Every trade association or membership organisation should have a social media presence, right? Yes, but think hard before leaping in! It’s not something to be tackled halfheartedly, so be sure you’re doing it for the right reasons, and have the right resources – human and financial – at your disposal.
As a former trade association CEO, if my inbox is anything to go by, some of the most hyped training courses are about getting the most out of social networking. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t get an invitation to attend a course where I will learn about the effective use of the Internet and social media to drive business growth. The idea being to harness Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google +, and others to drive sales.
There is anecdotal evidence that it works. Contrary to tradition, and In a reversal of their usual approach of shouting about the unique benefits of their product in the hope of snagging customers who are ready to buy, some companies are trying to build a community of interest around their activities and employing engagement marketing to bring customers to them. It is one stage on from transactional marketing and it clearly works for those companies that have employed it to best advantage.
But will it work for membership organisations? The key words, of course, are ‘community of interest’; or the people who buy into the ideas, brand, or lifestyle that is being promulgated, or share the same beliefs as those doing the talking. It’s the basis on which all membership bodies work, so the concept is not new, it’s just the method used to achieve your objective. For instance, back in the olden days, retailers had local high street shops, and they developed a community of interest by talking to their customers and understanding their lives and needs. Membership bodies did the same using print media, social events, and meetings. But now, because we enjoy less personal contact, and a businesses’ ‘community’ may be flung far and wide, we need to use new tools to achieve the same ends, so social media appears ideal.
But beware! What might seem at first glance to be a cheap and cheerful marketing tool – beloved of trade associations – may swiftly become an albatross around your neck if you don’t have the resources to see it through? And by that I don’t just mean money! Before membership bodies take the leap they should be mindful of some of the pitfalls. Because, once committed, there is no going back!
The Internet is not the sole preserve of the young, but it’s a fact that having been brought up in a computer based environment they take more readily to the medium. The age of your target ‘community’ will influence your tone and how you communicate, but don’t imagine you can just hire a ‘youngster’ and let them get on with it! Plus, social media sites aren’t a broadcast medium. The traffic isn’t all one way and they rely on action and reaction; developing a conversation over time. So, ask yourself, can you develop an enduring narrative; are you comfortable writing persuasive informal text; and can you keep it up day after day and night after night. Considering the websites I’ve seen that haven’t been updated since the year dot, and the lamentable rubbish I’ve read online, the evidence isn’t looking too good!
Consider the amount of precious time consumed just reacting to your email inbox, and the time commitment is pretty clear! And have you, personally, got heaps of sparkling ideas with which to entice your eager waiting community? Describing your breakfast every day simply won’t cut it – unless you own a café – and what happens when you want to take a break? Going silent for a fortnight isn’t an option, so without help you can wave goodbye to uninterrupted holidays, your life will never be your own again.
So, the tools may be free but the content isn’t. It takes resources – both human and financial – to develop engaging content, and there can be reputational risks too! It’s all well and good when your community loves you, your ideas, service and product. What happens when they don’t? Or, more likely, when a vocal minority, or a disgruntled customer doesn’t! An old customer service mantra used to run something like, ‘a happy customer will tell his best friend and an unhappy one will tell everyone’. That was in the days of neighbourhood gossip, today the Internet has given rumour an exponential boost. Just look at current world events to see the power of social networks and the inherent risk if they disseminate unfettered and un-moderated comments.
But these aren’t reasons not to proceed, just why you mustn’t assume social media is a cheap option that can be easily delegated. It requires, clear objectives, defined resources, excellent content, measurement and management. And, once you commit to the process, you’d you better get your running shoes on to keep up with the ‘next big thing’. Because as surely as night follows day, when the pioneers and acolytes of social networking realise that their chosen medium has been debased by cynics, they will move on faster than you can say Twitter. With effectively half the UK population having an account, Facebook is now arguably mainstream, and the corollary of that is that it’s no longer ‘cool’ for the younger generation – and probably hasn’t been for a couple of years at least. I guess that’s what we call progress folks!
But, with a little bit of help, it doesn’t have to be like that.