Sunday, February 20, 2011

Conversational Convergence, Part I – Singularity

"Does your social media suck?"

…or: "Do your social media suck?"

The above sentences illustrate the Internet debate that has gone on for some time now: Should the term "social media" be dealt with grammatically as singular or plural?

Or, to put it another way: Which is correct?

"Social media is…"
"Social media are…"

"Media" is plural for "medium." Therefore, grammatically, "social media are" is correct. End of story.

WRONG: "Social media is an important tool in branding."
RIGHT: "Social media are important tools in branding."

Grammar enthusiast that I am, I have been guilty of this mistake many times, including in my own blog.

When talking of social media strategy, however, you almost have to forget this way of thinking. By thinking about social media as a plurality of separate tools, your own social media efforts may suffer.

More Than Content

Recently, I was chatting with a friend of mine who is a CMO. The conversation eventually turned to social media. When I asked my friend how her organization used social media, she told me that they mostly just post interesting things they come across to Twitter and Facebook.

This is how many organizations miss the point of social media – by thinking of social media as separate, distinct websites to be tinkered with here and there. Far too many organizations – and even social media professionals – take the approach that all you have to do to run a successful social media campaign is post things to a Facebook page and maybe a Twitter account.

That approach fails because a successful social media strategy is more than just telling people what you want to tell them. Yes, to enjoy any success in social media is to create and supply good content. You have to do more than shove it down your audience's throats, however.

For any content to be successful in a social media campaign, it must be offered as part of a conversation – because that's what social media campaigns are: a conversation.

You must converse with your audience because the whole point of using social media is to engage them. You can't engage your audience if they have nothing with which to interact and no incentive to do so. Only by keeping an active conversation going can you keep your audience engaged.

Lecturing vs. Leading

Back when I was in law school in Boston, we had two types of professors – those who were lecture-focused and those who were conversation-focused.

The lecture-focused professors would spend every class talking at (not to – at) their students about the law. Class participation was limited to the professor occasionally calling on another student to essentially lecture on a particular case or point of law for a few minutes instead of the professor him/herself.

The conversation-focused professors would talk to the class at great length about the law, but they would also make efforts to get students directly involved in the discussion. Students were actively encouraged to ask questions, make observations, and offer insights and opinions. By running their classes this way, these professors were not instructors lecturing their students; they were moderators leading their students in a conversation.

The upshot was this: At the end of each semester, all students would have to anonymously rate their professors. Almost without fail, the best ratings would go to the conversation-focused professors. Lecture-focused professors often received abysmally low student ratings.

Later, it occurred to me that the fundamental difference between these two types of professors was how they viewed their job – and how this contributed to the perceptions the students had of the professors.

The lecture-focused professors approached their job as teaching a collection of individual classes, with a particular amount of information to be imparted at each class. Generally, these professors hated to fall behind. Curiously, however, theirs were the classes most likely to run over time.

The conversation-focused professors took a different approach entirely. Instead of taking an attitude of having to tell their students certain information each day, these professors were more oriented towards imparting a gradual understanding of the material throughout the semester. They did not see themselves as teaching several separate classes (i.e., a plurality); they saw themselves as teaching a single course – an effort to engage students in the long term.

The professors who approached teaching with a singular, cohesive strategy were more successful at engaging students – and, by extension, more successful in attracting other students by word of mouth (the results of the student ratings were public information). By focusing on the conversation, these professors improved their personal brand.

The lecture-focused professors, who approached teaching in a more piecemeal fashion, one class session at a time, were not as successful. These professors failed at engaging their students – and ultimately damaged their personal brand – because they viewed their task as a plurality rather than a singularity. They failed to achieve convergence.

Don't Teach Several Classes; Teach a Course

The successful social media professional strives for this convergence – what I call Conversational Convergence. If you approach each status update, Tweet, and blog post individually, you're just lecturing – will fail to engage your audience. You may even bore them. Instead, converse with your audience. Get them directly involved with the discussion.

Similarly, rather than using each individual social medium in a vacuum, a good social media manager will look for the cohesion between all of the tools available. This is more than hiring the kid down the street who knows how to make Facebook and Twitter "talk to each other." This is about making every social media tool you use directly serve your overall social media campaign. By viewing your social media use as a singular effort instead of multiple, smaller efforts, you can manage your brand much more effectively.

That is how you achieve Conversational Convergence. This is how you achieve social media success. You must think of social media as more than just disparate posts on a collection of web sites. You must think of social media as one all-encompassing presence – one conversation.

You must think of social media as singular.

Social media are tools – but good social media [strategy] is a convergence.

Executive Summary: Keys to Conversational Convergence, Part I

DON'T just tell your audience several pieces of information. (Plurality)
DO engage your audience in a conversation. (Singularity)

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