to it in a fractal-like way.

    I don’t know why, but now I’m thinking of that poster from Star Wars, where 1000 tiny images of scenes from the movie make up a giant picture of Yoda when you unfocus your eyes 🙂

  13. Using the team approach to social media works wonders, doesn’t it?!?!

  14. Hi Jeremy, so glad you were the first commenter.

    I do believe it is possible to unleash any responsible employee who wants to be on social media as a representative of the organization to do so. That wasn’t true a year or two ago, and for some organizations, it may still not be true. But I think that’s the corner we’re now turning.

    I think it’s easier for a mission-driven organization where there’s a greater likelihood that employees are there for similar, values-based reasons.

  15. Jeremy Osborn

    Hey William — great post. The trust issue is really interesting to me. Curious that companies will trust their employees with millions of dollars in financial transactions, but shy away from letting them tweet on behalf of the company. My guess is that with money it is much easier to place strict controls and policies on behaviour. But with conversational marketing things can get emotional and much more subjective, with the risk of the whole company being thrown off message by a single voice. Yet maybe it’s not as hard as one would think to put training and policies in place to prevent that too? What are your thoughts?

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