We've become inundated, and we're weaker for it.
To recap, assuming this needs recapping, when Facebook and Twitter became part of tens of millions of people's daily lives, our personal interconnections grew exponentially. Facebook allowed us to not only reestablish relationships with lost acquaintances, but then keep them all simultaneously abreast of the latest developments in our lives. The more stripped-down Twitter allowed us to find new friends, people we'd otherwise never have known existed, let alone shared interests with. Strictly on a social level (in the true sense of that word), both services were breakthroughs.
With so many users, it was inevitable that businesses would soon look for ways to exploit Facebook and Twitter commercially. Try as they may, few have managed to do so effectively. For most businesses, a social media strategy means putting the appropriate icons on the website, then awkwardly attempting to get the attention of current and future customers.
It's almost effortless for a business to use social media. Going the extra step and using it to your advantage isn't particularly hard either, but it does take some thinking.
For one thing, you've got to be engaging. It's astonishing how few businesses understand how to use Twitter. Here's what should be the first rule for business use of Twitter: It's OK Not To Tweet Just For The Sake Of Tweeting. Really.
The Do's and Do-Nots of Tweeting
Take an infamous tweet that appeared the morning of the Aurora theater massacre of July 20. As the nation's premier gun-rights organization, the National Rifle Association publishes several monthly magazines. One of them, American Rifleman, has its own Twitter feed: @NRA_Rifleman. (Or had, until the account was quietly deactivated.) Several hours after the shooting, @NRA_Rifleman released this innocuous, if not unfortunate, tweet.
@NRA_Rifleman's tweet was scheduled via Twitter management system HootSuite, hours if not days in advance. The concept of a scheduled tweet is simple: a company (or in this case, an advocacy organization) figures out some benign filler that it can send out to its followership at planned intervals, letting those followers know that it's attempting to communicate with them instantly and regularly.
This is the very opposite of interacting socially with your devotees. Immediate communication a la Twitter is supposed to be dynamic: here's something we're doing that you need to know about, or here's our response to something relevant. Instead, @NRA_Rifleman's offending tweet was static. It was 8 a.m. EST on a weekday, which meant it was time to send out another boring message that would neither inform or enlighten anyone.
@NRA_Rifleman wasn't being callous, just a little clueless. When you schedule tweets, you run the risk of unfortunate coincidence (and of having reactionary people think you did it deliberately, which is its own problem.)
Here's another, less controversial example, a promoted (i.e., paid) tweet from USA Network, plugging a new TV show through an account set up specifically to promote that show: (@NecRoughness). So,it seems to some networks, using social media means asking people a dull yes/no question: Are you going to watch our show? If the show is as inspired as the USA Network's tweets, you can be sure I won't be tuning in.
What's an appropriate response to the question? "Yes"? OK, then what? At the time the episode in question went to air, a grand total of .04% of @NecRoughness's followers had spread the message.
The businesses that know how to use Twitter are so uncommon that it's easy to cite examples of them. Take @LAKings, the official account of the Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings. The writers behind the account have tweeted almost 17,000 times, and each tweet has conveyed something worthwhile, take this one, for instance. Every tweet on that feed serves a purpose; some compel the reader to do something (in this case, meet a famous former player,) while others include recent photographs or audio/video clips of interest to fans. A recent flurry of tweets asked fans to vote for the Kings in a poll that ESPN was conducting at that very moment. @LAKings has an accessible, necessarily G-rated and legitimately funny sense of humor, too. Nowhere on @LAKings' timeline will you see something generic and lifeless like, "So, Kings fans, what are you excited about this upcoming season?"
Using Social Media to Sell
The relentless focus on social media has removed us from the primary purpose of commerce, which, in case you forgot, is selling things to people and earning a profit. Think of how "Like us on Facebook!" has become an adjunct to thousands of businesses' marketing slogans.
Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter. Whatever happened to "buy our product"? The company that concentrates on having a formidable Facebook following, rather than a lot of paying customers, is one that's begging to be sold short.
As of this posting, Coca-Cola's Facebook page has 45,750,751 likes. So there are 45,750,751 people who not only enjoy drinking the world's preeminent carbonated beverage, but have felt the need to tell people of their discovery. To quote Coke's own "About" section of its page:
The Coca-Cola Facebook Page is a collection of your stories showing how people from around the world have helped make Coke into what it is today.
Yes, because a story (or better yet, a collection of them, created by the customers) is the perfect complement to 12 bubbly ounces of ice-cold refreshment. The unintentional arrogance in the excerpt above is something to behold. Coke drinkers aren't smitten with the brand as something worth exalting, at least not to the extent that the people on Coke's social media team are. "What (Coke) is today"? Come on. It's an effective, inexpensive and sweet-tasting way to quench one's thirst and/or a blue-chip stock and, for some of us, a source of income. But not the subject of legend.
The Value of Social Media
This isn't a lament for the old days before social media existed, far from it. Facebook and Twitter "marketing," such as it is, has become just another example of embracing a shiny new bauble without appreciating nor understanding its value.
Think back to the late 1990s, when every business that owned a modem started using this now-laughably archaic phrase in its advertising: "Visit us on the web at ..." Sometimes they'd even continue with "... h-t-t-p, colon, forward slash, forward slash, w-w-w dot" to show everyone how technologically with-it they were. Incredibly, some companies still do it today.
At some point, the mere existence of your company's website became no longer compelling. You needed to list your location(s), tell people how to get there, show them a price list, let them access their accounts and list your executives and their contact information. In short, actually use the new technology instead of just possessing it. "We have a website, you ought to visit it on your fancy new computing machine" wasn't enough. It was never enough. Imploring people to "Visit us on the web" made about as much sense as telling them to "Call us with your telephone."
The Bottom Line
It's easy to get caught up in the potential of social media. A nascent dry cleaner or pizza joint sets up an account and then thinks that more posting necessarily correlates to more revenue. It doesn't. When your business has 50 Twitter followers, or 68 Facebook friends, and you bombard them with uninteresting posts, they'll start tuning you out. Why wouldn't they, if other businesses are doing the same thing you are?
If you've got something notable or opportune to say, like "Our new location opens at 1st & Main in 45 minutes! Break traffic laws to get here if you must," or "We just bought some poor guy's iPhone 4S. Come by the pawn shop and make us an offer," something that can directly impact your business, do so. Make it entertaining; if you can't, hire someone who can. Leave the onslaught of boring updates for your competitors. Your overwhelmed customers will appreciate the courtesy.