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VOL. 125 | NO. 60 | Monday, March 29, 2010

Social Media Icons

How some Memphians are taking to Twitter to promote themselves – and the community

By Bill Dries

Print | Front Page | Email this story | Email reporter | Comments ()
 From left, @projgreenfork, @FlinnShady, @MLGW, @memphisRLST8, @ChrisVernonShow are just a few locals using social media to get things done.  Photo: Lance Murphey

It’s been 46 years since Marshall McLuhan declared, “The medium is the message.”

In that time, the visionary media critic’s five-word analysis has been debated and interpreted in ways even he likely couldn’t imagine.

Today the media world is best symbolized by the human face with an intense expression bathed in LED light. You can see it at a desk, in an elevator, in the car next to you in traffic or waiting at a bus stop. It can be on a screen mounted on your wall or held in the palm of your hand.

Social media is neither virtual nor real, but it can be both. It can be anything you want it to be, including a surprise you never saw coming.

It’s not one world. And with apologies to Disneyland, it’s not a small world after all. You can be aware you’re watching a street demonstration in Iran and that Iran is a much different place than where you live. But you are seeing that demonstration as it is happening or shortly after.

Media, it would seem, have bypassed the message and become a conversation unto themselves.

Grappling as you go

“Society is still trying to figure this out,” said Dave Barger, President and CEO of LunaWeb Inc., a Memphis-based social media and Web design company.

“I’ve heard time and time again that Memphis tends to catch up to the rest of the world on a lot of innovations,” Barger said. “That’s exactly one of the reasons just over two years ago I started doing what I could to let folks know about social media so we would not be playing catch-up.”

Barger puts the city “with the rest of the leading pack right now.”

He’s also organized Social Media Expedition, a discussion group on social media from the business perspective and other perspectives.

Barger spoke to The Memphis News from “South by Southwest,” an annual Austin event best known for its new music showcases and recently an independent film festival. He’s been going for the past three years as part of a forum on interactive media.

Four years ago, Peter S. Fader, a marketing professor at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, compared social networking sites to “the Wild West,” although “it’s a little less wild,” he said earlier this month.

Clockwise from right are Margot McNeeley of Project Green Fork; Richard Thompson of MLGW; Joe Spake of Revid/Spake Realty; Shea Flinn, City Council Member; and Chris Vernon, sports radio Host.  Photo: Lance Murphey

“Facebook has achieved a level of importance in people’s lives that none of those other networks ever achieved,” he said, referring to MySpace and Friendster. “In fact, few pieces of software have ever done that. It’s so central to what people do.”

And they do it with people they may never meet in person but feel like they know.

“Social networks are very open-ended tools,” said Jayvie Canono, an “opinionato” in Maryland whose blog “One Fine Jay” is part of a social media discussion among those who build Web sites, work in social media and use social media away from work. He describes himself as a “WordPress whisperer.”

“The common understanding is that Facebook is used to connect/reconnect with people you already know, and Twitter is used to find people worth knowing.”

Social media isn’t a marketplace, but it has a business district of sorts and has spawned an industry of seminars and meetings to advise business owners on how to use it.

One of the most popular and sought after is Chris Brogan, a social media adviser and president of New Marketing Labs of Boston.

“Trust Agents,” a book he wrote with Julien Smith, has been a New York Times bestseller since its release in August.

Amy Howell, founder of Howell Marketing Strategies LLC of Memphis, found Brogan through Twitter shortly after the book hit the bestseller list and began talking to him about coming to Memphis. He’ll be in town May 6 for a social media seminar and book signing at The Peabody.

The Daily News, sister publication of The Memphis News, is a co-sponsor of the paid event, which Howell’s company is also co-sponsoring.

“Social media tools allow for connecting and publishing,” Brogan said in an earlier interview. “Publishing allows businesses to tell their own stories their own ways, without waiting for permission.”

Permission isn’t needed, but a realization that social media is not the message is necessary for success, to update the famous McLuhan quote from 1964.

“Social media is about relationships and engagements,” Howell said – a sentiment echoed by everyone interviewed for this story. “It’s quality over quantity. Just because you have a lot of followers doesn’t mean you are doing anything. It’s what you do with those relationships.”

But there are different definitions of quality, and the definition of “spam” has been expanded to describe tweets and Facebook messages that don’t meet the personal standard.

“You’re not doing (social media) for revenue. You’re doing it because it’s part of being a full-service firm. It’s not going to drive profits. It’s going to reduce risks. That’s been a revelation to me, at least.”

– Peter S. Fader, Marketing professor, Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania

One popular way of promoting a business is a Twitter giveaway in which a follower of a company gets a chance at winning a prize. Just put a hashtag before the company name or phrase and send it to those who follow you.

“Getting spammed three messages at a time by half of my users is a painful thing to sit through because I’d rather not block or unfollow these people,” Canono wrote on his blog. “They are still worth following, and it is this goodwill that I and others extend to the people we follow that companies capitalize on whenever they do these awful contests.”

Canono told The Memphis News via e-mail that he’s learned not to take unfollows personally.

“People are unfollowed for all sorts of reasons. … Online life requires a thick hide,” he wrote. “Back in the early days of blogging, bloggers went to great lengths to publicly announce or “de-link” another for “going too far.” Times have changed these days, and now, changes in relationships happen too quickly for people to care.”

There isn’t necessarily a line dividing the use of social networking for commerce, for getting to know people or to communicate with friends and family.

There does seem to be a line dividing those who acknowledge the basis for social media and those who ignore it in favor the good old-fashioned pre-computer hard sell.

Flame at your own risk

“If you’re a jerk online, you’re a jerk forever,” Brogan said in September at a conference he and Smith attended.

A five-minute clip from their presentation was posted on YouTube.

Brogan began with the line, “What happens in Vegas stays on Facebook.”

Smith said he and Brogan know people who have half a million followers on Twitter.

“If you’re annoying those users or you’re not able to treat them right or you don’t have relationships, then you have less than the guy who has 500,” he said before invoking the name of Oprah Winfrey.

“Oprah never talks about herself. She talks about this great thing and this great thing will help you.”

It’s subtlety and that can be a difficult concept in the world of the financial bottom line. It’s also a new concept in the world of broadcast media, which compete with and are part of the social media world.

Fader, who teachers MBA students at Wharton, said it’s not a difficult concept if you don’t look at social media as a direct method of selling goods or services.

Fader is a self-described “numbers cruncher” who sees marketing as just as rich in statistical data as the sports world in terms of judging performance.

His research is in using behavioral data to understand and forecast how customers shop and make other decisions. That includes behavior in e-commerce.

“You’re not doing it for revenue,” Fader said. “You’re doing it because it’s part of being a full-service firm. It’s not going to drive profits. It’s going to reduce risks. That’s been a revelation to me, at least.

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“In some sense, it’s an arms race to who can have the most responsive, friendly, transparent platform. But don’t expect there is going to be a payoff for that. And I think that’s a huge surprise.”

Fader likened social media to the customer service department of companies instead of a sales force.

“I think for the most part, the vast majority of efforts for commercial entities to go onto Facebook have led to absolutely nothing,” he said. “Having said that, it’s an absolute requirement for them to do so. That’s the paradox of it. You have to have a page up there for your brand just because people might want to see it. … It’s kind of like customer service. Companies would prefer not to have it but it’s a competitive necessity to have it.”

Ralph Berry, president of Thompson & Co. of Memphis, agrees.

Thompson’s services include “Social Media Discovery,” a proprietary product that looks at what a particular brand, company or organization’s social media level is.

“I think there are an awful lot of organizations that aren’t even thinking of it as a direct sales tool,” he said. “It’s merely an awareness tool.”

One of Thompson’s clients is Rocky Boots, a Columbus, Ohio, company that makes fashion Western boots for ’tweens to young women in their early 20s.

“It has been launched almost exclusively with social media by making it the go-to source for the information that potential customers might be interested in,” Berry said of tweets from country music events, including those of tween icon Taylor Swift.

“It’s a very narrow and targeted audience. Yeah, that’s sales oriented, but it’s not a sales site at all.”

World Wide Web-ocracy

Social media has changed Memphis’ tourism trade in just the past three to five years. The Web pages that 10 years ago were cutting edge with moving images and numerous links now seem quaint to Kevin Kane, president of the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau.

The CVB’s “I Love Memphis” site and brand is where the growth has been in the organization, with four people in interactive marketing compared to one three years ago.

“The applications and the results – I can easily see the results and I can see what it’s doing. I think we are on the right track,” he said. “We’re probably doing it better than most.”

I Love Memphis resounds with the personality of Kerry Crawford, hired by the CVB away from The Commercial Appeal’s GOMemphis Web effort.

Kane describes her as a 24-hour concierge for visitors, responding at all hours of the day and night to individual inquiries about places to eat and see.

Her descriptions are subjective but they are also as useful as knowing what the bathroom is like at a restaurant and whether the orange juice at breakfast has pulp or too much ice.

Even if she gives the place a good review, someone with a bad experience will also contribute to the dialogue and the restaurant manager will respond as well.

“Ten years ago we would be so politically correct,” Kane said. “We would just give them everything. We don’t do that anymore. We’re trying to cater to the customer. We’re trying to give them practical responses to their questions.”

Searing the CVB’s brand into a visitor’s mind isn’t a priority.

“We don’t hide the fact that I Love Memphis is being driven by the Convention & Visitors Bureau. But at the same time we try to make it a little autonomous, where it just doesn’t look like where it’s a tourism entity promoting all of the tourism things,” he said.

“We try to balance all that. That’s what our role is now.”

The CVB also is co-owner of “All Memphis Music,” the site that streams all Memphis music all the time, founded by Jon Scott and David “Flash” Fleischman, two music industry veterans with deep roots in the Memphis music scene.

Tourism marketing is also no longer about the obvious. Travelers are changing, Kane noted, and not so obvious or known attractions can make a travel itinerary as a result.

“This gives everybody an equal platform because the cost of entry is relatively cheap,” he said. “The Fire Museum can reach the same audience that a Graceland can reach. … If they have a nice Web site and they are linked properly, basically they have the same opportunity to get the same exposure. … That probably wasn’t the same a decade ago.”

Travel consumers are also different. More are explorers looking for the obscure and the places known mostly by locals.

Barger sees it as the more obvious side of the Web promise of “democratization.” Individual consumers can touch the obscure, the small, the national landmark and everything in between.

“It’s something that actually we thought the Web was going to give us back in the mid ’90s,” he said. “But the great democratization only turned out to be between big businesses and small businesses at the time. So I am elated to see 15 years down the road now, these technologies being out there for the individual citizens, consumers, to take advantage of.”

Wants and needs

Businesses are reacting to it differently than they did in the 1990s, when just a Web site with text created such hysteria.

“Everyone said, ‘Got to have, got to have,’ without stepping back and saying, ‘Why? What am I going to do with it?’” Berry said. “‘Do I have the resources to keep it up to date and relevant? And ultimately how am I going to transfer that across and make it relevant to all of the rest of the marketing that I do? We’re in the same stage now with all of the various social media tools.”

The dot com bubble and bust of the late 1990s is the example that is often used to sober expectations about what social media and social networking can accomplish.

“It’s always relevant but it’s not applicable,” Fader said.

“There was nothing to it. It was all consumer acquisition – the world jumping into it at an incredible pace,” he said. “But once they made their first purchase from Amazon – when you looked at their repeat purchasing patterns, they were remarkably similar to mundane products – soap and toothpaste.”

The mistake then, said Fader, was businesses and investors looking at acquisitions when they should have been monitoring repeat purchases or use.

“A lot of social networking as a whole is filled with hype,” he said. “But for Facebook and that central role that it plays in people’s lives – that’s absolutely the real thing.”

Where we work is also part of our lives, Canono noted. For that reason he said he is “not a big fan” of social media seminars.

“My great objection is that businesses already have a voice,” he said. “They have their employees and no paid twitterer, social media expert or number of seminars will change the fact that their best brand ambassadors are their own employees. They have to learn to relinquish a bit of message control.”

Barger called for caution and a recognition of the power users have to cease becoming consumers.

“They’re able to ignore businesses and in some cases businesses may have to be careful and not chase people away,” he said. “If a platform gets too commercialized, the people are going to move on to something else. I’m very hopeful that businesses will not overrun and conquer these platforms and scare the people off, which is where the value is to start with.”

Berry said it has changed marketing in basic ways. Users vote with their keyboards, not with their feet, and the new noise is the difference between being ignored and being shunned.

“Most of what marketing has been for years and years, really since its creation, is talking to your audience – sending messages out,” he said. “This is the first time that it’s really created a dynamic where your customers talk right back at you in real time and you can react in real time.”

McLuhan himself even has a Web site these days, even though he died in 1980. It doesn’t have a lot of bells and whistles.

It includes several other lesser known McLuhan quotes such as: “Invention is the mother of necessities.”

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