1. “Thou shalt communicate consistently.”
2. “Thou shalt communicate authentically (and increasingly, support authentic and transparent feedback to you from your customers).”
In the “olden” days (for me the “olden” days are roughly 2007, before I started actively studying and engaging in social media myself) simply obeying rule #1 was enough, and even that was tough, for two reasons.
--First, companies didn’t have a handle on all the touchpoints between themselves and the public that had to be controlled in order to create a consistent image. They understood that the ads and the press releases had to look the same, but they didn’t necessarily understand that the customer service reps had to make a similar impression as the ads; that the community outreach flyers couldn’t seem homemade; that internal employee newsletters played a part in what external people thought of the company; and so on.
--Second, companies didn’t understand that just because they said something, didn’t make it true in the eyes, ears, and hearts of their constituents. So for example if a crisis were to occur and they said, “we are blameless,” that did not necessarily end the public’s concerns over their behavior. Or, in a variation on this theme, they might struggle to get “key messages” worded right, but what they didn’t necessarily understand was that if the public didn’t believe the key messages in the first place, then all the wording in the world didn’t make a difference.
Beginning roughly after that, companies faced an additional imperative, and that was to engage in a new and alien world, full of weird beings, broadly known as “social media.” A universe of virtual elves sprang up to confront us in this new world, speaking in the language of “Blogger” and “Twitter” and “Yammer” and “YouTube” and “Friendfeed” and “Facebook” and “MySpace” and “LinkedIn” and “Reddit” and “Digg,” and that’s just to name a few. Forget about strategy, suddenly everybody was out there, hanging out and doing business in the equivalent of the coolest nightclub in the city, and if you didn’t go there or at least know how to get past the bouncer, you were a total relic and could be easily bypassed by your savvier competitors.
So in the beginning it was just about broadening the brand to an expression space in the world of social media. All fine and good, if you’re still in the world of Commandment #1, consistency. But increasingly, with the growth of social media came a complete revolution in the relationship between the brand and its audience. Whereas in the past the audience was happy if the brand could just be consistent in terms of explaining what it did, and of course had to deliver on its promises, now there was a new demand: that brands be so authentic, so good at what they did, that they could handle virtually uncensored self-expression with respect to who they were and what they did.
In other words, in a social media environment, for a brand to succeed it has to allow its customers and its employees to say whatever they want about the brand, knowing that those groups will ultimately tell the same story that the brand is telling about itself. That is a very, very high bar of performance for a brand to achieve and I would argue, almost unattainable. Yet it is exactly what people demand today. Anything less, to go back to focusing on image and consistency alone, leaves the brand at risk of falling into “propaganda” mode, where brand representatives are expected to robotically spew whatever the message of the moment is, even though the reality underneath may not match at all.
Let me say it again: Today, we live in an environment where branding remains as important as ever and social media is only getting more important. Therefore, not only do brands have to present a consistent image themselves, but they have to deliver on their promises so well that their stakeholders, without prompting and of their own free will, say the exact same things about the brand as the brand says about itself.
This – marrying your professional image with the public’s spontaneous impression of you - is the essence and the crux of developing a social media strategy that supports the brand, and conversely a brand that incorporates social media. It’s not about pushing out yet more messages that say the same things as your brochures. Rather, it’s about engaging the public in a conversation, building a relationship with them, promoting mutual trust between the brand and the stakeholder so that by the time the stakeholder opens his or her mouth in a blog post or a message board or a chat room or on LinkedIn, Facebook, or any other place, they are telling the brand story and even advocating for the brand more passionately than the brand can advocate for itself.
Am I saying that there is no room left for image-building? Of course not. People will always want to buy into a fantasy that they hold and that perhaps others share. Great brand-builders still know how to create new images virtually from scratch, and to generate a thirst for those images that is unparalleled. The problem, however, is in sustaining that image. It’s like blowing up a shiny red balloon: There is a part of you that wants to gaze at it, and another part of you that wants to pop it just because it’s really just a container of hot air inside. This impulse, to get to the truth of the balloon if you will, is more and more prevalent today, as leaders and celebrities fail to live up to the image of perfection they present. It’s almost like we try to tear them down before they can have the opportunity to disappoint us.
So the trick, I think, is to anticipate both the public’s hunger for image and their desire to tear down that image, and find ways to play with the tension – to surprise, and delight, and always be one step ahead of the public imagination. And that is just on a conceptual level. On a practical level, the task is to build an extremely savvy and sophisticated, fully integrated, branding and social media machine, one in which every single method of interaction both externally and internally, and every single decision, is subject to the demands of the brand. In an organization like this, the brand is based on a very simple, compelling, and broad essence that its people can support and that the public will grasp onto and buy into.
To get down to earth a bit, a perfect example of this approach at work is now-President Obama’s election campaign. The word “Change” was its brand, and it was completely effective, to the point where people still repeat it, over and over again, whether or not they agree with the President now. From a branding perspective, “Change” was simple, compelling, broadly applicable, and the public grasped onto it and bought into it completely – the right message at the right time. From a social media perspective, the communication that was coming out of the campaign was the same as the communication taking place among the public and flowing back to it. On the flowing-out side, not only did the candidate call for change, he had a history of trying to create change, and he personally, by virtue of his diverse background, represented the change the country sought. On the flowing-around and –in side, there was extensive peer-to-peer social networking, as well as YouTube and other social media expressions from the public to the candidate indicating that they understood the promise, believed the promise, and supported Mr. Obama’s ability to deliver on it. The Republican competition, with John McCain and “newcomer “political brand Sarah Palin, had plenty going for it as well, and Sarah Palin is clearly a strong brand in her own right, but they were up against such a powerful mix of branding and social media that they didn’t really stand a chance.
Some may claim that in today’s “age of transparency,” social media has superseded branding and the drive to present a unified, consistent image to the public. I totally disagree. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth: The public, bombarded both by choice and crooks, wants to deal with organizations that have a good reputation and that will treat them well as a customer. (Can anybody say “Amazon.com?”) So when you build and maintain a strong brand, one that tells its story and makes its promise consistently, over and over again, to the point where the public knows you and knows what to expect from you, you are positioning yourself effectively for success. The challenge, though, which has always existed but which is heightened in a social media environment, is that the story has to be absolutely true and the promise has to mean what it says. And when something happens to mess up the narrative, you decide to change the ending, or you can’t keep a promise, you have to communicate about it – a lot – and even be open to inviting the public in to co-create the reality of the brand with you.
This, I think, is the new reality of successfully integrated branding and social media: It’s a world where you do take the time to craft an image, but you ground that image in the facts on the ground, and where the interplay and feedback between the two is frequent, fast and furious as marketing needs and reality both shift continually. There is no longer a monolithic image, but rather a dynamic reality that is constantly in play. It’s a world, in short, where Google – which exemplifies these qualities - is consistently a top brand for a reason.
In the end, with a great brand like that, you can’t really tell where the image ends and the truth begins—and you don’t even want to.
I wrote this comment in response to an article written by Marian Salzman, President, Euro RSCG Worldwide PR, North America. (Transparency note: I worked for Marian a decade ago as VP and Editorial Director of the Intelligence Factory, she introduced me to branding, and I consider her a genius.)
It's called "How Should Marketers Use Social Media Now?", and it is aimed at marketers, not government folks implementing social media, of which I am one.
Nevertheless, I think the article is still of interest to us in the government community, not just to private sector marketing firms, because it provides some research-based insight into how people actually use social media. If the government is going to use social media to reach the public, then it is better to develop fact-based strategies for doing so rather than a shotgun, based-on-a-whim approach that may win big or fail miserably depending on mostly pure luck.
As far as my comments go, they are really aimed at anyone who is trying to represent a customer who has a message that needs to be transmitted through social media. In the private sector, that usually means a marketing company or consultant. But in government public affairs, the marketer is often inside the agency itself, since we often don't have money to spend on what is sometimes referred to as "Madison Avenue."
So, if your agency tasks you with creating a social media strategy, these are my personal thoughts on how you might do that effectively given an issue that I have identified - which is that when it comes to users of social media networks, there is an emotional conflict between wanting sponsored content to seem like "just part of our community," vs. wanting it to seem glitzy, over-the-top, branded, fancy, etc.
Here is the comment:
Here is the comment:
I think the problem for marketers is that consumers want brands to deliver both "authenticity" and "big brand glitz" at the same time. We already know that no marketer or marketing strategy can be all things to all people, as Seth Godin and Al Ries explain really well. But what we don't know is how to reach people most effectively when they are acting based on contradictory drives, ambivalence, or even unconscious needs that they can't express out loud.
The CEO of Gallup, Jim Clifton, made this point well on 11/16 when he noted in a talk (introducing the findings of a Summer 2009 survey on citizen satisfaction with their interactions with the federal government) that 70% of pre-purchase behavior is emotional, not rational, and so agencies have to look for the emotional drivers behind satisfaction if they want to get their ratings to go up.
I was reminded yesterday that you should never raise a problem without at least trying to offer a solution, so here are some thoughts on what marketers can do about this.
1. Slow down
Marketers are always in a rush to get the work done, get their money, and get out. But despite its reputation for immediacy, social media is a "slow environment" where it takes time to get to know the culture, the characters, the etiquette, and so on. (This is sort of like the "slow food" movement, which opposes the McDonaldization of our eating habits and urges people to get back to family meals, home cooking, etc.)
2. Do your homework
In my view, what marketers don't understand when they try to sell social media is that it's not only about proving that they know all the new and ever-weirder names out there for social media applications (although they do need to do that). It's also about showing a depth of understanding as to who is on those sites and what they are getting out of them. If you know your social media community, you are better able to judge whether authenticity or glitz will be most effective. A great example is the Army recruiting page on MySpace. They obviously totally understand their target audience - every single item on that page, from the videos to the wallpaper, seems carefully chosen to appeal to young people who might be swayed to consider a military career.
3. Be upfront
We are living in the age of mistrust, there is no doubt about it. That is exactly why people turn to social media, because they trust their peers and unofficial sources of information more than they trust authority and official hierarchies and corporate-approved language. So when a marketer opens up a social media channel on behalf of a client, there should be clear disclaimers everywhere making clear that the source of the information is paid-for and professional. This is why I personally have a lot of trouble figuring out the best way to use Facebook, because it is inherently a personal networking site, and yet increasingly it is being coopted for marketing purposes. It's almost like there are no safe spaces from marketing anymore, which as a consumer I actually sort of resent.
4. Be humble
Traditionally, marketers have gained the confidence of their clients by acting like they know all the answers. After all, if you are not a marketer yourself, having a business objective assigned to you that involves selling a specific amount of X, to generate a specific amount of $ by a specific date, can be as scary as hell.
But we are living in different times now and marketers have to adjust.
First of all, the Internet, and more specifically Google, has made us all experts in everything. Any idiot can do a five second search on any subject and wind up at least a little bit literate so that they can walk into a meeting and talk about it effectively.
Second, with respect to social media, it is a pretty good likelihood that the prospective client has done some preliminary research on the marketer before any meetings with them even take place. So they will know if the company has a reputation for being good at social media or not.
Third, I specialize in social media on what a marketing company would call "the client side," (I work in public affairs, but inside a federal agency), and even I can't keep up with all the new tools out there. So I know that there are very few marketers who can plausibly present themselves as knowing everything. Based on my own reactions, I think clients are more inclined to trust someone who admits they don't know everything, but demonstrates that they learn quickly and can adapt to new technologies on the fly.
5. Do your research really well - get to know your customer!!!!
This has nothing to do with social media per se but is something that marketers tend to forget. It's all about knowing your customer, really knowing your customer, and your customer is not only the person who will buy the client's product but also the client themselves. Both the client and the end customer are driven by contradictory needs, but if you know each of them well - so what? Generally speaking, when you know somebody well, you are able to understand what drives their behavior, even when a stranger would say that it makes no sense. So you can't skip the step of getting to know not only the end purchaser, but also the client, with the brains and intuition of a human being and not in a superficial, let's-get-it-over-with way. (Again, the slow factor). This may mean charging more money for your time, but if you're worth it, the client will pay, because the alternative is a crappy job that gets them in trouble when it's time to show return on the marketing investment. (Of course, the marketer has to explain this well and be able to prove their worth, which might mean taking some losses initially until they can build a track record.)
6. Build your brand
I think it is easier for people to deal with a marketer in a social media space if the marketer is clearly identified as such and also has an established reputation for doing high-quality, respectful social media work on behalf of clients (read: brand). For example, Shel Holtz is known to be a total guru when it comes to all things relating to communication technology and social media. If I were to visit a Facebook page for, let's say, Kraft, and that page had a box on it that said, "this Facebook page was built and is maintained on behalf of Kraft by social media consultant Shel Holtz," I would be much more likely to a) trust the content on that page and b) be receptive to the fact that a third party marketer had built the page on behalf of the company, rather than, let's say, employees of the company building the page themselves (which to me is not a bad idea either, if they're not PR type employees, but that's besides the current point).
This suggests a serious problem, no?
For in order to lead effectively, you have to have the trust of the people you serve.
At the very least, when you say something they should believe you.
Maybe it's time for government leaders to start listening more, rather than focusing so much on what it is that they want to say.
Something to keep in mind when developing social media tools...ask the question of how the tool will facilitate citizen engagement, or at least a conversation, rather than just providing a new and shiny kind of microphone.
I was fortunate to be there today when Gallup released the important findings and hosted an equally vital discussion about them. It was a rare opportunity to hear directly from an impressive panel of thought leaders, including Jim Clifton, the CEO of Gallup; the editor-in-chief of the Gallup Poll, Frank Newport (who was instantly recognizable from his presence on CNN), the president of the Partnership for Public Service, Max Stier; and Patricia McGinnis, a Georgetown professor who is also a White House advisor. The head of the Gallup Government Practice, Bernadine Karunaratne, led and moderated the event and was also very well-spoken.
It was also nice to be among other dedicated federal employees at this event. Their questions showed a great deal of genuine commitment and an obvious desire to improve how their agencies work. Americans should be proud that people like this are serving them every day.
Now, I’m going to complain just a little. Then I’ll offer some key takeaways and possible next steps for agencies who want to improve their standing with the public.
I. More transparency would have been nice
I was a bit disappointed by the lack of full transparency on the survey results that were publicly released. True, aggregate information was provided that allowed some comparison between one major agency and another. But in the current political climate, with a presidential directive telling federal agencies to become more transparent and right away, I would have expected more in terms of subcomponent agency data, even if it were only provided on a very general question. And I would have liked to see that data released on the Gallup website.
It’s not that Gallup is holding back the information – they offered to talk to subcomponents privately and for free about how survey respondents rated them in particular – but it was disappointing that we didn’t see more data at a “granular” level.
It’s not clear to me whether this is a marketing strategy to draw agencies into a potential client engagement through the use of a “teaser,” or whether there was some reluctance about releasing more from the survey due to the fear of potentially embarrassing (and thus losing) potential federal agency clients.
Maybe it’s asking too much for full transparency, especially since Gallup is not a government agency, but wouldn’t it be amazing if the public had access to a database of statistically rich survey information – from 42,000 citizens across the United States – comparing satisfaction with the federal government in many different ways? That would be an excellent reference point to stimulate public dialogue, to enrich academic products, to promote genuinely useful mashups and crowdsourcing about ways to improve government functioning, and overall to give the American taxpayer a sense of where people feel the public’s money is best being spent.
Perhaps the federal government could undertake this kind of transparency on its own, initiating a public satisfaction dashboard similar to the federal IT project spending dashboard, with both of these initiatives including information at the subcomponent level as well as the overall agency level. (Right now as far as I can see, the IT spending website is confined to the overall agency level.)
II. Well-meaning advice – but a little theoretical
I also would have liked to see more familiarity with government from the experts. It’s easy to preach from the outside, and everybody knows that “you can’t manage what you don’t measure,” but after that, nobody seemed to articulate exactly, specifically, what federal employees could do to improve their agencies’ standing with the public. Again, it’s not that the experts weren’t smart – they were, and their advice was sensible – but they didn’t seem to be informed enough about agency culture, and even the law, to provide truly actionable recommendations.
The most prominent example of this was when federal agencies were advised to market themselves better. While actually improving the quality of customer interactions was the primary recommendation, this one was also strongly emphasized.
Now, I have said repeatedly that I am a marketer by nature and by trade, and I know that there are serious operational reasons for marketing an agency’s mission and key initiatives. For example, if you are instituting a new regulation, and nobody knows about it, the compliance rate will be unduly low, causing the agency to pay more to ensure that people follow the rule.
However, the experts were not really talking from an operational perspective. Rather, they seemed to be operating from a private-sector model in which the public is the customer and it is the agency’s job to “sell” them on the merits of the “brand.” The one exception, and it’s a good point, was Pat McGinnis’s argument that public confidence in agencies (a.k.a. a strong brand) provides the “political capital” that government needs to make tough but necessary decisions.
Whatever, but if the experts were pushing marketing, they should have talked about the fact that there are real and also perceived legal issues surrounding “propagandizing” that can easily get in the way of agencies making their missions clearer to the public. (The one exception, of course, being recruiting, which everyone acknowledges is a legitimate reason for marketing one’s agency.)
For those who are not familiar with the “domestic propaganda” issue, a Congressional Research Service report from 2005 explains the issue well and is worth skimming through if you have the time. Basically, what it says is that agencies aren’t supposed to use taxpayer money to promote themselves, but that nobody has really enforced that prohibition except in extreme cases.
Specifically, the report notes that that although “‘appropriations law ‘publicity and propaganda’ clauses restrict the use of funds for puffery of an agency, purely partisan communications, and covert propaganda,’” it is also true that “no federal entity is required to monitor agency compliance with the publicity and propaganda statutes” and “the terms “publicity,” “propaganda,” and “publicity expert” have been interpreted to forbid a very limited number of activities.”
III. Key takeaways
Overall, despite whatever flaws there were in the presentation of the research, the Gallup survey is extremely important. This is primarily because it demonstrates a shift in terms of how government is viewing the public. The old-fashioned way, and I know this is an extreme characterization, is to see citizens as sort of hapless victims, who sort of have to take whatever the government dishes out, because the government is a monopoly and they have no alternative provider to its services. The new paradigm is to see the public as a set of customers who have the power to get rid of you if you do a bad job. The fact that they even did this survey means that they see a potential market in agencies whose way of thinking is changing, and that is great.
Secondly, the survey demonstrates the power of measurement to wake organizations up and generate significant behavioral change. To that end, Gallup’s Karunaratne talked about asking “smart questions,” the kind you need to drive change, not things that are just “nice to ask.” And Newport talked about using a number, any number (even one that generates “pushback”) as a yardstick to get a discussion going about what measures of performance matter and how well or badly the agency is doing on those. I think that as time goes on and as transparency becomes more and more the norm, we are going to see reams of data made public on government performance, on every imaginable measure, and that data is going to be used to drive tangible improvement. So it is all about the numbers, and transparency combined with numbers is probably the way to go if you’re looking at a way to start the change process.
Finally, when it comes to marketing, I go back again to Pat McGinnis’s comments, when she talked about sharing information about agencies’ performance on the things they are measuring. In today’s environment, where people don’t trust “spin” of any kind, that is the very best kind of marketing – the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. It is what people want to hear, it is news, and the more agencies share it, the more the public trusts them and wants to hear from and interact with them.
From my perspective, I think the real issue here is transparency and the inevitable pain that goes along with it, at least at the beginning. As somebody pointed out to me today, it’s like that TV show “The Biggest Loser.” One wonders who has the courage to get up in front of so many people and actually weigh themselves every week. And yet they do, and that’s what people find fascinating, and it’s also what engenders change and growth. Once an agency or any organization gets used to the fact that they have to get up on the scale and get measured, in front of their constituents, they are well on the way to realizing the vision that the President has for all of government to be fully accountable for the way it stewards the public trust – and the funds that go along with them.
Here are my favorites:
1. Every agency can use social media - no exception."Your Government agency/organization/group/branch/division is not unique. You do not work in a place that just can't just use social media because your data is too sensitive. You do not work in an environment where social media will never work. Your challenges, while unique to you, are not unique to the government."
2. Expect to confront skeptics, careerists, and other difficult people."You will work with skeptics and other people who want to see social media fail because the transparency and authenticity will expose their weaknesses (and) you will work with people who want to get involved with social media for all the wrong reasons...These people will be more dangerous to your efforts than the biggest skeptic."
3. Look inside the organization for expertise first."Before going out and hiring any social media "consultants," assume that there is already someone within your organization who is actively using social media and who is very passionate about it. Find them, use them, engage them."
4. Expect to make mistakes and shift the focus toward managing them. "Stop trying to create safeguards to eliminate the possibility of mistakes and instead concentrate on how to deal with them when they are made."
5. Stop glossing over concerns about information security. "Information security is a very real and valid concern. Do NOT take this lightly."
6. Fight the impulse to be territorial about it or to make it "somebody else's problem.""Stop trying to pidgeon-hole (social media) into one team or department."
7. Don't let social media policy be framed by those who would put employees down. "Today's employees will probably spend five minutes during the workday talking to their friends on Facebook or watching the latest YouTube video. Today's employees will also probably spend an hour at 10:00 at night answering emails or responding to a work-related blog post. Assume that your employees are good people who want to do the right thing and who take pride in their work."
8. Give people the tools to communicate, then get out of the way."Agency Secretaries and Department Heads are big boys and girls. They should be able to have direct conversations with their workforce without having to jump through hoops to do so."
9. Don't fall into groupthink when it comes to social media - encourage productive debate. "It's ok to have debates, arguments, and disagreements about the best way to go about achieving "Government 2.0." Diverse perspectives, opinions, and beliefs should be embraced and talked about openly."
10. Don't think that simply tolerating negative feedback is enough."It's not enough to just allow negative feedback on your blog or website, you also have to do something about it. This might mean engaging in a conversation about why person X feels this way or (gasp!) making a change to an outdated policy. Don't just listen to what the public has to say, you have to also care about it too."