Step One: Embrace the Social-ness
As I learn more about social media, it's clear to me that the adjective "social" is much more important than the noun, "media." The media are, in general, more similar to a telephone or email than they are to websites. Where websites used to be made for one-way messaging, like a radio ad might be, social media are, by definition, made for two-way communication. Social media tools allow a user to put something (which is commonly called "content") out there for feedback. Alternatively, they allow a user to respond to something that's been put out there. Since the dawn of humanity, people have interacted based on this basic notion. Each of us knows how to do this, we just need to understand that what we know about interaction applies to these tools. When this happens, the how-to question becomes easier to address. (UPDATE 4/10/12: Just ran across a nice post that delves into this notion a bit deeper with respect to Twitter.)
Step Two: Choose Your Target(s)
With whom do you want to interact? Why did you choose that person? What's in it for you? What do you have to offer them in exchange for their time? You may want to interact with customers, policymakers, others like you, consultants, etc. Many of these have a presence on social media. Develop and follow a priority list to decide who you will approach.
Step Three: Interact
Max Spiegel once told me that engaging through social media is like going to a dinner party. While we may use different tools to interact, the same rules of engagement apply.
- Approach someone you wish to engage. Armed with the list developed in Step Two, send them requests to connect on Facebook or LinkedIn; follow them on Twitter; add them to your Google+ circles, etc.
- Strike up a conversation. If you are able to get their attention, start the conversation you want to have. Respond thoughtfully to their content. Ask them a question. Just be sure to get to the point relatively quickly. Some people on SM are in greater demand than others and some people just don't give it as much time as others might. One of the places where the analogy may break down is related to small talk. While fine, and expected, at a dinner party, it may get lost in the noise on SM.
- Be respectful. In few cases would you be rude or inconsiderate to someone at a dinner party so don't do it on SM. If someone talks to you, talk back. Listen more than you talk.
- Repetition can be a good thing. You won't be able to talk to every dinner party attendee at the same time. You'll probably need to introduce yourself several times and repeat a lot of stuff. In SM, the odds of someone not seeing a single post can be very high. Don't be afraid to put your content out there several times over the course of days or weeks. Most people expect this to happen and won't hold it against you.
- Don't oversell. We're talking about developing relationships here, not closing deals. Closed deals will come over time if you're successful in relationship development.
You may be thinking of lots of other appropriate aspects to this analogy, but I hope you get the point: the rules of interaction are basically the same. Let common sense lead you. (To learn more about the type of info that consumers are requesting, watch this short video.)
Relationships that move past the SM-only stage are usually a good thing. This may mean that the conversation needs to happen more efficiently or that it needs to be private. It's the equivalent of setting a follow up meeting at the dinner party.
This may all seem much too simple. If so, then I may have hit my target. Social media are simply tools, like the telephone or email, to communicate with people. The key, really, is knowing how to use them. Learn Twitter's language. Learn how to use a Facebook page for your business. Once you know that, you'll be able to develop and maintain relationships as you would in any other setting.