UPDATE: I just saw this piece by Jen Zingsheim via Kami Huyse. Both are insightful pieces, and I think they remain consistent with my overall point. "Pitching" is not the way to succeed in social media. Building relationships is. Yes, you can only have so many quality relationships - but I'm not building relationships for myself, in many cases I'm brokering them for my clients. If 150 is the "max" for relationships - and I don't doubt that number - the key is to have the most strategic relationships. I also submit that relationships are fluid. But that's a post for another day...
As I've mentioned before on this blog, years ago as a Senate staffer I would send my boss a brief note every Friday I called the "weekly economic update." It was typically a one-pager that highlighted the latest data from federal agencies or other organizations that tracked the economy, plus information and analysis on what these numbers meant to "regular folks" back home. Along with the weekly jobless claims I'd include things like the retail cost of a gallon of milk, a gallon of gas, and so on. Of all the things I sent my boss, this weekly memo always produced the most questions from him.
If I were in that job today, I'd tell my boss to forget about the popular but false definition commonly used to determine if we're in a "recession" - i.e., two consecutive quarters of decline in the Gross Domestic Product. I'd tell him to look at the entire jobs situation - not just the unemployment rate - and the business pipeline, as well as the cost of certain things like fuel (it affects virtually everything) and how consumers are spending money. And right now, I'd tell him that people are hurting out there, and for the most part businesses continue to brace for hard times. It doesn't matter what you call it - when the economy is wrong, nothing else is right.
In the PR industry, it means we're more pressed than ever to convince businesses that we add value. For a few of us, it's a new and critical opportunity to demonstrate the value of social media - in many ways a less expensive alternative to a massive PR blitz or a huge advertising campaign. But there's a trap here as well.
In tough times companies insist on rock-solid numbers for "return on investment" in communications plans. Since it's PR, companies will quickly ask for "hits" or "placements" and want to know how many eyeballs saw their "messaging" and compare it to the cash they're shelling out.
This is a common mistake - confusing "social media" with "online media relations." If you simply want your messaging in front of blog readers, the best possible thing you can do is buy an ad on that blog. Just make sure the ad is compelling and engaging. Frankly, there's nothing wrong with that, and I'm just as happy to build a blog advertising strategy for a client as I am anything else.
"Social media," at least the way I practice it, is about building relationships with opinion leaders. That's really it - the rest is just technology-based details. I do what most health care companies do with top physicians and other health care leaders. I go out and find the smartest, most influential people in a given community and I build relationships and loyalty.
Health care companies have historically invested millions in this type of activity. And while the metrics have never been as cut-and-dry as they are in media relations or advertising, these companies have never questioned the value of having strong relationships with opinion leaders. The metrics they use are simple - here are the people we know well, and here's who they reach. Those companies don't typically expect a "Key Opinion Leader" to send a direct mail or a press release to peers, or publish a book extolling the virtues of the company's brand. Companies expect that person to provide thoughtful and candid input; to maybe speak with their peers about the issues the company (and the community) finds most important, and generally to be available for comment if there is a larger mainstream communications campaign in place.
Of course, companies have a right to ask about the value of such relationships. I've been asked, "what's the point in knowing a blogger if he or she won't write about you?" Again, I think this question misses the point a bit, but if I'm providing information and experiences that blogger finds relevant and interesting, chances are you'll see a blog post eventually. Or something in Facebook or Twitter. Or a mention at a conference or in a conversation. The important (and measurable) thing is having someone with credibility and influence talk about you, your issues, or your brand in a meaningful and positive way. In social media, this isn't a transactional process. It's a community discussion driven by relationships.
The PR industry as a whole has, in my opinion, led many companies to ask these questions. We've all written posts about "blogger relations" and "how to pitch bloggers." The more I think about it, the more I think this sets PR pro's up to fail. Perhaps someone has mastered the art of "pitching" a wide swath of online writers, but I suspect not.
We need to reframe the discussion to apply the right metrics, and we need to make the case that this adds value to existing communications efforts - especially in the current economy.