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.

Brother, can you spare some social capital?

I enter the New Year feeling pretty damn lucky. I have a job I love, and believe I have enough job security to weather this economic storm. But ultimately, you can’t ever be totally sure. Over 2009, I am sure some people I care about, perhaps some blogging friends, perhaps even some of my readers, will lose their jobs. It will be a tough year, and between my friends in marketing and advertising and my friends in the financial sector, it will surely be an interesting ride. Who could have guessed where 2008 would have gone? (Well, some of you might have.) I certainly make no predictions for 2009.

And ultimately, that’s why I love LinkedIn. Anyone who knows me knows I’m a bit of a LinkedIn junkie. I can’t quite explain why. It’s not that social, there not a lot to do there. But having been through the dot.com implosion, getting laid off twice as a result and watching countless friends lose their jobs made me realize that I need to be in a perpetual state of job-hunting readiness. Having my Rolodex, resume, and personal references in one place makes a lot of sense (which is what LinkedIn does at its core). I periodically groom my profile, make sure to add new people I meet or current people I know who pop up as new connections and look at the professional changes happening in my network.

Having that social capital at a constant state of readiness is just plain smart. If I ever make a move — and for my fellow Vancity colleagues who read this, let me reiterate: I certainly hope I don’t anytime soon because I have the greatest job I can imagine — I have an instant network to reach out to to start developing my next opportunity.

Writing an insightful blog and being on other networks like Facebook and Twitter (which I love, but have abandoned recently and aim to come back to) is also very important to maintaining, evolving and expanding your network, which increases your social capital (assuming you’re being authentic and have something useful to say).

All of this really came home for me when a guy I know, Warren Sukernek, Senior Digital Strategist at the VML / Wunderman Network in Seattle was laid off recently. Warren is well connected with 500+ connections on LinkedIn (working in a web-related field helps this number of connections because, like me, Warren’s connections are far more likely to be part of LinkedIn already), he speaks at conferences (I met him when we spoke on a panel together at an Internet marketing conference in Vancouver this past September and immediately liked his experience, good humour and ideas) maintains a well-regarded blog about Twitter called Twittermaven, and, not surprisingly, he has a large following on Twitter. So when Warren became a statistic in this economic collapse, he did what I’ve never seen anyone else do. He was extremely transparent about his situation, and reached out to people he knows like me to inform them of his situation and simply ask for help. He’s a very nice guy, so he did this in a very low-key and yet direct way. It made me want to help. And I clearly wasn’t alone, as we’ll see very soon.

He would have been foolish not to reap the benefits of his impressive online presence to turn this sad affair into a great opportunity, which meant getting over whatever social stigma exists around losing your job and go public with this information immediately. In addition to reaching out privately to his network, he relied on the platform for which he’s most well known and
Tweeted his predicament. He also linked to what he calls a social resume, which is a resume housed in a blog, the first I’ve seen of that, and quite a good idea for an intense job-hunting phase. He got a number of responses via Twitter, and I’m sure even more direct and private messages. He utilized his status on LinkedIn (which is where I learned about his situation), updated his blog to thank his supporters, and I’m sure harnessed whatever other social networking sites he inhabits.

And then things got kicked up to another level. Another blog I follow posted about Warren’s newest career turn. And this blog has 248,000 subscribers. Warren got a boost from Church of the Customer, a top marketing blog. They wrote about Warren much the same way I am, examining how he used his social capital to take control of a situation in which most people feel victimized and helpless. They know him as a fellow participant in the Word of Mouth Marketing community, The Society of Word of Mouth. The thing is that the blog writers, Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba, are well known authours, having written Citizen Marketers and Creating Customer Evangelists (if you don’t read their blog, check it out).

Being involved in social media in a meaningful way, in other words contributing social capital to a relevant and receptive community, now would have its rewards for Warren.

Warren blogged again, thanking his friends (like Jackie and Ben) for their support and linking back to the amazing blog coverage he has received in a post simply titled I’ve got great friends. In his blog post, he also tells his readers what they can do if they want to help him. I was impressed that Warren asked for the help he needed in a way that was polite, respectful and yet also overt and direct (I wrote him a LinkedIn recommendation as a result). And again he linked to his post in Twitter and his LinkedIn status.

So Warren is smartly cashing in some of his social capital that he has earned through his work, his willingness and even eagerness to share his knowledge and ideas online and at conferences, and his online social activities. I look forward to seeing where Warren lands. My sense is that he’ll have some choices in front of him early in the New Year.

Should the inevitable downsizing that will occur in 2009 affect any of you directly, take a lesson from Warren Sukernek and cash in your social capital to seize the day. But to do that, you need to have cultivated that social capital and have it in place for when you need it most. Because trying to build it when you actually need it will simply be too late in the game to be of any use.

I’ll add one more parting thought. If any of you know of or need a great social media-savvy digital strategist, don’t hesitate to contact Warren. Good luck Warren and Happy New Year!

Honestly, who cares about Twitter?

I often find it hard to explain the value of Twitter. The first time I tried it, like a lot of people, I didn’t get it or get into it. It was only once I found my community (in my case a community of credit union thought leaders) that it resonated with me.

Now I don’t have to figure out how to explain Twitter because the fine folks at Common Craft have produced a great new video that does that better than I ever could.

Ladies and gentlemen: Twitter in Plain English.