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.”