Social Media Free-for-All

Crayon’s Joseph Jaffe recently made the case that social media shouldn’t be the preserve of digital agencies or PR shops. In doing so, he ignited a firestorm of comments across both the paid and earned camps.

The benefits of social media clearly touch every aspect of a company’s brand offering: engagement, reputation, demand and service. So, this firestorm debate may have more to do with the dysfunctions of organizational structure than the medium itself.

As social media self-organizes around psychographics-shared affinities, it is the preserve of anyone (client, agency or even rogue operative) who can answer “yes” to following:

• Do you have a compelling story to share that can open and sustain a conversation?

• Can it be communicated genuinely?

• Do you understand the true sensibility of the community with which you are trying to speak?

• Are you able to simply share and not “pitch”?

I recently visited an iconic design company that took me into its archives. Inside the vault, there were sketches, schematics and original patterns – its entire design history, including some instantly recognizable items. They indirectly asked, “Is there something cool we could do in social media with this?” Quite a lot, if you prescribe to the points above. Here’s a simple, back-of-napkin idea:

• Digitize these iconic designs and schematics.

• Publish them to a simple Flickr photostream.

• Share a link to design- and culture-minded bloggers, conversationally, with some additional context or information about what went into the creation of these iconic pieces.

• Direct them somewhere where they can find out more and engage on a deeper level with the content, be it Q&As, video interviews or other additional content.

Today, there’s simply no need for bloated and expensive microsites, hard PR or direct response marketing-style selling to present great products, work and content. Microsites are going the way of the dodo in the same way that long-lead press events are. There’s no big news hook or build-out budget. It’s as simple as sharing the right assets with the right community at the right time, reducing communication to its most conversational form.

A Fortune 10 company recently got this very right (hint: two initials; involved with the invention of the lightbulb) when it invited a few friends of mine from The Barbarian Group to simply explore the various sectors of its business — from jet engine turbine tests to wind farms — and blog about it. They did it in a highly transparent way and produced interesting content that pulled the curtain back on a major U.S. corporation in a compelling, Web-savvy way.

Goodwill begets goodwill (for the most part). If you do this sharing and storytelling well, as we saw with our unnamed Fortune 10 above, you can earn authentic word-of-mouth. In a world where people are constantly being bombarded with more advertising and branded content, this direct-to-the-consumer dialog is the Holy Grail. Needless to say, there are many parties vying for the grail right now.

Some social-media shops and experts you’ll find in the running are akin to the monorail salesman on The Simpsons, looking to sell you something you don’t actually need. This world has a tendency to suffer from “channelitis” — first it was BBSs, then microsites, then Second Life, then viral videos and then Facebook. Now it’s Twitter.

If an agency or consultant can’t begin with objectives (recognizing that different objectives map to different channels), build a plan based on this alignment and then measure it, then they need to learn how. Aimless Tweeting is for the birds.

While I certainly don’t think that traditional, old school PR is the right answer to the social-media question here, the growing importance of social media has certainly given weight to the approach of earned coverage — hopefully, the sharing of compelling stories and content. With the Internet organizing around our affinities, our passions, rather than good-old demographics, it all breaks down to who has something compelling to share and who has the desire to see it. This is the ecosystem in its entirety. The shop that’s creative enough to guide clients to bridge this gap will succeed, regardless of how they might identify themselves. A great story is a great story.

Colin Nagy is a partner at Attention. He can be reached at colin_nagy@attentionusa.com and Twitters at @colinjnagy.