I have seen time and time again in my work that people/organizations/campaigns who fail do so for a number of key reasons. I describe these below.

First, they are paralyzed by what they don’t know. They want to have everything figured out before they jump in instead of looking at social media as a platform for test and learn opportunities and taking advantage of them.

Second, they lack top level management buy-in and as a result, the necessary resources to successfully implement a social media plan. This one is critical, so listen up.  I NEVER try and convince social media. And I NEVER try and slip social media into a plan without having full buy-in from all parties involved. The reason for this is that no matter how well you plan your social media, something inevitably will go wrong or something unexpected will happen; and when it does, if there has been no consensus built, then the risk of negative backlash will be much greater. If you build consensus then others around you will feel committed to make it work and will support a strong response strategy.

Third, they try and apply traditional marketing practices to a non-traditional environment. Social media is different than all other mediums in how it works. The access to data, the iterative algorithm development, the need to stay fresh and relevant all make this medium less than static and require constant attention, education, and maintenance. Therefore, applying old methods of communication will just not cut it.

Finally, they avoid active participation. Social media is a commitment and it requires active participation – both from the regular management of social handles to the active review of data to iterative campaign adjustments based on those data. It also should mean regular reporting and status updates to superiors, team members, clients, and other stakeholders. This helps with improving the campaign, staying abreast of metrics and garnering continued buy-in. Without these, a campaign will languish, data become defunct, and social media will fail to achieve its goals.

Part two of my 3-part series on the basics of social media focuses on guiding principles. Sometimes we have to make the hard choices or say the things that clients don’t want to hear.

“No, you shouldn’t do a Facebook page because you are not willing to commit appropriate resources.”

“No, you shouldn’t be on SnapChat because everyone else is.”

The guiding principles below are those things that should guide our work with clients and drive our recommendations when it comes to social media planning. However, often they get forgotten or overlooked.

Know your social media pole position (of influence). The term, pole position, comes from motorsports and refers to the car sitting the lead position. Google defines it as “a leading or dominant position”.[1] For social media, this means understanding why consumers would want to come to you for information or resources. What puts you in a leadership position in your industry? And this isn’t going to be the same for every brand, organization or campaign. You need to figure out the “Why me?” and then have the answer to that question drive your content and engagement strategies. 

Humanize your brand. Remember social media is “social”. As such, think about the personality attributes of your brand. Social media requires dialogue and response so how will you talk with your customers? How will you address conflict? How will you handle criticism? How will you handle compliments? All of these are connected to your brand’s voice but this becomes exacerbated in social media because of the multidirectional nature of the medium.

Commit & organize. Assigning resources to social media is critical for success. Many companies assign a junior level person, or an intern or a part time person to do social media for their organization or project. Unfortunately, while this may seem like a budget-friendly approach, it won’t lead to success in the long run. Social media is 24-7 and as such appropriate resources need to be allocated to support a venture into social media. As well, just because a more junior person may use social media frequently doesn’t mean that they are properly equipped to manage social media on behalf of your brand or company. Consider social media as an extension of your public persona and as such ensure that it has the senior level leadership and guidance that any other marketing channel would require.

Remember “relationships 101”. Think about the first time you went out with you partner. Would you have gone out on a second date with that person if he/she had only talked about themselves? Perhaps, but more than likely, no. This is the same in social media. It’s not about you, it’s about a dialogue. You earn the right to talk about yourself. Don’t shout, listen. So sit back, order another cocktail and enjoy the relationship.

Understand managed vs. paid. It used to come as a big surprise to folks when I would share that not all of social media is organic; rather, there are paid mechanisms for gaining fans, raising content visibility, promoting messages and/or products. Now this is more common knowledge. Regardless of whether you regularly buy social ads or this is new information for you, keep in mind that social media is just that – media – and as such there are both paid and earned opportunities. These can complement each other but also create competition among brands. The playing field may be more level than broadcast advertising but it is not entirely even.

Fully utilize your assets. Social media extends the value of your assets. What I mean by that is you probably have a lot of content already – presentations, white papers, videos, audio clips, images, key points, data, graphs/charts, etc. – and before you set out to create all new social media content, look through your coffers to see what is already in existence that can be re-purposed, unpacked, repackaged for use in social media. This helps to extend the value of what you have already invested into the development of that content. Additionally, look for that content that you created but never used. For instance, outtakes for that promo video you created, the pieces of an interview that got left on the cutting room floor, or behind the scenes footage from a photo shoot. All of this unused, untapped, unseen content is currency in social media and gives your following something special that no one else has seen. What a better way to say, “thank you!” for being a member of our community.

Compulsively seek snowballs. It is most often the case that anyone that says that they can make a viral video does not know what they are talking about. Unless you have a number of key variables like celebrity or humor, it can really be hard to make your piece of content stand out from the pack. Having said that, though, there are levers that can be pulled to raise the visibility of a piece of content – paid media, leverage influencers, mix your communication methods by including traditional PR with your original social media content, etc. Look for these “snowballs” and try and get your content integrated into them. 

When I work with clients or internal staff on social media projects, I always start by providing an overview of how to understand social media for their work. A part of this is debunking myths to get them to break preconceived notions and ideas about social. I explore some of these below.

  1. “Social media is just a fad.” There was a time when social media was thought to be a “flash in the pan”, but those days are gone. Today, media outlets only want pitches that include social media extensions; healthcare is migrating online; and news is shared 24-7 via social networks. Platforms may come & go and ebb & flow, but the concept of social media is here to stay.
  2. “Social media is cheap.” Again, at one point, social media had this halo of “cheaper channel for message distribution” and it was not really common knowledge that not only does it cost a lot to manage social media handles but as well there is paid social media, i.e. social ads. Recently, this is becoming more common knowledge and with Facebook’s shift towards a “pay to play” model, this is becoming more commonplace. The fact remains, social isn’t cheap or free or inexpensive. It costs money and requires an investment.
  3. We can’t measure results in social media. Again, there are different takes on social media measurement. There of course is lots of data. What that data means is another question. And what you do with that data or if/how that data can work for your business or research question is another question, all together. However, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t data there or that it isn’t measureable. Key to debunking this myth is setting appropriate goals and figuring out what metrics matter to you.
  4. “Social media might work for certain industries but it won’t work for us.” Years ago, social media was more quickly picked up by entertainment or celebrity brands, and more traditional brands like those in health or government were less willing to invest and experiment. That is shifting now. Nevertheless, there are still many businesses and industries that shy away from using it but more and more there are examples from all types of industries that can serve as models for those newer to social media.
  5. “Let’s make a viral video!” One of my favorites! No one can ever just develop a video and make it go viral. Unless you have GREAT content. And maybe a celebrity or two. And babies and puppies. And cats. And Ryan Gosling. If you’ve got all of that, then maybe, just maybe, you will have an immediate viral video. So if anyone tells you they can do this, run. Run fast. In the opposite direction. Now that is not to say that there are levers that can be pulled to get a video in front of more eyeballs, but it isn’t magic and it does require planning and work.
  6. “YouTube is only for humorous or celebrity video content – we cannot associate our brand with those!” For those of you that don’t know, YouTube is the second largest search engine online. Yes, it has all sorts of content but it is the number 2 platform that people use to get information so considering it as part of your social media strategy is critical to raising the visibility of your content, brand, campaign, etc.
  7. “I’ve started a Facebook page so, Check! I’ve got social media covered!” Another favorite! It is an actual pet peeve of mine when people think of social media as being Facebook and Twitter. There is so much more in social – outreach, listening, paid ads, etc. – so think about it more broadly and realize that “doing social media” doesn’t mean that you need to have a Facebook page. There are ways to engage that do not require these mainstream direct-to-consumer platforms – and that might make it easier to jump in and ultimately more successful in terms of your goals.
  8. “Let’s just delete all the negative comments so no one will see them.” Social media is meant to be transparent, and thinking you can just delete all the “bad stuff” won’t work in social. Either you’ll use your credibility with your community or you’ll get called out on it. Think about it like a relationship - if you are committing to it, you are committing to all of it - the good, the bad and the “delete-worthy” stuff too. 
  9. “We’ve got to have this all figured out before we jump in.” Social media is constantly changing, new platforms are emerging, olds ones fade away; populations migrate; devices and platforms change and evolve. The simple fact is that is if you are waiting for start your social media until you understand it all and have it all figured it out, you’ll miss out on so much opportunity. Consider how to start slow and bite off small pieces until you are comfortable. 

In the days and weeks ahead, I am going to be posting a series of blog posts about getting started in social media. The topics that will be covered include debunking myths, understanding and adhering to best practices and thinking creatively about how to use it. 

I hope you enjoy and will share your own thoughts. 

A collection of presentations I have given over the years on the intersection of digital, social, tech, health and innovation. 

May 8, 2013 Sentiment Analysis Symposium presentation in New Yorik, NY


Talking with Research Into Action at DHCX 2013 about the importance of researchers and health communicators working together to translate research data.

I heard once that the myth of the unicorn came about because people saw an Oryx – a species of antelope – from the side and mistook its two horns for 1 single horn. This evolved into the myth of the unicorn which is now imbued with mystical and magical powers including the power to render poisoned water potable and to heal sickness.[1] 

In some ways, social media could be viewed as the Oryx of the communications era we find ourselves in today. It is a communications channel that we have come to believe has the ability to effect change unlike anything we have ever seen before. It seems unusual and different. We don’t understand it so we put it the “mysterious” box. We love it and think that it is the only way we will ever market a product/program/brand again. And we expect extraordinary results from any encounter with it.

But is it, in fact, a unicorn, or just an Oryx?

Well, let’s look at the evidence:  

Social media are happening across the globe. Globally there are more than one billion people on Facebook and YouTube is the second most used search engine in the world. In terms of US users, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, as of August 2012, 69% of online adults in the US use social networking sites. In relation to Spanish-speaking audiences in the US, recent results from Univision’s Hispanic Patient Journey Study found that 57% of Hispanics report that friends and family are a primary source for information, as compared to 41% of non-Hispanics.  Furthermore, research in the US shows that minorities use the popular social media platforms, i.e. Facebook, similarly to non-minority groups.  In addition, while smart phone penetration is lower amongst minority populations, these groups are using advanced features on their basic mobile telephones to engage online. Moreover, the data extends to global populations where data on usage are even more pronounced.  India is poised to become the largest Facebook market by 2015 and its online access is driven by mobile devices with over 700,000,000 subscribers and an additional 200,000 being added daily; people in Japan spend more time online than any other country at 2.9 hours per day and it is the only country where Twitter is bigger than Facebook; Sweden is the most connected country in the world; Brazil has the third largest population of Google+ users; Russia is home to over 40,000,000 blogs; and finally, China’s largest social network is Qzone with over 530,000,000 users. These numbers continue to grow daily demonstrating the global use of this medium.

Social media is unlike any kind of communication channel we have ever seen before. There has been a paradigm shift with the advent of social media. It has broken down barriers between consumers and brands, health providers and patients[2], and governments and their citizens[3]. Alex Bogusky, co-chairman CP&B, said, “You can’t buy attention anymore. Having a huge budget doesn’t mean anything in social media…The old paradigm was pay to play. Now you get back what you authentically put in. You’ve got to be willing to play to play.”[4] Compounding this is the speed with which these messages can be shared and discussed in social media. MarketingCharts found that a Facebook post will get half of its reach in the first 30 minutes after it is published.  If we compare this to the viral spread of an email – 23.63% of all email opens occur within the first hour after delivery - it is clear that social media possesses a unique ability to reach and engage enormous numbers of people and spread rapidly important prevention information.

Carpenter Group says that social media is different from other communications channels in three fundamental ways – Volume, Viewpoint and Value.[5] In terms of ‘Volume’, they argue that social media has exponentially increased the amount of content available online compared to offline. And the data supports this statement. We know that photos are shared twice as often as text-based content, and videos are shared twelve times more than text-based content and links combined.[6] With 340 million tweets per day[7], over 5 million visuals uploaded to Instagram every hour,[8] 4 billion hours of video uploaded per month[9], 1.6 million searches for information per day on Twitter[10], and 100 billion applications downloaded per week on mobile devices[11], it is clear that the amount of content created and recreated in social media is unparalleled. In terms of ‘Viewpoint’, they argue that social media has created a shift from information about a product to information about a person’s perspective on a product. The rise of social media has revolutionized the customer experience allowing for the first time opinions, intentions, and discussion about a brand or product to be quickly and publically communicated.[12] Moreover, in the last year, a host of new networks has suddenly entered the picture. According to forbes.com, in 2012, “Instagram saw its share of social media traffic grow by 17,319 percent, while Pinterest grew by 5,124 percent.”[13] Similarly, looking forward, we can expect to see the emergence of additional new players. What this means is that new influencers in social media are created and will continue to be created daily. As analyst James Murray of Experian says, “Offering deeper functionality combined with a lower technical barrier to entry will mean new leaders in social media being created in a matter of days versus weeks and months.”[14] Finally, in terms of ‘Value’, they argue that social media has made possible the ability for that content to be shared in a timely, targeted and real way.[15] This is supported by data collected in a study conducted by PulsePoint Group and The Economist which found that the top two areas of value for social media engagement for businesses are (1) improved marketing and sales effectiveness and (2) increased sales and market share.[16] Moreover, while the average return on social engagement is between 3-5%, the most engaged businesses are reporting a 7.7% business impact from social engagement. This is four times the performance of the lowest performers who only achieved a 1.9% estimated return.[17]

Ultimately, the ability to quickly churn out updates or data, efficiently disseminate information and engage audiences, lower operating costs because of the lack of the need for printed materials, offer a platform for conversation and dialogue about consumer experiences, and show positive impact on business suggests that this channel is unique from all other communication channels that have come before it.

Social media is sparking change across a variety of sectors. Socialnomics author, Eric Qualman, calls it a “revolution”[18], and Mashable.com says that social media is revolutionizing how we recruit and retain talent in our organizations[19]. Forbes calls 2013 the year of Social HR.[20] With 75% of HR executives stating that they think their company is behind the curve in terms of internal and external social networking, 2013 is expected to bring with it the push for integrating social media into corporate recruitment efforts and employee engagement and development. As well, today’s IT purchasing decision makers depend on social networks to inform every step of the purchase journey.[21] Finally in both the health and government sectors, social media is revolutionizing services and patient care. The 2012 election saw heavy use of social media with statistics such as “Facebook [increasing] voter turnout directly by 60,000 voters and indirectly by 280,000”[22], and “Relationships [exerting] about 4 times more influence on mobilizing voters than the message”[23]. As well, the current administration’s push for digital government to increase transparency, efficiency and citizen engagement and the emergences of patient-based platforms such as PatientsLikeMe.com represent tidal shifts in how traditionally conservative sectors are changing because of the advent of social media and the opportunities that have come with it.

Social media is not opt-in. Whether you or your campaign, program or brand is participating, social media is having an impact.[24] People can co-opt messaging, state their own opinions and share information about your brand widely and quickly – and you as the brand do not ever have to open a platform like Facebook or Twitter for that happen. Others are doing that for you. With 48% of customers saying that companies should listen in social media to improve products and services, 64% of customers wanting companies to respond to social comments, 42% of customers expecting companies to respond to positive comments in social media, and 58% saying that they want companies to respond to complaints in social media, the data support this.[25] In fact, roughly 68% of consumers know that companies are listening[26]; and with this trend, many companies are responding – they are listening online to understand what is being said, staying abreast of issues or trending topics, squashing controversies before they become out of hand, and responding to influencers who are talking about them. In fact, 42% of companies have social listening as a top priority in 2013.[27]

The amount of social media data out there warrants the need for a social media “brand ambassadors, community & content managers, and evangelists”.[28] With all the content being created in social media, the speed with which that content is shared, and the required real-time engagement and response, it is becoming clear that we can no longer delegate the social media strategy and platform management to interns and junior or part-time staff. Rather what has emerged are dedicated full-time professional roles skilled and experienced in the area of social media. Mark Smiciklas from socialmediaexplorer.com says that, “[this notion of full-time employees dedicated to social media] is far more realistic than the notion that organizations can get value from the social channel by investing “15 minutes a day”.”[29] That is to say, that the wealth of data available through social media is unlike any other communications channel out there, it is overwhelming and needs a senior curator in order to make sense of it all.

Ultimately, the evidence is strong for the argument that social media in not just another Oryx. There is evidence that social media is no longer a fad and is used globally in many different ways. There is evidence that social media is unique from all other communication channels because of the amount of content produced, the speed with which it created and shared and the fact that this has driven the need for social media managers and curators. There is evidence that social media has also single handedly driven change in perspective giving the viewpoint to the consumer and that these conversations are happening whether brands or campaigns are participating or not. Finally, there is evidence that social media drives cost efficiency, business objectives and is changing many industries.

So maybe social media is something really quite unique. And maybe – just maybe – it is a real unicorn.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unicorn, accessed November 26, 2012

[7] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twitter, Accessed April 12, 2013

[10] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twitter, Accessed April 12, 2013

[18] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3SuNx0UrnEo, accessed November 26, 2012