What We Need to Know

The Tree of Knowledge. By Knilram, via Flickr.I saw this post on the ASAE’s communications listserv last week:

“ I would like to hear from other associations on how they are using social media (blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) – Which ones? Benefits? What’s worked?”

Wow … how many days do you have to listen? There’s no bigger question in communications today.

I sense stratification in our professional community. At a panel that I moderated at the ASAE Annual Meeting this summer, it was possible to pick out the genetically encoded early adopters from those who were struggling to catch up. You could almost tell by the body language.

The early adopters were foraging for ways to exploit what they had already mastered. The others were still learning. They seemed frustrated and fearful.

It was demonstration of what Seth Godin meant when he wrote in his new book, Tribes, that the cost of innovating too early is small, compared to the cost of acting too late.

But not everything new today will prove useful tomorrow. I think we can count on that. Since time is our most precious commodity, what must people know today?

That’s the challenge that the Communications Council for ASAE has taken on. We’re updating a document that outlines today’s core competencies in communications. No offense, but the current version, written only a few years ago, is badly  out of date.

Still, the basics are the basics. You gotta know how to write, pitch stories, research your markets, plan campaigns, etc. But of the new social technologies, what is now fundamental? And if you can’t experiment freely, what can you safely observe from a distance, for now?

We’ll take our best guess, because we can only guess at the future. No one on our team is clairvoyant, as far as I know. Maybe through the wisdom of our little crowd, we’ll get it right.

We hope the document will be a career roadmap for new communications professionals, and a learning menu for experienced pros. It will evolve rapidly and often.

We could use your thoughts. Among the new technologies, what is already a must-know? Conversely, if you must choose your experiments carefully, what is OK to watch for a while?


Old Media Still Rules, But Not Alone

Last week, my organization released our annual Massachusetts physician workforce study. This is the seventh year we’ve done this, and it’s become eagerly anticipated by many people in the field.

We spent a lot of time planning its release – we honed the messages, the audiences, and the timing. We put all of our old and new skills to the test.

Naturally, we did old fashioned media relations. My veteran media relations manager, Rick Gulla, developed a list of four dozen reporters, based on his encyclopedic knowledge of the local media. I worked on the social media angle. I made sure the news release was SEO friendly, tagged it from here to kingdom come, posted an item on our blog and invited blog readers to share ideas for solving the shortages.

We gave reporters the information on a Friday. We embargoed the release until midnight the following Tuesday morning. Our volunteer president, Bruce Auerbach, was available on Monday to any reporter who wanted to talk to him, and he talked a lot.

There was one glitch. One weekly newspaper released the study about seven hours before the embargo time. I learned about it around 7 p.m. Monday night, while checking my daily Google Alerts feed. I immediately called Rick, who notified everyone else that the embargo was broken and they were free to publish. We posted the stuff on our website in no time flat. (It turns out the break was inadvertent, caused by a careless time stamp in the newspaper’s content management system.)

We did well. Our report was treated fairly and carried broadly. Some three dozen media outlets covered our report. Our blog got some thoughtful comments. The difference is that many other bloggers picked up our story and added their take. That was cool. Not all of it came from our fans, but that’s life. It did generate a buzz, though – and that’s what they pay me for. As of this writing, our study appears in page one of Google search for “physician workforce.”

The moral of the story is that all of the media works together. In any market – even a top 10 market like Boston – traditional media still matter. The fun conversations are around the new social media, because it’s new and changing all the time.

But the old media still command a big audience, and they are critical to how the conversation is framed. If the big daily in your town pillories you in the morning paper, you still have a problem, no matter how many bloggers are working in your space.

This reminds me of the unanswerable question raised at the ASAE annual meeting this summer: Is social media just another new tool, or does it portend a new way of life? Judging by what we experienced this past week, it’s both.

Old media is ailing, but it’s not dead yet.

Commenting Reveals All

Whenever you set up a blog, a wiki, or any other social media tool that invites user comments, you’re making a choice. You are deciding that you want the communication to be a conversation. You want to talk with your readers, not just talk at them

How you do that says a lot about your own readiness for social media. There is a spectrum of approaches. The purist approach is exemplified by Lindy Dreyer and Maddie Grant in their Associations Now article on blogging. On commenting, they recommend “open and easy.” They mean: no login, no captchas, no moderator, and of course easy to use. If there’s a problem, the community takes of it.

How’s that work in practice? For personal blogs like this one, no problem. If someone says something hateful or off topic, I hit delete. Cool. For many small companies, the same thing applies.

For others, it’s a little trickier. Our Massachusetts Medical Society blog started with “open and easy” approach, and we became an easy mark. We were overrun by spam in no time flat. So I pulled the plug on “open and easy” and added comment moderation.

We have another issue, legal liability- but not the “what if the worst happens” kind of liability. With few exceptions, if independent doctors organize to talk about economic issues (i.e., their own reimbursement), even just two doctors, they break the law. So we must police anti-trust violations, or put an awful lot at risk. And it’s not up to me to take that risk, if you know what I mean!

The New York Times site takes the same approach. Its editors moderate comments on all of their articles. They let you know about it with nice, clean, non-legal language.

It doesn’t seem to affect their commenting volume very much. For example, on Oct. 3, within three hours of posting its article on the “bailout” bill, the Times had more than 300 comments. (Sure, it was the story of the year, and the Times has millions of visitors daily, but you get my point.)

The same considerations go for wikis, too – but maybe even more so, if you intend the wiki to be at least somewhat authoritative. What if someone makes a life-altering decision based on something erroneous in your public wiki during those 30 minutes that it was published? In many worlds, such as medical publishing, that is not an acceptable risk.

Has our moderated approach inhibited commenters on our site? Probably. But given the choice between a spam sandwich and a little dead air, I’ll take moderation any time.

Media Relations – The New World According to Brian Solis (from the ASAE Annual Meeting)

Brian Solis, one of the superstars in social media strategy, spoke at the ASAE Annual Meeting in San Diego last week. He talked about how public relations professionals can still influence opinion and behavior even though mainstream media is in its death throes.

Sadly, the session wasn’t recorded. But its content was too good to let it disappear. From my notes:

  • PR professionals have to be the new influencers. In the past, we influenced opinion and behavior mostly by reaching the influencers (reporters and editors). Now, we’re it. “We have to become experts in the industry we represent . …You should get really smart and passionate about the industry you represent. If you’re not, you should find another job.” (Gotta love that kind of straight talk.)
  • News releases aren’t just for reporters anymore. There is a bigger audience than just your A-list (or even B-list) reporters. Half of IT professionals get their daily updates from news releases on Yahoo or Google. So it’s still important to do your news releases right. One way – write them tight and bulleted, and weight them well with SEO keywords so they can be found.
  • Kill the ghost-written quotes. Puffery never had any value … even less today. If you must quote, make sure it’s compelling.
  • Getting on bloggers’ radar screens is art + science. You could buy lists, but Brian built his own list. How? Read on.
  • Some ways to build blogger relationships:
    • Leave comments as you vote on Digg
    • Make sure your headline rocks (SEO loves great <H1> headlines.)
    • Befriend a Power Digger, the same way you would befriend an A-list reporter. If a Power Digger notices you, they tell their networks. It’s almost impossible to get to Digg’s home page on your own.
    • Digg’s home page is solid gold. Brian says a home page listing on Digg “guarantees” you 10,000 to 30,000 unique visits within a single week. (whoa!) Getting placed on the home page of StumbleUpon gets you the same in about a month’s time.
  • Target the “Magic Middle” of bloggers. You could try to get to the Technorati Top 1000 (Brian is in the top 5000), but you’ll get more activity and more long lasting relationships with the Magic Middle (blogs with 20 to 2000 links) than with the A-listers.
  • Metrics: No consensus yet. But think “profits.” If your goal with metrics is to persuade the C-suite, then think – what do they care most about (hint: … sales? profits? membership? Yes, it’s that basic.) Then track back to the social activity that will move that number. For example: Have targeted landing pages for social media PR campaigns to track something like meeting registrations or product downloads.
  • Monitor the social network conversations! “Just because a conversation was taking place and you weren’t there to hear it, does that mean it didn’t happen?” Brian shared “The Conversation Prism,” a dastardly image that pulls together a sampling of the social networks on the web today. This where the conversations about your brand are happening. As Brian noted, “This is overwhelming to say the least.” The image is on Flickr. He’s going to publish a wiki soon that explains all of these in detail, to help you figure out what’s pertinent to your markets and conversations.
  • Twitter: Yes! At least 200 journalists use Twitter right now, Brian said. Do you need a better reason to do it? The 140-character limit focuses the pitch line like nothing else.
  • How do you find influencers on Twitter? On search.twitter.com, search any keyword that is specific to your industry. Do that keyword, plus conference, or plus events. You’ll see the people who are starting those conversations. Then find out who’s following them. Befriend them – not just for what they can do for you, but simply to start a conversation. It’s doing that over and over again, building relationships. (That’s not so different from traditional PR after all, is it?

(Sidebar: Ben Martin just wrote a provocative post about data mining on Twitter. He says it’s evil. Others (like Wes Trochlil) say it’s the price we pay for playing in social media. Reluctantly, I’m agreeing with Wes’ point of view. But as Bill Parcells said, I reserve the right to change my mind. This conversation isn’t over, by a long shot.)

Other resources

The Conversation Prism

The Social Media Manifesto

It was my personal privilege to moderate this session. Thanks to all who came and spoke up. And thanks especially to Brian and his co-panelist, Chris Jennwein, of Greenspun Interactive of Las Vegas.