One of my biggest learnings is that you can’t always get a direct bead on your demographic target — and that’s OK. We’ve worked for a broad spectrum in these five years, from health care and pharma to huge radio astronomy projects; from global nonprofits to very specific public affairs campaigns. Social media marketing and blogger outreach and activation can be effective for everything, though it isn’t always clear how. B2B seems to be the least confident that social can help them but I believe we have really sorted it out: What I’ve learned is that if you cannot target your dream customer directly, you can target everyone around him.
I call this “fire for effect,” which is a term taken from artillery for when you don’t quite know where your target is or your target is well-guarded or sheltered. So what you do instead is you fire downrange, doing your best to either step your shells closer and closer to the true target or to just use the shock and awe of incoming high explosive shrapnel shells going off everywhere else, distracting and engaging powerfully but indirectly. (In artillery, you generally try to have someone down range, a forward observer, who can help you drop your mortars closer and closer, called adjusting your indirect fire, which I will discuss further along.)
Evidence that indirect social media marketing works
Let me bring this analogy back to social media marketing. In two instances, I have seen indirect social media marketing work wonders. 80% of what our company does is long-tail blogger outreach. Instead of “sniping” at just the top-25 most influential bloggers in any one vertical, we dig deep and often come up with between 2,000-10,000 relevant blogs. Most client projects make it easy for their general appeal; however, in a couple of notable cases, firing for effect was the only thing we could really do: targeting health care providers for a client that sells health care devices and targeting astronomers for a global radio telescope project.
What we quickly realized is that not only were the doctors and scientists that our clients most desired generally not blogging, they were also very busy and quite invulnerable to the sort of blogger PR pitches we were wont to do, but they were also unpredictable and often volatile.
Doctors were almost impossible to access directly and scientists tended to be impolite whenever they received a plea via email from someone they didn’t know — typical A-lister behavior.
What we needed to do was to brainstorm and expand our campaigns to include everyone around the doctors. Since the campaign was a public affairs campaign on hospital acquired infection-prevention, we brainstormed on who else is in the space–targeting the “ground” immediately around the docs, expanding as far out as we had budget and time.
Who did we come up with? Well, nurses, orderlies, caregivers, parents of elderly parents, partners of the elderly, people with immunosuppressive diseases, parents of sickly children, pregnant women, nursing students, medical students, public policy bloggers — the list was thousands of blogs and bloggers long. All the earth around the OR, an impenetrable fortress, was razed and we super-saturated the blogosphere, the twittersphere, and the Facebookosphere with discussion, mentions, messaging, excerpting, and commentary about the very real issue of healthcare associated infections in today’s hospitals and clinics: ventilator-associated pneumonia, surgical site infections, cross contamination, etc.
The same thing with the scientists who are associated with the radio telescope campaign. The scientists were there, they were just snippy, so instead of risking too much negative feedback, we instead isolated them and instead reached out to everyone around them: science nerds, space geeks, techies, amateur astronomers, sky watchers, backyard astronomers, and stargazers.
Bloggers as conduits, not customers
When it comes to blogger outreach and engagement, the goal is never to convert the blogger into a customer, I must remind you, but is always to message through the blogger onto his or her blog as a post, tweet, retweet, or wall post. If the blogger is a gatekeeper, a blockade, to the blog and the blog’s readers (and to the spiders and bots, busily indexing links and content for Google, Bing, and Yahoo!), then you must abandon them and move on to the more accessible publications — generally the hobbyists, the amateurs, and the aspirants of the social media and blogosphere.
Amateur hobbyist bloggers are generally hungrier, more available, more grateful, and don’t have the hundreds of “date offers” that journalists, professionals, or A-listers generally have — they’re interested in making a name and are generally pretty amazed when a brand or an agency is sensitive and generous around to notice a blog that’s not solidly in the A-list and are generally really appreciative and open to building an authentic relationship.
Why do all of this? Why expend all this energy and munitions on indirect fire? The obvious answer is to smoke them out. Since we’re often able to start a wildfire of blog posts, tweets, likes, retweets, and Facebook shares, there’s really nowhere for these well-fortified A-listers, scientists, professionals, and surgeons to hide.
And since all of the messaging, all the wildfire, is no longer coming from up range, from our battery, then it is no longer associated with us or our clients. Now, the wildfire is owned by the blogosphere instead of the client or my agency.
This means that the public affairs messaging, the content from our social media news releases, and the emailing back and forth between my crack team of online analysts and the hundreds of bloggers who take up the flag of our outreach, become detached from the final end-product: the rash of intense conversation, posting, tweeting, and retweeting that has all of a sudden lit up the social mediasphere like day actually comes from an impressive number of bloggers and readers from the space and not, at the end of the day, directly from us — so, it is much more likely that these unassailable influencers will end up, at the end of the day, be influenced anyway, without ever being pitched directly by us.
We have seen this happen time and time again, so much so that we have cliches for these things: priming the pump, setting the stage, tenderizing the steak, fertilizing the field — and, of course, carpet bombing (I like that last one the best, but my management team wants me to stop using military analogies, so please forgive me for all the above).
Thanking bloggers and Twitterers for their participation
Because nobody believes me that this all works, I like to collect “thank you blogger” posts (from the clients who allow) wherein we “thank” the people who blog and tweet for us, through earned media (we don’t pay anyone — none of this is payola-based) and the numbers speak for themselves: Thank You Habitat for Humanity World Habitat Day Bloggers, Thank You All Who Supported International Medical Corps!, Thank You Fresh Air Fund Bloggers, Thank You Snuggle Crème Bloggers, Thank You To All Of The Olympic Bloggers, Thank you Alzheimer’s Bloggers, Thank You Habitat For Humanity World Habitat Day 2010 Bloggers, Thank You HAI Watch Bloggers, Thank You MLK Memorial Bloggers, Thank You Motionbox Bloggers, Thank You To All US Winter Olympic Bloggers–so, the proof is in the pudding.
At the end of the day, the results outlive the campaign on organic search. When hundreds of blogs and tweets are published online — public, archived, and indexed — most of which link to your client’s social media news release, Web site, issue page, or landing page–hundreds of posts from a diversity of blogs and sources, almost always focused on a very impassioned three-week span. While I don’t condone link-farming or any black hat or even grey hat tactics, earned media mentions — where “earned media” means that you make the offer — the pitch — to the blogger and the blogger decides if and when he or she will post and how he or she will post.
Some bloggers post the our pitch email directly to their blog and that’s cool. A majority mention that they received a pitch from us and our client as well as excerpting and blockquoting a sizable amount of our very own copy from our social media news release. A minority actually spend the time to go in and write up a brand new piece, researched and contextualized, and we love those, too. We’re realistic: we’re reaching out to someone, asking for their help, not paying them anything at all except attention, and then expect them to do us a solid and actually post about our clients for free? Well, we’re always darned grateful for just about any mention — even, believe it or not, the spiny ones. It’s all good.
And, as they say, any publicity is good publicity as long as they link our client’s name, product, services, and keywords as close to right as possible.