Dumpsters Full of Booze-The Power of a Tweet

Undergrads at the University of Virginia learned the power of social media on Monday, when the student newspaper tweeted a word of mouth rumor that dorms were being searched for alcohol . The aftermath of the hoax involved dumpsters full of beer cans and liquor bottles, a plethora of official statements, and the Dean of Students engaged in an argument on Twitter about Constitutional interpretation. The story was picked up by the Washington Post that afternoon and for a time was featured as the “most read online” article.

In addition to being totally hilarious, this is a great example of the raw potential contained in a single tweet. While this is not the way that UVA would like to get its publicity, the University still made it to the online front page of the Washington Post all due to a tweet. Had this been a purely offline scenario, there is no way the story would have made it as far as it did. Another reason it got coverage is because it was handled in a humorous manner. It made everyone chuckle, particularly the pictures and so it got retweeted. It was also in the middle of the work day so many people were on Twitter looking for a bit of distraction. Hmmmm…. what does this remind us of? Yep- The Great Super Bowl Blackout and the now legendary “Oreo Tweet” or as Slate calls it, “The Half-Decent Oreo Tweet that Dazzled a Nation” Right place, right time. That’s the new game in town.

Now for your viewing pleasure please enjoy a bit of the #UVAdormsearch hysteria!

Putting the Engage back in “Engagement”

Engagement has become a catch phrase within the world of social media as of late. Commun.it and other services market themselves as engagement platforms. There are many articles talking about the importance of this concept of “engagement”. The gist focuses on how to maximize the benefits of your relationships. Commun.it, for example, gives you a measure of your “high-value members” and even tells you who you should “unfollow”. In its barest form, the term engagement seems to first and foremost refer to a relationship of mutual benefit. This is quite different from its root word–

“To Engage” means: (definition thanks to the powers of Google!):
1. “Occupy, attract, or involve (someone’s interest or attention).”
2. “Cause someone to become involved in (a conversation or discussion).”

It seems that if engagement refers to strengthening a reliable core then to engage refers to extending the fringes. This challenges traditional conceptions of outreach where the watchword is more often than not “key demographics.” Of course there is a very practical reason for this. Outreach of any type is quite an investment- both of time and money. In marketing, for example, you would quickly find yourself out on the street if you suggested advertising Gucci in a fly fishing magazine and of course vice-versa. This is also the reason why growing up in Los Angeles I saw precious few Republican Presidential campaign ads. Similarly, an organization may tend to focus its engagement efforts on its most lucrative donors.

Practically speaking this is not a sustainable strategy. Many organizations learned this first hand in the 2008 economic crisis. Universities fell far short of their fundraising goals as their reliable donors grappled with their personal financial woes. Many non-profits ended up going under because their financial backing evaporated. The most recent Presidential campaign similarly told of the flaws of a traditional engagement perspective. The GOP is now working over time to try to expand its voter base particularly to the Latino population. Moreover even when there is an engagement strategy this does not gurantee that it is actually reaching customers in the way that it is intended to. A recent study by Forbes shows that there is a fundamental disconnect between what businesses see as successful marketing engagement and what makes consumers feel engaged.

It is high time to make a return to the core of engagement– to engage. Now let me be clear: this does not mean simply hanging around the web and having conversations with random people. Rather I’m talking about using social media to strategically engage. This was one of the keys to the success of the Obama campaign. In the final weeks of their campaign they sent out messages to users of their Facebook app with messages to share with specific friends in swing states. The messages came in four types: targeted videos, donation appeals, registration reminders, or encouragement to vote. They determined which message to send based on detailed demographic data they collected about each user. The success of this strategy is undeniable- over 600,000 users of the app sent on the message to their friends.

Engaging a community will look different in each circumstance. In a recent blog post, Mark Schaefer argues that engagement must be a component of a larger overarching business strategy. The title of his article says it all: “Social Media is not an ‘engagement’ strategy.” Part of his argument is that you must have time to engage and for many businesses this is not a viable option. This echoes part of the argument I made in a prior post– Facebook and Twitter are not Magic Beans. You must have a reason and strategy for building a community and a goal in mind for them to achieve be it extending your brand to a new market or building a grassroots movement. Moreover, this will take time- lots of time because “to engage” means to converse. It is a dialogue as opposed to a monologue. But, as the Obama campaign demonstrates and, I have to add, my own experience in the reinstatement of the University of Virginia’s President this past June, strategically engaging in outreach can be an incredibly powerful and rewarding tool.

Facebook and Twitter are not Magic Beans

The place of social media within society is still a highly contentious issue. For its most ardent advocates it has become something of a deus ex machina for every societal ill. This view cropped up recently in Thomas Freedman’s article giving advice to incoming Secretary of State John Kerry. He suggests using social networks (read: social media) to deal with everything from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the negotiations with Iran over nuclear arms. Aside from the political naiveté of this piece which has been well laid out elsewhere, this is emblematic of this belief that social media is a “fix-it” tool. The political degeneration of the so-called “Facebook/Twitter Revolution” in Egypt demonstrates the fallacy of the belief that using Facebook or Twitter has any magical powers. Why should Facebook posts or Tweets matter to a domestic government? Sure it matters to the International Community- abuse can be reported and organizations such as Human Rights Watch can mount campaigns but this is independent of the process of actual political change. In the aftermath of the revolution, analysts revealed that the central utility of social media was its ability to rally people together. The fact that it took a mere 18 days is touted as a direct result of Social Media. Yet harken back to the fall of the Soviet Union- the communist government in Czechoslovakia fell in a mere 10 days. Please don’t get me wrong- my goal is not to minimize this achievement- and it would be completely false to say that social media didn’t play an important role. Rather it is to push back against the idea that social media is in and of itself as a game changer.

At this point you are probably asking why I am going to such lengths to hammer this home. It is because I believe that social media can be a game changer- but the power lies in its implementation. It is not enough to start a Facebook page or a Twitter account. What do 2,000 “likes” on your Page actually mean? So what that your hashtag went viral? One thing that a few journalists have discussed when talking about the Egypt revolution is the way that Social Media allowed for a sense of solidarity across state borders. This is actually very similar to what occurred during the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. Students and activists were emboldened by stories of the East Germans and Poles standing up to their regimes. Social media is about dialogue- about engagement. 

I believe much of the current confusion lies in the fact that everyone recognizes the power of social media as an idea but they fail to implement it as such. Instead it becomes an additional tool- and let’s be honest, often a rather disappointing tool. My mother-in-law works as a social justice minister and recently told me that the most “likes” she received on a post was from one that she quickly typed up as a heartfelt response to a tragedy that had occurred. She didn’t understand why that as opposed to her normal posts which were well thought out and included links to issues that needed attention, should receive more attention.

To make use of social media the first step is to recognize that it is more than another tool of communication. It is best approached in that way that one would approach understanding a foreign land. There are norms, a culture, and distinct institutions. Now here’s the ironic thing. Most likely you are already aware of all of this because you are an inhabitant of this land. As a user of a social media platform you have an instinct for what is acceptable and what is not. Stylistically you know that there is a difference between posting on Twitter and Facebook (and it is more than just the 140 character limitation). Moreover, you know that you are in different frames of mind when you are on Facebook versus Twitter versus LinkedIn versus Tumblr. It is time to ask yourself why you use social media in your private day-to-day life. Is it to keep it touch with family and friends? Is it to stay up to date with the latest news? Or is it simply to give yourself a mental break? Now think about what it would take to engage a user like you. What would you be attracted to? Why would you engage? As I wrote in my post on the Oreo versus Coke Chase campaign, a major difference between the two is that Oreo choose to enter into the humorous Twitter conversation during the blackout. Coca-Cola, on the other hand, was intent on creating its own conversation. Oreo engaged while Coca-Cola simply used social media as another marketing tool. To truly grasp the full potential of social media organizations must focus on facilitating engagement- and this will differ, sometimes radically, case by case. 

The world of social media is exciting. It is a new frontier in many ways. In order to embrace this we must be willing to treat it as such and that will often mean throwing away the rule book and stepping out into the Great Unknown.