Success in the World of Social Media: What Really Matters Most?

A PR perspective, based as it is on relationships with others – rather than selling to them, as with marketing and advertising – may provide the most worthwhile view on what really matters in the world of social media. Meaning, what matters most to those who use social media as part of their daily lives? And, from a business perspective, how is it best to communicate with the social media community?

In the continued flurry of excitement about what the online world means to marketers, advertisers and the brands they help to promote, are we losing sight of the individual – the most important matter of all?

Of course, from a commercial perspective, organisations give lip service to saying they have their clients’ interests at heart. But the methods used by many advertising and marketing companies on behalf of brands are still often focused on the language of exploitation and manipulation.

It’s as if they consider the consumer as nothing but a passive object; something to be acted upon rather than to be engaged with – a vessel simply and moronically waiting without question to ingest every message poured down his or her throat by the spin merchants of marketing, advertising and even some nefarious PR people. It’s easy to recognise such branders and horse-blinkered communicators: they spout off such horrible words and phrases as “targets”, “pushing messages” and “capturing audiences”, and much else – and worse – besides. The language sounds like that of war, conquest and aggression; at the least, it’s exploitative, condescending and object-orientated, that much is obvious.

We should all know by now that the client in the online world is not separate or removed from the ‘real-world’ and yet so many companies are still playing catch-up and don’t understand the rules of engagement. That’s because they’re thinking corporate, not with empathy. The rest of us know that both worlds are in fact just one – except for a crucial difference: in the social online world, individuals are quick to react and respond loudly about things they hate and love – in a much more dramatic and vociferous way than most would feel they could do in day-to-day life; especially at work. (Ironically, of course, many don’t hesitate to vent about their feelings via email and social media while at workIf they were happier at work, it’s unlikely they would do so; a topic for another time.)

We know that in the world of social media – just as we do as individuals outside of work – engage in multiple ways and are much more passionate and powerful in voicing views and opinions online. This is why, when an issue snowballs or matters most to them, they have the power to make or break a brand, irrespective of whether that brand is a company or a person, or even a government (over time). Just witness the tremendous influence of the Twitter community when it gets angry about any one of these topics.

Increasingly – and quite rightly – individuals want communication available to them in multiple ways: to be heard and engaged with in the way they want, whether that’s during the day or night and wherever they may be. They may choose to be active in one or more of: forums and chat rooms, blog and tweeting, on Facebook and countless other social spaces besides. One element is consistent through all of these channels: the individual – your potential client – expresses their feelings and judgements about brands (and everything else)and then they swiftly determine their loyalty or rejection accordingly.

So my concern here is to focus on the fundamentals of what really matters: the individual, human relationship.  Adopt this perspective and act accordingly, and yes – that individual and others, besides, will be more receptive – even enthusiastic – to become a client of yours. Such a viewpoint and approach are vital if brands are to succeed, and likewise advertisers and marketers on behalf of the companies they support.

The world of social media demands we first understand that the online social world –individuals with shared interests – respond best to qualities characteristic of successful relationships. If we think and act within the boundaries and terms of a personal relationship we will enable individuals to consider and develop loyalty to a company’s brand.

If you treat a person – the client or potential client, or whomever else, badly – as an unthinking, unquestioning object, she or he will sooner or later look elsewhere to spend their hard-earned money.  If you treat them well and with respect, then it is far more likely that they will sustain a long-lasting relationship with you.

Few brands, advertisers or marketers fully demonstrate evidence of this understanding: that if you’re not engaging the client in a dialogue and providing them with meaningful, positive value; if you’re not treating them with respect and interest, then you’re in danger of losing their business and your own. Maybe it won’t be tomorrow, or next month, or even next year, but it will happen. Why take the risk? 

On the other hand, if what you do reflects genuine care and the qualities associated with engaging the client, you can be far more certain that they will have reason and motivation to be loyal to the brand you are supporting. (Note I said ‘supporting’, not ‘promoting’. Why? Because ‘support’ relates to the language of relationships, whereas ‘promoting’ is old-world, old-media – about ‘push’ and ‘pull’, rather than relate.)

Martyn Perks and Richard Sedley, authors of Winners and Losers in a Troubled Economy, define client engagement as:

Repeated interactions that strengthen the emotional, psychological and physical investment a client has in a brand (product or company).

In other words, success with consumers in social media will be determined by whether or not a brand’s communications efforts demonstrate an understanding that the online world is about:

  • Communities
  • Conversations
  • Collaboration
  • Meaningful content creation
  • Contribution (i.e., that the brand is expected to contribute to the client’s world of meaning and value, and not just to take).

And that all of the above characteristics should be shaped and framed by the qualities you find in a good, healthy personal relationship:

  • Honesty
  • Transparency of motives and meaning
  • Consideration
  • Respect
  • Compromise
  • Understanding
  • Fun and a sense of humour
  • Kindness
  • Fairness
  • Passion
  • Sincerity.

Too much of a tall order?  Then you’d better start packing your bags, and giving up your brand accounts now, because the client of digital media has the power online either to make or break the brands you represent.

And what matters in social media communications – better to call it conversation – after all, this is about relationships – with your clients?  Inevitably the same things that matter in a personal relationship.

  • Be genuine and transparent: don’t misrepresent – if you lie, you can kiss your brand value goodbye
  • Invest time, energy, effort, consideration and care in your communications
  • Be consistent: don’t be there one day and disappear the next; don’t say a particular value, issue or principle matters – only to drop it next month or year
  • Be personable: engage in a respectful, real, human voice, not a BS one comprising corporate/marketing/technical/advertising speak that is only about ever selling and sycophancy
  • Give, give, give: share as much information of value and points of interest that you know about the brand so the client can make an informed choice. The more you give, the more the client will return to your brand.

In social media we can all think of a number of brands that are doing very well and have embraced the fundamentals of good client engagement and relationship-building.  We each have our own favourites and every list is personal. Some of mine include Dove, Southwest Airlines and Innocent Drinks: they represent some of the greatest brands in terms of their success in engaging in social media relationships because they’re doing everything right in their approach and content. Simply to follow them on Twitter and Facebook (especially these three) is proof enough of this claim.




Social media can, of course, be a tremendously powerful and effective tool to enhance a company’s reputation and to gain market share.  By engaging with and enabling clients in a thoughtful, respectful and meaningful way in the online world, you can help create with them a genuine community. Instead of the old world of give-and-take, of push-and-pull, of talking at them instead of listening to them and responding appropriately, you can have dialogue, understanding and relationship.

When your first priority in your communications activities is to connect with and relate to your clients, and treat them with value and respect – and all of the other vital qualities of a great relationship, as indicated earlier – then you can expect that your brand, and your rewards (emotionally as well as financially), will benefit enormously. In short, if you and your brand engage clients as you would wish to be, you’re more than likely to succeed.  And by focusing all of your efforts on what really matters most – a positive, meaningful relationship – how can you fail?

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