Grow your sphere of influence through reciprocity and generosity
So many people ask me what my secret is: to my Klout score (77), to my Twitter followers (43.5k), and to my acknowledged influence online, for what it’s worth. They wonder how I gamed Klout, where I bought my followers, and what PR firm got me into Forbes. Well, there surely are shortcuts and you can apparently game Klout and buy followers, friends, and Likes. I have tried out many of them over time but I don’t believe that growing and pruning Twitter followers or paying money for followers and Likes actually builds a social media community.
Surely, all that buying and gaming does something, but it’s not community. Maybe it’s for bragging rights, maybe access to perks, or perhaps just to establish to the people in your space that you’re really a social media player and not someone who ignored social media as an essential aspect of your organization until last Thursday.
Community is something different. And I believe that Google, in its charming Vulcan way, is finally starting to understand what virtual online community really is (and isn’t) and how to bestow holy Google Juice on the denizens of the Internet who have committed to moving in, staying, taking up residency and then committing to citizenship. Those are the people, sites, companies, communities, and organizations that I believe Google is trying to hard to identify and then favor. But since Google has a tin ear when it comes to who’s gold-digging, who’s using, who’s being an opportunist, who’s being a fair-weather friend, and who’s actually true blue, it has taken a while for everything to come together. And, though it isn’t yet perfect, they’re getting closer and closer.
If your ears perked up when you started to read that Google is really starting to favor all those who are deeply committed to connecting and engaging – and all of their various blogs, sites, platforms, and social profiles to boot – then you’re going to have a hard time. Why? Because you really shouldn’t care at all about SEO or Google or your Klout or Kred right now. You should care only about your natural allies, your natural prospects, people in your vertical, the folks who already love you to death, the folks who don’t get you at all, and also the folks who hate you, for whatever reason. And then there’s the next step, which is hard.
First, you have to acknowledge the fact that every single follower, friend, Like, and +1 you acquire represents a human soul who has committed to participating in your folly. Yes I understand how many spambots, fake accounts, Perlscripts, codeballs, and hectares of outsourced, unengaged, human clickfarms exist in the world, but these people will never and can never become anything akin to your online family, your online community.
What would I do if I were to do it again?
Well, what I would do is simple: I would first leverage the real relationships I already have. Every social media platform worth its salt allows you to shamelessly exploit all of your webmail contacts that you have collected over the last decade, as well as all of the real friends that you may have already earned on Facebook. You need to take it all the way, too: Don’t just follow all the folks who are already on Google+, Twitter, and Facebook; you need to invite all of your personal and professional friends to come to Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ (and others) just for you. If you cannot do this, then you’re really not willing to put enough skin in the game; you’re not willing to put your own personal reputation at risk in order to move your professional brand forward. This means you’re probably either a hypocrite or maybe know that you’ll eventually do something shady or short-game on social media that you really don’t want to be tracked back to your social media fingerprints.
All the individuals you’ll ever connect with in your online virtual community are indeed real people with hopes, dreams, fears, skepticism, concern, trust issues, and the like. It’s really best that you invite the people you really do know first so that you’ll always think twice before you engage with your community in a way that suggests you consider them — your followership and “friends” — to be just a professional asset.
There are so many social media marketing articles online that are putting dollar numbers on what each friend, follower, Like, and +1 means, similar to the valuation that direct mail marketers put on addresses and emails. Unlike this valuation that’s based on conversion and past performance, the numbers that you have been and will be able to collect are on an equal playing field. I am not naive: Yes, you can sometimes convert them to joining, buying, clicking, Liking, and +1ing; however, they’re also just as likely to throw your marketing grenade right back over the wall back at you.
When you’re working on developing an online community, every social media action has an equal or greater reaction. These are not just numbers and assets that you can collect until you decide to seize the moment. Activate them to do something awesome, buy all your stuff, and change your world — and bank account — forever.
Also, like real friends, you cannot just collect them, you need to befriend them. They need to ask you favors and then you need to ask them favors. They’ll ask you for help and guidance and you’ll do the same. Little things, big things, again and again, for different folks, the same folks. You need to build this community the same way you would build a muscle at the gym. You cannot just collect all these folks in a box awaiting the perfect moment when you can let them loose on whatever you’ve been planning forever. Tacit and weak connections are just that. Really becoming chums is something else. Don’t worry, you don’t need to become chums with everyone who follows and befriends you. Most of the folks you’ll interact with online don’t actually want to become your BFF.
Most folks who follow you don’t want to get married
The majority of the interactions I have with brands on a daily basis are superficial. Most of the interaction that folks have had with my brand has been superficial too. When I reach out to @KLM of Twitter, it’s to see what’s going on with my flight out of Schiphol. I don’t expect much, just timely information. When @KLM offers to spot me some time in their club or buy me a coffee or something, that’s terrific (and I am always easily bought); however, getting my question answered in a timely manner and to my expectations is what I really want — the rest is just garnish and appeasement (I love garnish).
Eighty percent of all of your interactions online should involve some sort of listening. That can indeed include commenting, retweeting, Liking, starring, Listing, +1ing, reblogging, and just thanking someone for including you in a #FollowFriday post or for retweeting something. Being grateful is one of the best things one can be when nobody gets paid a livable wage to read your updates, to share your posts, or to include you in anything. No matter how rock star you are, you need to go out of your way to search out, find, engage with, and thank all the folks who mention you, your space, your vertical, your products, company, or services.
Growing your sphere of influence
Once I have brought all the real people I know into the fold — not just from my personal address books but also from my current client base — I need to go poaching.
What I mean by poaching is to say, you need to go foraging — looking for new followers. One of the popular ways is to find out what sort of hashtags your industry, vertical, product or service uses to communicate among themselves. The same thing is true with message boards, Lists, Groups, Listservs, Pages, and whatnot. The great thing about the Internet and all of these simple-to-use social media platforms is that folks tend to create their own ad hoc communities when they cannot find them easily and quickly.
So, spending some time exploring Facebook, Google+, Pinterest, Flickr, YouTube, Twitter, Yahoo and Google Groups, email lists, and the magic world of message boards and forums is an essential way of getting to know the context of the world you’ve just elbowed your way into. Beware: every single community I have mentioned behaves a little like a very tight-knit family. Always go in submissive and make a point of quickly identifying a Majordomo: a tribal elder, high-poster, list or board owner, etc. If you would like to engage in conversations that are happening in a message board or an email list, engage the owner first and tell him or her what you’re up to and ask for some advice. Jumping in, all jazz hands and spittle, without knowing their context, their history, etc. (and without them knowing you) is more dangerous than you can imagine.
Simply put: If the hive doesn’t recognize you, it’s like poking it with a stick. Don’t be surprised when you get stung. Poor form. The solution’s easy and the analogy is easier.
Learn how to infiltrate the right way
How do you behave when you attend a party you weren’t directly invited to? What I do is this: I bring a nice bottle of wine or some beer. I dress as well as I think the nicest-dressed invitee will but no nicer. When I arrive, I ask around to find out who the host is and find him or her immediately. When I meet the host, I tell them why I am there: “Mike told me about the party and said it was OK to attend without him” or “Mike asked me to come and meet me here, but I just wanted to meet the host first” or “I live down the street and noticed there was a party going on and I thought I would stop by.” I then offer the wine or beer. I then spend as much time with just the host as makes sense, just so the host feels comfortable having me in his or her home and around valuables and friends and family. Only then do I grab a drink or wink at pretty people or take to the schmooze. Thing is, there’s really no reason to bullshit the host. If you are there because you’re looking to meet the neighbors because you’ve got a dog-walking service, let the host know and see if it’s OK to hit up his guests. If you’re really honest and the host likes you, there’s a pretty good chance that the host will take you by your elbow and walk you around to all the folks at the party who have dogs, introducing you to each of them, telling them your story on your behalf. That’s the perfect scenario.
And I do exactly the same thing when it comes to infiltrating communities I have not been invited to. I used the word “infiltrate” intentionally instead of “join” because so many marketers have rudely and shamelessly crashed parties without any care or respect for the community. Turn on any teen movie and you’ll see something quite similar in action (I am thinking about the party scene in “Mean Girls”). So, while you may very well be as well-intentioned as can be, folks are not going to trust you right way. By virtue of being in communications, marketing, sales, or in any way wanting to evangelize or promote yourself or your brand anywhere, you’re immediately guilty until you can prove yourself innocent.
I had every intention of geeking out and sharing some tools and step-by-step processes that one can use in order to engage online. However, I really think the first step has more to do with being willing to allow the folks with whom you’re engaging in your brand new, bouncing baby social media empire to be human: hopes, dreams, fears, insecurities, concerns, and issues.
In fact, communities are so used to being abused that you’ll be surprised and insulted by the level of caution, dread, and mistrust you’ll wander into, even if your intentions are pure and you’re just looking for ways to discover, engage, and help folks online. Because of the people who came before you, it’ll most likely always be an uphill battle.
So, I have a very important quote to share with you before I let you loose into the wild to meet your social media, online virtual community, fate, and attributed to Plato, Philo of Alexandria, Ian MacLaren, and the Rev. John Watson: