While I don’t believe that the richness of the online world can be reduced to a real estate analogy, that’s what I’m going with in order to explain the way humans work, especially in concert and in community.
If you only give to the people and the community around you and never ask for help or for favors, people might still like you but they’ll never feel the sort of intimacy and humanity needed to really connect with you in a profound way. Instead of just building up brand equity by being the prettiest, smartest, most athletic or most altruistic person in the room, try asking for help; for favors.
Open the window to your daily challenges and processes. Admit that you’re a company or organization that needs to make money in order to thrive. In the end, people don’t enjoy being a sheep in a flock with you as a shepherd so much as they prefer to be a member of your community. The members of a community take care of each other — and that’s not just you and your brand taking care of your community (remember, they’re not your flock), it’s also about your community sustaining you as well. Stop trying to be perfect and try being human.
Spend equity in small doses to resonate with your community
Don’t just keep on building up brand equity and good faith online ad infinitum — spend it as fast as you make it. Social media is a series of now, now, now, just like real relationships. Saving up all that equity for periodical grandiose gifts is less appealing to your (virtual online) community than is just being there. It’s sort of like being a good parent: It’s better to be home every night at 5 and home on the weekends than it is to be on the road all year or away at the office for your 18-hour-days, only to buy us a car on our birthday.
As the bread winner, you don’t need to buy our love. We’ve chosen to be here, but we can also choose to leave if we feel like were being ignored, abandoned, or taken for granted. Don’t ever ignore us just because you already believe you have our vote.
The biggest mistake I see on a daily basis when it comes to some of the best social media engagement strategies is that folks tend to be afraid to spend any of the goodwill — the equity — that’s built up over time.
To return to the real estate theme, too many of the best social media teams and social media-engaged brands spend all of their time doing home improvement and not enough time reaping the benefits of that selfless improvement in the form of spending some of that equity.
You’re allowed to market your tenants! Don’t be afraid of your followers and friends online. They’re not only fair weather friends and they’re not just crashing there because it’s free and because you’re generous and give them free things. They’re there because they have, for some reason, imprinted on you and your brand. They’re not there because you tricked them into liking or following you, but because they arrived at your door looking for you. You were either their intended destination or you’re where they ended up for whatever reason — but here they are.
Accrued equity cannot be saved for the long term
Yes, the reason they may well be there now is because you’ve been ardently building a safe, generous, happy, fun, informational, educational, responsive, and creative space for them. Bravo. That said, you are running a business and, at the end of the day, you’re entitled to spend some or all of the equity accrued over time on converting, cross-promoting, and up-selling your fans.
You can’t save social media equity — you can only build it and spend it.
Back in my late 20s and early 30s, I used to hold my most impressive and useful acquaintances in reserve. I must have thought that connection was akin to finding a genie in a bottle. With only three wishes, I had better keep them bottled up until the time was right and I needed a get out of jail free card. But it never worked that way. My former business partner and best friend, Mark Harrison, told me something important (and I always appreciated how he would remediate for me simple truths about friendships and relationships that I hadn’t seemed to have picked up in the course of my own life-discovery):
The best way to build intimacy with a new acquaintance, or to get even closer to the friends you have, is to ask for favors; to ask for help. Being needed by someone else is part of it, of course, but the more interesting psychology of it all is that asking someone else for a favor is like a gift to the other person: It gives them the opportunity to do something for you. In our society, too few people ask each other for favors or for help and strangely, helping other people you like generally makes us happy and feel connected.
Let people see the real you
I had another quirk, too: I used to only allow other people to see me and enter my world when I was prepared and ready, with all my armor on. What I learned is that real intimacy and connection happened between people who allow their flaws to show, who have an opportunity to see behind the bravado of game day. Just hanging out and doing nothing together is probably time more valuably spent than the awkward elegance and banter around the table enjoyed at a dinner party.
What I learned over time — and have used to great effect time and time again — is that no matter how generous you are to your friends, followers, and Likers online and in real life; no matter how many of their problems you fix or good counsel you give; no matter how many favors you do for others or days you save from jumping up to help, support, or facilitate; true intimacy and connection will elude you and your brand until you start revealing the face behind the make-up.
In other words, spend your equity early and often by allowing your friends and followers to know that you need something: more business, more customers, more revenue, more donations, a more successful capital campaign. NPR and PBS have this wired for sound.
They offer their members, listeners, and fans an abundance of riches throughout the year in the form of radio and TV programing — building equity out the wazoo — but then they go nuts and spend down a lot of that goodwill and equity by doing multiple days of fundraising in the form of a pledge drive. While this does burn a lot of the accrued goodwill, it also builds intimacy as well: NPR and PBS both throw their humanity at you in segments that unmask hosts, actors, special guests, reporters, and the like. You get to see them presumably without their prompter, you get to see them outside their formal job as entertainer, reporter, analyst, and show host.
In the moments of the pledge drive, I discover how much these shows cost NPR affiliate WAMU 88.5 FM and PBS affiliate WETA in Washington, D.C. I discover how much of their money is private, public, and through member donations. I have an opportunity to listen to Diane Rehm (right) speak to Kojo Nnamdi and Ed Walker and Rob Bamberger and Rebecca Sheir — folks who never chat and pitch together on normal days — and each one of them are holding out a cup, asking for alms, from me.
It’s human, it’s open, it’s vulnerable, it’s a little pathetic, and it makes me love them a little bit more. Commercial broadcast television does this in the form of needing to create television programing compelling enough that you’ll forgive the 10 minutes-per-half-hour of commercials that are needed to make that programming viable.
What’s more, the Internet has proved time and time again that denizens of the Internet have a strong fear of falling in love and getting hurt. We have all invested in an online community or a favorite blog or social network only to have it disappear. When someone is shopping around for a community, they’re aware that they could be hurt again. Worse, their hundreds of hours of participation could disappear in the blink of an eye.
So, when a new prospect is sniffing around your brand page or blog or Tumblr or whatever, they ask two things: WIIFM and WIIFT: what’s in it for me and what’s in it for them. If the prospect can figure out why you’re being so nice and generous but can’t sort out your monetization strategy, your sales channel, your conversion process or your fundraising plan, you might set off the “it’s too good to be true” red flag.
Build a durable, loyal community
You can build a loyal community by spending your equity on letting every member of your community know that, for realsies, you need them as much — and more — than they need you. By showing way more than telling you’ll be on your way to building a community that is loyal to you, faithful through good times and bad, and who will have your back.
The best thing about creating a community like this is that it’s durable. And a durable community is what you need for it to be persistent over time. Durability is what superficial communities of purchased followers run by community managers who fancy themselves a social media brand shepherd and their followers to be their flock.
Unless you’re able to build the trust and mutual respect, you won’t really posses anything; only a follower count, maybe, but good luck on being able to activate these followers. Your message penetration, shares, comments and tweets will never be where they could be if you really spent the time to build a family.