Learning to Speak on the Social Web

Everybody keeps telling you to join the conversation online. But how do you do that without knowing the right tools and how to use them? It’s like trying to speak without vocal chords or fingers to do sign language.

Brands need to master the same social-media tools their target communities use. That involves identifying the uses of each kind of digital platform by learning about them and experimenting with them.

Most people on the Web don’t use most digital platforms because they don’t understand the functionality of their features — e.g., Twitter hashtags and @replies, Diggs, etc. Many people know, for instance, that a Digg represents an endorsement of a story submitted to the Digg.com site, but they don’t know that it’s also a self-promotional action that allows a user to promote his or her own profile within the Digg.com network. The more you Digg, the more people get to know your profile, and you increase the chances of having such people Digg on your stories.

The Twitter @reply, the Facebook wall post, the Stumbleupon recommendation — they all leave a link pointing back to your profile. The more you engage with them, the more exposure you get for your digital assets.

That doesn’t mean you should bombard people with 50-percent-off Facebook coupons for anti-toe-jam socks. You want to communicate with solutions to problems. You sell by informing. A proportion of people who visit your profile will visit the link to your Web site on your profile. You want as many members of your target community — people who are interested in issues affecting your industry, or who buy your product or service — to visit your profile as often as possible.

The objective of your profile can be to influence people to stay connected with you, so they either visit your Web property or promote your activity on the social network to other members of your target community. Your exposure is then compounded when a friend’s network sees something that he promoted for you.

Digital networks also allow you to reach out to people personally where more traditional forms of contact, such as e-mail and telephone, are unavailable. You can use these private messaging features to build collaborations with other people on social-media platforms.

Traditional search functionality and the “popular” sections of digital platforms allow you to study which campaigns have been successful in engaging people on a digital network. Popular sections of major platforms include the Digg front page, Stumbleupon tag areas and Twitter trending topics (which you can study on http://hashtags.org). On platforms where it is more difficult to find popular sections, you can query case studies on tactics that have been proven to gain viral exposure with search phrases like: “[name of social network] + case study or contest or giveaway or sweepstakes or [name of other popular tactics].”

Conferences can help, too. The Search & Social Summit, for example, is aimed at teaching people how to use technological features on news aggregation channels like Digg and Stumbleupon.

Jordan Kasteler, organizer of the Search & Social Summit and its sequel, the BlueGlass Internet marketing conference in Los Angeles, teaches people how to use features on social-news aggregation platforms that are enigmatic to many online surfers. “Most conferences often neglect the social news aggregation side of social media,” Kasteler says. “We like to place this at the forefront of our training and panels. Any company or person can take what they’ve learned home, directly apply it that day, and watch the benefits of it tomorrow.”

Roy Morejon, co-organizer of Search Exchange, another Internet marketing conference, says convincing management to use social news can be a major challenge. “Many CMOs are spending against social media without being able to quantify a return on those efforts,” he says. “Without knowing your endgame, defining your key metrics and setting realistic expectations while tracking and testing your efforts along the way, many professionals fail to lay a solid foundation before a successful launch into social media.”

The beauty of making efficient use of tools on news aggregation channels like Digg is that a user can make a significant impact on an organization’s bottom line. Generating more than 1 million page views in a few days can lead to boosted search-engine rankings that can help organizations close more sales and raise enterprise CPM advertising rates.

It can be a lot easier to get executive buy-in on bigger projects when you make money for an organization after a few hours of social and blog outreach.

The same “Try before your buy” approach is embraced by new-media marketing consultant Chris Brogan, who learns how to use a social platform’s communication components to help close a sale or acquire a prospect before recommending it to a client. “It’s up to me, as their lab, to help them figure out what’s next,” he says. “They don’t have to try alongside me on the bleeding edge.”

Something as simple as a hashtag can have a far-reaching effect. Scott Gould, who runs the Like Minds conferences, assigns the #likeminds hashtag to any content associated with it. “Using this hashtag, you are more able to let people engage with the community because there is no sign up,” he says. “They can use a hashtag on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, in blog posts and comments — it’s everywhere.”

You might say, “I know what a hashtag does. I know for what purpose it’s used.” But you would be in the minority. As I have taken on more pure training engagements, I have found that communications tools that appear to be simple to tech-savvy groups can pose a significant obstacle to brands that want to communicate with their target communities.

If we are to make use of social platforms for engagement, then we must know not just what to say but where and how to say it. Many experts have great advice on what content to deliver via digital networks. But the operational advice on what tools to use and how to wield them to deliver your message is just as crucial.

Those who also stress the latter are the true pioneers of our exploration of the Web.

Neal Rodriguez covers how social media marketing is used to meet business objectives on his vlog.