Identifying a Social Media Workflow

Whenever I start talking to people about social media invarably the questionarises “Where do I find the time?”  It’s easy to understand where they’re coming from.  After sitting through several hours of eye-opening presentations about a brand new world of communication and engagement people sit back and think “but I already can’t get everything I need to do done,” and so they come asking “Where do I find the time?”  A fair question to be sure.  Trying to Tweet, Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube all while trying to do whatever job you’re supposed to be doing seems fairly impossible at the onset.  It’s almost enough to give up and go back to what you’re used to and comfortable doing.  Which is exactly the wrong impluse.

Change always feels uncomfortable.  And unless you’re forced out of that comfort zone its difficult to take the steps you need to take to get out and move forward.  So what I try to do when talking to people who feel overwhelmed by the prospect of social media is talk to them about email.  And cell phones.  Because I often speak to and work with people who are older than me I ask them “Do you remember doing your job without email and cell phones?”  Invariably they say “yes,” and then they smile knowing where I am going with these questions.  Email and cellphones have completely changed the way we do business during the course of most baby boomer careers; but they have become so ingrained and essential to business today that we forget what it was like before them.  I imagine most of these overworked souls said the same thing about these new technologies.  In fact, I remember my mom resenting the implication of a cell phone when they were first invented.  Now it’s the only number I reach her on.

Social Media is the New Email and Cell Phone

What I explain to them  is that in the same way that email and cell phones have pervaded how we do business and (more importantly) connect with one another, social media is again revolutionizing communication.  With hundreds of millions of people using social media every day (and sites like Facebook adding 750,000 a day) that using social media is no longer a choice for those who wish to remain relevant and engaged with their friends, colleagues, mentors, business contacts and prospects.  Just as people bemoaned the use of another communcation tool in email, and then quickly saw its power, so too will business professionals soon recognize the lasting power of social media in their business and personal relationships.

Keeping Social Media Simple

I advise newcomers to social media to keep it simple to start.  There are so many different social media sites, properties, tools and communities that trying to interact and use them all is a recipe for insta-burnout and a return back to the safe, comfortable shore of business as usual.  You can see a whole host of them in the Conversation Prism below:

The Conversation Prism by Brian Solis and Jesse Thomas

Trying to utilize them all will lead to abandonment at worst or ineffective use at best as it is easy to be spread to thin in a hurry.  So it certainly makes sense to pick just a few sites and properties to get started with.  Wade into the water and take it slow.

Choosing the Right Social Media Sites for You & Your Business

Many people recommend choosing a handful of social media tools and properties to use in order to make it manageable.  Invariably they recommend this generic combination:

And while these are all surely the leading sites in their respective spaces, and you should probably be involved in most if not all of them to one degree or another, simply recommending a generic list like this does little to address your needs in your business/expertise area.  For example music professionals, A/R people, etc. must be on MySpace as it is still a premiere place for unsigned acts to display their work.  Real estate has networks such as Active Rain and you’ll find computer engineers and others on open-source forums, IRC and bulletin boards.  That’s why it’s important to identify where you’re industry congregates online before choosing the tools you wish to use.

However, once you do find where your community likes to interact and congregate online you need to create a sustainable workflow that allows you to participate in that community in a way that is beneficial for the community and yourself.  Notice how I’ve put the community first.  You need to think in terms of providing value before you can get value.  If you’re used to traditional marketing and prospecting this is going to feel foreign to you.  But it is essential that you “pay it forward” before jumping into a sales pitch.

Becoming Part of Your Online Community

Once you’ve identified your online community its time to get involved and become a part of the community.  But like any social gathering, you can’t just storm in and scream at the top of your lungs “I’m here!” It’s important that you move slowly and humbly and deferentially at first.  What you want to do is get a lay of the land and a sense for how the community operates online.  You’ll start to notice the rythym of the community in terms of communication, how people talk to one another, who are the leaders and influencers and who are the clowns, etc.  It requires a bit of anthropology 101 to observe and understand this new ecosystem that you’re about to join.

With that here are the steps to getting involved with an online community:

  1. Listen. The most important part.  Use your newly-acquired anthropological skills to listen and learn about the community and how it operates.
  2. Learn. Learn the “rules of the road” about how to engage and interact within the community.
  3. Provide value. Start by providing value. If you see a question you know an answer to, answer it. If you have a piece of insight on a topic, share it.  If you have an interesting article that you found online share it.  Rinse, repeat.  Providing value is the best way to build up your social capital within the community.
  4. Engage. As you’re providing value engage with the people who are responding to your answers, shared articles and more.  Talk to them like a normal person – not a salesman or a corporate press release but as a normal human being (crazy right?)
  5. Promote Others. How can you help other people? Can you advocate for their position? Can you share or (in Twitter’s case) retweet something they’ve said?  How can you help advance the cause of other people?  By doing this you’ll build social capital within the group and specifically from those individuals.  That capital will eventually be available for you to draw on for your own needs.
  6. Share about you. Self-promotion is often looked down upon in communities. It’s far better to get others to promote you (see #5) but you can share information about yourself that lets people know what you do, your background, expertise and more.  The last thing you want to do is be a hard salesman; but there is nothing wrong in demonstrating your expertise and background through meaningful conversation and engagement.
  7. Promotion. If you do all the steps above right eventually you may earn the right to promote on a very limited basis.  This does not mean that one day a switch will go on where you can just spam the community with your marketing messages. There is never a time when the community will look favorably on that behavior.  But as you build your social capital in the community you may find natural opportunities where what you bring to the table is viewed as valuable and welcome by the members.  This doesn’t happen overnight, so don’t hold your breath on shouting to the world about your product or service.

Creating a Social Media Workflow

You’ve found your community online in the areas that they congregate. You’ve identified the sites that are most important to you in connecting with those communities.  Now you need to create a social media workflow that helps you make interacting with those communities a regular, ongoing occurence.  Social media is like a marathon, it’s not a sprint.  So the only way to gain value out of it is through repeated, regular involvement.  To make sure you do this you need to set up a workflow and schedule that ensures you develop a repeatable cadence that becomes part of your reputation online.

Setting your Cadence

Set your cadence by identifying time throughout your week where you can commit a certain amount of time to social media.  Think of it like setting an exercise routine.  Start with something manageable and build up.  How about 30 minutes every other day?  Or for blogging, perhaps it’s a post per week.  Whatever it is you need to create a block of time that you’re committed to learning and using social media.  There is no other way that you are going to be successful using it otherwise.

Choosing your Activities

If you’ve determined that you’re going to spend three 30-minute sessions a week using social media and also want to blog you should consider what activities you’re going to do when.  For blogging you should look at how many times a week you want to create new content.  Once a week? Twice a week? More?  In order to develop a cadence blogging I suggest you blog at least once a week.  Then you need to identify what the 30-minute sessions are going to entail.  Is it using Twitter to talk with people in the community and share interesting links? Is it connecting with people on LinkedIn and answering questions, joining and participating in groups and writing recommendations? Is it recording a how-to screencast video and posting it to YouTube?

Think of the most important and valuable activities that you could be doing via social media and make those your priority.

Become a Local

By choosing your activities and meeting your commitments regularly you’ll establish a strong cadence which will become identifiable and predictable from the members of your community, followers, readers, etc.  This will begin to establish your role in the ecosystem and community as you carve out your own particular niche.

Make Life Easier

As you get into the rythym of participation you’ll notice that some people have identified tools and systems to help them make their participation more efficient.  You’ll want to do the same thing.  Taking Twitter for example, there are a large range of tools that make Twitter more seamless in your day-to-day activity.  From desktop publishing and monitoring tools such as Tweetdeck, Seesmic Desktop, Destroy Twitter and more to automating Tweets with HootSuite, to tracking links through and you will find a host of solutions that make the experience more rewarding and easier to manage.

Keep at It

Remember it’s a marathon, not a sprint.  Social media isn’t like old media. You don’t buy a newspaper ad and wait for the phone to ring.  It takes time, persistence and the creation of real value for others in order for the system to provide value back to you.  This doesn’t come over night.  Start by paying it forward and work to provide value to the people you interact with.  By keeping it simple, sticking to your social media workflow plan and by looking to contribute before looking to extract you’ll be well on your way to leveraging social media for you and your business.

Flickr Image: Binary Flow by Adrenalin