Image by Mzinga Marketing via Flickr
Paul Gillin is a writer, speaker and online marketing consultant, but that doesn’t even start to describe him. He specializes in social media and the application of personal publishing to brand awareness and to business marketing. He’s also a technology journalist with more than 25 years of editorial leadership experience and is the author of two books on social media: The New Influencers and Secrets of Social Media Marketing. I had a chance to interview Paul by e-mail recently–here’s what he had to say.
Me: Tell us about your books–what motivated you to write them and what do you think the main ideas are?
PG: The New Influencers was the product of curiosity. In late 2005, I had recently left a company where I had worked for six years. I had no intention of focusing on social media, but an experience in which one of my blog entries was magnified by a link from a prominent blogger changed my life. I knew instinctively that this was going to be a revolution in media and that I had to be on board with it.
I had the luxury of some time, so I spent six months contacting everyone I could find who is active in social media and interviewing them. I also read extensively on the topic. I had convinced a small publisher to take a chance on a first-time author and I basically documented everything I was learning in the book. So this was really a voyage of discovery for me captured in book form.
Secrets Of Social Media Marketing was an effort to take some of the more theoretical lessons I’d learned and apply them practically. About half of the book is actually tips I picked up over 25 years in publishing. I discovered that many of the tactics that successful publishers use apply equally well in a social media context. We are all publishers now, but the fundamentals of good publishing haven’t changed.
Me: Who are the “new influencers” and how must marketers approach them differently than they way they formerly did their jobs?
PG: The new influencers are people who are passionate about a issue and who use a variety of new media to communicate their knowledge and interest. Many people blog or use Twitter, but only a small number really build a following and a thought leadership position. They are not necessarily on the Technorati 100 list and they do not necessarily count their visitors in the tens of thousands. In niche markets, an influencer may have no more than a few hundred daily visitors. Also, some influencers don’t have much of a following but they do influence other people who do have a significant following. This can make influencers difficult to find, but usually an hour or two spent looking around at people who are writing about a market will give you an idea of who the major players are.
Marketers need to approach these people somewhat differently than they do the mainstream media or the average customer. While I recommend treating new influencers as the equivalent of traditional media in most respects, be aware that they are often very knowledgeable about the topic and/or company. That isn’t true in mainstream media, where reporters shift beats and focus all the time. New influencers are also likely to have opinions that they express openly. Most bloggers, as you know, do not conform to the standards of impartiality that the news media does. So you have to know your product and market very well and should be prepared for some kepticism. As we know, the most knowledgeable people also tend to be the most skeptical.
Me: What do you think is the biggest thing that marketers fail to realize about social media?
PG: That it needs to be personal. I’m frequently surprised at how many marketers treat social media campaigns the same way they treated mass media campaigns. They dish out bland, homogenized messages meant to reach a large audience. That completely misses the point. Social media marketing is about influencing people interested in very specific topics, and as I noted earlier, they often are very knowledgeable. If you deliver them a press release, you’re just going to piss them off. They want to feel important. They want to be heard.
Me: Many “born on the Web” companies excel at social media, but do you have a favorite traditional corporation that has done things well?
PG: Dell does a great job, but everyone talks about them. A remarkable company whose work is less well-known is Fiskars, the Finnish maker of fine cutting tools. Its Fiskateers network has completely changed the company. Customers are involved in nearly every dimension of the products, from needs definition to design to testing and even naming. The company doesn’t do focus groups anymore and it has cut way back on market research. It pours everything into cultivating a group of about 6,000 enthusiasts who give it constant ideas and feedback. And if you think that only new age companies can do this, keep in mind that Fiskars was founded in 1649.
For all its troubles, General Motors has done an outstanding job of leveraging blogs to take his message directly to the public. is another company that has used every tool it can get to reach people with its story of reinvention. Both of these companies have some serious issues, but lack of knowledge about how to use social media is not one of them.
Me: Are there any good B2B examples of social media usage?
PG: Absolutely, although they don’t have the high-tech wizardry of the consumer apps. Blogs have been a hugely influential factor in B2B communications. In the information technology industry, you almost have to have a blog these days. Look at Microsoft or Sun, each with more than 5000 employees communicating directly to their constituents without any filtering or interference. Microsoft’s Channel 9 video initiative has done wonders to make the company more human.
Other B2B companies that are using blogs effectively include Emerson Process Management, the New York Stock Exchange, Marriott, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Boeing and . I particularly like the Emerson example. Its blog is superbly focused; it provides technical information to a small but very important audience of industrial facilities managers. And guess what? Emerson is the number one commercial link on Google for the terms “process management” and “process control,” which are the two most important terms in its business. That’s Google love at work.
Me: What’s the most surprising social media success story you know?
PG: I love this question because I’ve never heard it before. The viral successes are often unanticipated, like Gary Broelsma’s famous Numa Numa dance. But I’d probably choose Matt Harding, a college dropout who was bumming around the world a few years ago and recorded himself doing a dorky little dance in a few interesting places. The video became a YouTube phenomenon and he’s now got a sponsor that underwrites his travels as well as a side business training marketers in how to use viral video.
It’s harder to point to real surprises in business social media, but one of my favorites is Elf Yourself, an OfficeMax campaign that just had its third holiday run. I thought this campaign would get stale after a year or two, but I read last fall that something like 60 million people elfed themselves in 2008. It is probably the most successful viral campaign in history, though its relevance to an office products retailer is curious.
Me: Do you think that certain companies should avoid social media?
PG: Absolutely. Companies that sell big-ticket items to a few customers, like aircraft or industrial machinery manufacturers, are probably are better off using the phone. If your customers number in the double digits, you’re better off interacting with them on the golf course.
Another group that should approach social media cautiously is companies that are very controlling or secretive. You need a certain level of trust and openness to let your employees speak for you. Many companies aren’t comfortable with that and they should probably stay away for now. Others live in highly regulated environments or have heavily unionized employee populations. If you’re in constant open conflict with your employees, don’t give them blogs.
By the way, secretive companies aren’t just old-line insurance and manufacturing firms. I would include Apple on that list.
Me: What’s the biggest mistake that marketers make when they first start using social media?
PG: I would say starting with the tool is the most common mistake. Someone says “Let’s start a blog,” and so they figure out a way to start a blog regardless of whether a blog makes any strategic sense for them all.
Another common mistake is to treat social media as just another way to distribute press releases. If that’s all you’re going to do, you’re better off search-optimizing your press releases and using PR Newswire.
Me: What will we be talking about as the newest social media trend one year from now?
PG: I don’t think we’re going to see a lot of technology innovation in the next year because of the economy and the fact that people are still digesting everything that’s happened over the last three years. I do think we will see some intelligent integrated campaigns coming out of companies that are just starting to really put these tools to work. I’m talking about campaigns that combine blogs, Twitter, video, social networks and even live events. We’ve just come through an intensive phase of technology innovation and people need to step back and figure out what they’re going to do with all this stuff.
Me: Thanks so much, Paul, for sharing your experiences with my readers.