While I don’t believe that the richness of the online world can be reduced to a real estate analogy, that’s what I’m going with in order to explain both the way humans work, especially in concert and in community — and then I will mix my metaphors, add in some analogies about friendship and public broadcasting pledge drives — it’ll be a long journey — so, spoiler alert, I am going to give away the farm right now.
If you only give to the people and the community around you and never ask for help or for favors, people might still like you but they’ll never feel the sort of intimacy and humanity needed to really connect with you in a profound way. Instead of just building up brand equity by being the prettiest, smartest, most athletic, and also the most altruistic person in the room, try asking for help, for favors. Admit that you’re a company and organization that needs to make money in order to thrive.
Open the window to your daily challenges and processes — because in the end, people don’t enjoy being a sheep in a flock with you as a shepherd so much as they prefer to be a member of your community. The members of a community take care of each other — and that’s not just you and your brand taking care of your community (remember, they’re not your flock), it’s also about your community sustaining you as well. Stop trying to be perfect and try being human, whatever that means.
Don’t just keep on building up brand equity and good faith online ad infinitum — spend it as fast as you make it. Social media is a series of now, now, now — just like real relationships are — so saving up all that equity for periodical grandiose gifts is less appealing to your (virtual online) community than is just being there — it’s sort of like being a good parent: it’s better to be home every night at 5 and home on the weekends, boring old dad, than it is to be on the road all year or away at the office every day and Saturday on your 18-hour-days, only to buy us a car on our birthday.
As the bread winner, our brand dad, you don’t need to buy our love for us to adore you — we already do (we’re not actually related to you by blood). We have chosen to be here, but we can also chose to leave if we feel like were being ignored, abandoned, or taken for granted: don’t ever ignore us just because you already believe you have our vote.
The biggest mistake that I see on a daily basis when it comes to some of the best social media engagement strategies is that folks tend to be afraid to spend any of the good will — the equity — that’s built up, over time.
To return to the real estate theme, too many of the very best social media teams and social media-engaged brands spend all of their time doing home improvement and not enough time reaping the benefits of that selfless improvement in the form of spending off some of that equity instead of banking it.
You’re allowed to market your tenants! Don’t be afraid of your followers and friends online — they’re not only fair weather friends and they’re not just crashing there because it’s free and because you’re generous and give them free things. That they’re there for is because they have, for some reason, imprinted on you and your brand and are there not because you tricked them into liking for following you but because they arrived at your door because they were looking for you — you were either their intended destination or you’re where they ended up for whatever reason — but here they are.
And yes, the reason why they may well be there now is because you’ve been ardently building a safe, generous, happy, fun, informational, educational, responsive, and creative space for them — bravo. That said, you are running a business and at the end of the day, you are entitled to spend some or all of the equity accrued over time on converting, cross-promoting, and up-selling these fans.
You can’t save social media equity, you can only build it and spend it.
This is where I mix my metaphors — to the equity built between acquaintances and real friends over time. Back in my late-20s and early-30s, I used to hold my most impressive and useful acquaintances in reserve. I must have thought that connection was akin to finding a genie in a bottle. With only three wishes, I had better keep them bottled up until the time was right and I needed a get out of jail free card. But it never worked that way. My former business partner and best friend, Mark Harrison told me something important (and I always appreciated how he would remediate for me simple truths about friendships and relationships that I hadn’t seemed to have picked up in the course of my own life-discovery):
The best way to build intimacy with a new acquaintance or to get even closer to the friends you have is to ask for favors, to ask for help. Being needed by someone else is part of it, of course, but the more interesting psychology of it all is that asking someone else for a favor is like a gift to the other person: it gives them the opportunity to do something for you. In our society, too few people ask each other for favors or for help; and, strangely, helping other people you like generally makes us happy and feel way for connected.
I had another quirk, too: I used to only allow other people to see me and enter my world when I was prepared and ready, with all my armor on. What I learned is that real intimacy and connection happened between people who allow their flaws to show, who have an opportunity to see behind the bravado of game day. That just hanging out and doing nothing together is probably time more valuably spent than the awkward elegance and banter around the table enjoyed at a dinner party.
What I learned over time — and have used to great effect time and time — is that no matter how generous you are to your friends, followers, and Likers online and in real life; no matter how many of their problems you fix or good counsel you give; no matter how many favors you do for others or days you save from jumping up to help, support, or facilitate; true intimacy and connection will elude you and your brand until you start revealing the face behind the make-up (another metaphor, sorry).
In other words, spend your equity early and often by allowing your friends and followers to know that you need something: more business, more customers, more revenue, more donations, a more successful capital campaign. NPR and PBS have this wired for sound.
They offer their members, listeners, and fans an abundance of riches throughout the year in the form of radio and TV programing — building equity out the wazoo — but then they go nuts and spend down a lot of that good will and equity by doing multiple-days of fundraising in the form of a pledge drive. While this does burn a lot of the accrued good will, it also builds intimacy as well: NPR and PBS both throw their humanity at you in segments that unmask hosts, actors, special guests, reporters, and the like. You get to see them presumably without their prompter, you get to see them outside their formal job as entertainer, reporter, analyst, and show host.
In the moments of the pledge drive, I discover how much these shows cost NPR affiliate WAMU 88.5 FM and PBS affiliate WETA in Washington; I discover how much of their money is private, public, and through member donations. I have an opportunity to listen to Diane Rehm speak to Kojo Nnamdi and Ed Walker and Rob Bamberger and Rebecca Sheir — folks who never chat and talk and pitch together on normal days — and each one of them are holding out a cup, asking for alms, from me.
It’s human, it’s open, it’s vulnerable, and it’s a little pathetic — and it makes me love them a little bit more. Commercial broadcast television does this a little bit in the form of needing to create television programing compelling enough — equity build — that you’ll forgive the 10 minutes-per-helf-hour of commercials that are needed to make that programing viable.
What’s more, the Internet has proven time and time again that denizens of the Internet have a strong fear of falling in love and getting hurt. We have all invested in an online community or a favorite blog or social network only to have to disappear. When someone is shopping around for a community, they’re aware that they could be hurt again — and worse, their hundreds of hours of participation could very well disappear in the blink of an eye.
So, when I new prospect is sniffing around your brand page or blog or Tumblr or whatever, they ask two things: WIIFM and WIIFT: what’s in it for me and what’s in it for them. If the prospect can’t figure out why you’re being so nice and generous but can’t sort out your monetization strategy or your sales channel or your conversion process or your fundraising plan, you might set off the “it’s too good to be true” red flag.
By spending your equity on letting every member of your community know that, for realsies, you need them as much — and more — than they need you — by showing way more than telling — you’ll be on your way to building a community that is loyal to you, faithful through good times and bad, and who will have your back when and if you’re ever besmirched (don’t worry, I won’t launch into some “prison code” analogy now, I think I have run my course.)
The best thing about creating a community like this is that it’s durable. And a durable community is what you need in order for it to be persistent over time. Durability is what superficial communities of purchased followers run by community managers who fancy themselves a social media brand shepherd and their followers to be their flock.
Unless you’re able to built the trust and mutual respect, you won’t really posses anything — only a follower count, maybe, but good luck on being able to activate these followers — you’re message penetration, shares, comments and tweets will never be where they could be if you really spent the time to build a family.
About Chris Abraham
A pioneer in online social networks and publishing, with a natural facility for anticipating the next big thing, Chris is an Internet analyst, web strategy consultant and advisor to the industries' leading firms. He specializes in Web 2.0 technologies, including content syndication; organize search engine optimization (SEO), online reputation management (ORM), content marketing, online collaboration, blogging, and consumer generated media.