Tweeting At Strangers In the Night

J.P. Morgan’s tweetchat attempt is now in the books alongside AT&T’s 9/11 realtime marketing flop as another big fat #FAIL. Why does this keep happening? Over at Forbes, Deanna Zandt proclaims “It’s The Relationships, Stupid” saying “These are not communications tools, these are relationship management tools.” I get what she’s saying and, as a social strategist, completely understand her frustration. But I think the problem is deeper than this. Social media rose so quickly that we fumbled for terms to capture what we were observing. “Relationship”, “Engagement”, “Conversation”, and, of course our new favorite “Listening.” They’re not the perfect fit but they seem to describe fairly accurate what we seen in online interaction so we run with them. This is how we end up saying, don’t focus on the conversation, focus on the relationship. Which, if you think about it, is completely nonsensical. Relationships begin with conversations.

It’s time to take a step back from this muddle of terminology and think about what makes social media so special. To do this it’s also important to step away, for a moment, from the even more confusing realm of brands qua individuals. Let’s focus on Twitter. The power there is not about relationships, rather it’s about the power of words exchanged (even if they are completely ridiculous).

Doonesbury Twitter

Conversations on twitter most resemble the random and unexpected conversation between “strangers in the night.” For me some of the most poignant have been those with complete strangers. Those situations where we have thrust together by some shared event. Sitting next to each other on a plane or train; chatting at the counter in a diner or at a pub. You know you’ll never see each other again and often that creates a situation for genuine no-holds barred conversation.

When it comes to individual use of social media, much attention and hand wringing is focused on the lack of relationship building within social media (the Facebook Relationship) that I think we forget that these “strangers in the night” conversations have always been a key part of our lives. I’m sure that reading this some of those conversations are coming to mind. Memory of these conversations is proof that they are important to us. The goal is not to build a relationship, rather it is to have a real conversation unencumbered by any thoughts of “where is this going” or “let’s not fight”. There aren’t any “taboo” subjects in fact often they are the source of the conversation: religion, politics, sex- it’s all fair game.

These conversations occur with much more frequency particularly on Twitter. A few weeks ago I stumbled into a Tweetchat on sexism hosted by a prominent feminist scholar. I ended up in a fascinating back-and-forth with a guy about the emphasis that is placed on how a woman dresses. It lasted for about twenty minutes and we’ve never connected again. I don’t think I even followed him on Twitter nor he I but it was quite meaningful. (Ironically it occurred while I was waiting in a terminal for a flight!) Think about another exchange that famously occurred after the horrific Boston bombing in April.

Boston and Syria

This was nonverbal and occurred between two groups halfway around the world from each other. What a powerful point of interaction.

Capturing that point of interaction- that “strangers in the night” moment is the holy grail for social strategists. The trick is that you can’t force it. THAT’S where J.P. Morgan went so wrong. Wearing a three piece suit and top-hat, they sat down next to a college student and said “Hi. We’re going to talk now. Tell me what you think of me.” But the solution isn’t to stop talking. Quite the opposite. It’s to act like a stranger in the night. Engaging here and there with meaningful points of interaction. Then follow them. See where they go and THAT’s when you build the relationship. But it all begins with the exchange of words. That’s the power of social media and that’s what must be at the core of any solid social strategy.

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