Joshua Benton: Putting the social in social media
Q: Many of the people who do communications at the denominational level are communicating regionally or nationally. Are there differences in the strategies for a larger audience?
The issue is less geography and more how to get your name and your message in front of people. A lot of folks in social media default to a strategy that is very self-promotional. If you are self-promotional, the main thing you talk about is how great you are; you can achieve a certain degree of audience among the people who are already interested in knowing what your church is doing.
But the key to getting a broader audience is figuring out who are the people you want to reach and how you can best serve them. What can you put in front of them that will delight them or fill one of their needs?
When we started our Twitter feed, for example, we could have used it exclusively to promote what we’re writing. Instead, we thought, “Our readers are journalists who are interested in the same kinds of issues as we are. How can we best serve them?”
The answer was: There's interesting work going on in the future of journalism every day. We’re not writing about all of it on our site, so let’s use our Twitter feed as a place where we put out 10 to 15 links a day to sites that we’re looking at. We treated Twitter like a background news wire, which was constantly streaming information. The result is that people have come to trust us as a real source of information.
Now, if we do ever use it to promote our own stories, we have enormous power to do so because we’ve built up this audience by serving them. That is a big step; it begins with thinking, “What is it that our audience needs that we can provide?”
Q: Isn’t there a danger, though, in sending people away from your site?
Oh, no. I will completely argue against that. If you're a for-profit institution you have a slightly different set of metrics, but the key thing is that you gain value by being a trusted source of information. I think that the best way to build your brand online is to help your readers as best you can. That probably won’t mean being just a calendar of events for what you're doing.
Q: Do you have any best practices or recommendations for finding the most effective ways of using technology to build community?
The key word in social media is social. Social media has to have the tenor of the human conversation for it to be effective.
When people talk about where journalism is going, there is a gut reaction on the part of many that the answer is in tools and technology. In newsrooms this takes the form of, “We all have to buy a bunch of cameras and learn how to shoot video, then everything will be fine.”
Q: So it's not just a matter of finding that one right tool?
The Internet fundamentally changes the ways that people can gather together, get information and organize themselves, and that’s not something a tool will help you do.
Twitter and Facebook are very valuable tools, but they're valuable primarily because they're the place that people gather, they're the town square where it's a good place to put your flyer.
Q: How do you stand out in engaging people who have so much competing for their attention?
Seth Godin, a marketing guru, says that the key is to produce things that are remarkable, because if something is remarkable then people will want to remark upon it to their friends and colleagues. Create content that begs to be spread around in a social media context, the kinds of things that people are going to say, “Wow, this is great,” and share it with their friends on Facebook or retweet on Twitter.
Q: Do you have examples of a national organization that’s had good luck with communicating using new media?
I can’t point to any churches because I don’t know that world well enough, but there are a number of companies that have used social media in interesting and innovative ways and gotten a lot of success. I’ll give you a few examples.
Dell Computer has a Twitter account where they just tweet coupons for goods that they're selling that are only available on Twitter. And because they're pretty good values, people subscribe to it even if they don’t want to buy a computer they see a coupon and they retweet it to all their friends. As a result Dell has been able to make quite a bit of money selling through their Twitter account.
On a different scale, there's a company like Zappos that sells shoes. They are constantly Twittering to try and put a human face on a shoe company. They’ve successfully adopted social media and as a result have created this wonderful reputation for customer service. They’re putting a human face on what could otherwise be a sort of dry, e-commerce transaction.
Companies on a very small scale, a one-person scale, have used Twitter to figure out how they can get to their audience. For example, there are a lot of street vendors in San Francisco and New York that roam around the city and tweet when they get to a certain corner, saying, “Hey, I'm here at the corner of 6th and Broadway.” Suddenly the vendors get swarmed by people descending from skyscrapers to come and buy their hotdogs or their pretzels. So there are a lot of different strategies.
In general, social media is good for putting a human face on your work, for finding small niches of customers that are better reached through social media than they are through things like advertising in the mass media. It's good for interaction, seeing exactly what your customers are saying, and listening to them.