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Sociology, not technology: Building your brand through old-fashioned listening

4 min read

Brands & Campaigns

This post is by Kaukab Jhumra Smith, a contributing editor at SmartBrief.

Social media has completely up-ended traditional public relations, putting the power back into the hands of ordinary people, says Deirdre Breakenridge, co-author of the 2009 industry manual Putting the Public Back into Public Relations: How Social Media is Reinventing the Aging Business of PR. Companies can now talk directly to their consumers, rather than through gatekeepers such as journalists — and those consumers can talk right back.

Breakenridge was in Washington recently for a conference keynote organized by the Public Relations Society of America. She said understanding how social networks operate is crucial to leveraging their power for your brand. It’s not about learning to use specific social media tools. It’s about understanding the psychology of their communities.

“Social communities are more about sociology than about technology,” Breakenridge said, offering the following tips for embracing the brave new world of PR 2.0.

  • Don’t wake up one morning and decide to create a Facebook page. Think about a social media strategy. What kind of policies do you want in place before you jump in?
  • Stop and listen in. “You have to listen, so you can learn, before you ever participate,” Breakenridge said. What people are saying about your brand? What gets them excited? Identify the tone of the discussions and any keywords associated with your brand. “When you start listening to your market, you become a better resource. Suddenly, you have one-on-one conversations,” she said. “So it can go one-to-many, so it can go many-to-many, and suddenly you have communities and you have engagement.”
  • Widen your horizons. Go beyond sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Yelp and LinkedIn — there are a lot of other micro- and macro-media sites out there that do similar things. Don’t ignore them. “Did you know you can go into any one of these social platforms and put in your keywords and see if people are specifically talking about your institution?” Breakenridge asked.
  • Customize your content. If you don’t listen to your communities and adjust your story to their needs, “Guess what happens?” Breakenridge asked. “The lesson here is that it just ends up as noise. We work too hard to have that happen.”
  • Channel consumer feedback to the right department. “As you get all this rich information and you’re dissecting and analyzing, you have to share that,” Breakenridge said. “It’s not just about the PR and marketing department.”
  • Identify bloggers who are primary influencers for your industry. “They’re the influencers that are on the same level as a reporter in The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times,” Breakenridge said. “Sometimes they trump the credibility of the media.” Join their communities and establish a relationship, so that you can share news more effectively when the opportunity arises.
  • Identify secondary influencers. These are the “magic middle,” a very targeted group of bloggers who may not appear to have as much clout as A-list bloggers, but who are very close to your subject and will invest themselves in following your story. “Media feeds off bloggers and bloggers feed off media. And it works out very well,” Breakenridge said.
  • Allow all departments to represent the company. No single department, not even marketing and communications, controls social media, Breakenridge emphasized. Empower your entire workforce to shape your company’s social media presence, rather than anointing a few chosen employees to tweet or write posts.

Of course, do this with a communications plan and social media policies in place, she said –- but involving your entire staff is the best way to ensure an authentic dialogue between your company and its consumers.

What’s your social media strategy? What kind of policies do you want in place before you jump in?

Image credit, Sashkin, via Shutterstock