Think + Do » an exploration of nonprofit marketing and design

How Twitter is Like Golf

 

golf swing - fore!In an annual ritual that portends the coming spring, Major League pitchers and catchers reported to sunny baseball diamonds all across Florida and Arizona last week. Somewhere, no doubt, people tweeted about it.

But, baseball isn’t the sport I’ve been thinking about recently. No, I’ve been thinking about golf, and how many parallels it seems to have with Twitter – the social network that has captivated the news media, celebrities, and marketing professionals everywhere. For example:

  • Twitter and golf both support a flourishing industry of experts who will gladly take your money in exchange for promises to improve your game.
  • Both are governed by widely accepted rules of etiquette.
  • Fewer shots (and characters) is considered better than more.
  • Golf is the leisure activity most closely associated with corporate success in America. Twitter is considered, by some, vitally important to an organization’s marketing success.

There are other similarities, however, that are cause for deeper analysis.

You’re probably not very good
Most people prefer to spend time doing things they’re good at. Curiously, golf and Twitter are two pastimes in which lack of aptitude does not appear to be a deterrent to participation.

As in most things with a bell curve, the distribution of talent gets pretty thin over on the right edge of the graph. However, a lot of activity, in both golf and Twitter, is generated by this smaller group of people. According to a report in the Harvard Business Review, 10% of users account for 90% of all Twitter activity. Similarly, fewer than 10% of Americans play golf and, of those, only a small percentage would be considered avid golfers – those playing 25 rounds or more per year.

So why do the rest of us continue to flail about?

Even though I can’t throw a football like Peyton Manning, dunk a basketball, or hit a 95 mile-per-hour fastball, every once in a while I can swing a club and strike the golf ball with as much purity and precision as any professional golfer. I’m convinced it’s those moments that keep hackers like me coming back for more.

On Twitter, in real time, we can follow the thoughts and actions of those we admire in a way that feels more personal and connected than other forms of media – and some people may even be interested in following what we have to say.

The intoxicating possibility of regularly hitting a golf ball well, or having legions of followers, seems tantalizingly within reach. Except that it’s really not – at least not for most of us.

Aimless practice
It’s much easier to hit your target if you know what it is. This holds true whether you’re swinging a golf club or crafting 140-character messages.

Nearly every golfer on a practice range is swinging a driver – a club that’s used relatively rarely during an actual round – to hit the ball as far as they can. Approximately two-thirds of all shots in an average round occur within 100 yards of the hole. Yet, it’s the rare player that allots practice time according to the frequency of the shot.

Many Twitter users take a similarly haphazard approach to the social network, practicing without a clear understanding of what they hope to accomplish. Is it better used as a broadcasting platform or for instant messaging with friends and colleagues? Is it a link sharing service or a marketing tool? It could be any or all of those things, but few users persist in working with a specific audience in mind, or defining what success looks like and a strategy for achieving it.

Return on investment
Mark Twain is famously attributed with the assessment that golf is “a good walk spoiled.” When it comes to Twitter, nonprofit marketers’ expectations of the social network as an effective media channel can be spoiled by reality.

One of the drawbacks of playing golf is that it costs both a lot of time and money. As people have become gradually busier and the economy has struggled, golf’s popularity has waned over the last ten years.

Twitter, in contrast, may suffer from nearly the opposite problem – with high demand but unlimited supply the cost of participation is negligible, and “playing” can be done in one’s spare time. Because it easily fills the little “throwaway” gaps in an ordinary work day, Twitter may not be as highly valued as an activity that requires a stronger commitment.

In either case, when it comes to marketing, the question that must be answered is not: Do I enjoy this activity? But rather: Is this the best use of my time?

Fore!
The workplace is rife with examples of busy marketing professionals who have difficulty prioritizing the tasks on their to do list – who regularly confuse “nice to know” with “need to know” – and consequently end up either working harder than necessary or distracting themselves with more stimulating, but less vital, pursuits.

People can rationalize all day long about how they choose to spend their time, and point to exceptions that prove the rule, but make no mistake – for the vast majority of people – Twitter, like golf, is an enjoyable diversion, not an integral part of your marketing success.

Related content:
Survey of Worldwide Twitter Use
Defining Twitter Goals

Getting Engaged

Love is in the air. Or, maybe it’s pollen. I’ve been sneezing so much lately it’s difficult to see straight. But, like the nagging of an impatient mother, it’s difficult to ignore the persistent prodding: When are you going to get engaged?

Helpful advice on wooing that certain special someone is cheerfully, though not cheaply, offered by marketing and social media consultants everywhere. There are thousands of customers waiting to hear from you! Participate in meaningful conversations! Build an emotional connection! Be still my lonely heart.

A meaningful relationship
Do you know anyone who is eagerly pursuing a relationship with a brand? They may interact with, be loyal to, and be supportive of their favorites, but you’re largely dealing with an audience of confirmed bachelors and bachelorettes. People are not interested in committing to organizations or brands, they’re playing the field.

“Engagement marketing” is not an oxymoron on the order of an “open secret” or “exact estimate,” but more of a euphemism turned sideways. In an effort to make something unpleasant seem less so, we often use a velvet glove to soften the blow. You’re not getting fired, you’re being downsized. I’m not calling you a liar, I’m just questioning the credibility of your assertions. In marketing it seems we’re using pleasant concepts – engagement, dialogue, community – as cover for the more difficult things organizations need to address.

Such quibbling over semantics may seem petty – there’s nothing wrong with a concerted effort to be more engaging. In fact, it’s imperative in an age where the consumer undeniably has the upper hand. But, in implying that there’s a causal relationship between marketing (at least in the usual sense) and a customer’s desire to get engaged, consultants over-promise and under-deliver.

Making a promise
Much of what is encouraged in the social media sphere – listening, being responsive, participating in two-way communication – is less marketing and more customer service. Essentially, it’s acting like a good human being, treating others as you’d like to be treated.

In the book In Search of Excellence, a self-deprecating executive explains, “I’m not smart enough to know which things are most important, so I just treat everything as if it’s the most important thing.” The lesson is that excellence, by its very nature, is all-inclusive. An excellent organization must provide great products and service – an excellent experience throughout the enterprise. Always.

Building trust is easy. Just start by telling the truth, and then do as you promised. – Eric Karjaluoto

It’s the pervasive and permanent effort across an organization that can be underestimated by marketing folks and the people who hire them. You want your customers to love you? As Beyonce sings: If you liked it, then you shoulda put a ring on it. Live up to your promise – engagement doesn’t happen in 140 characters.

What are you willing to do?
You can declare empathy for a social cause, or volunteer your time to help solve it. You can tell someone you’re funny, or actually make them laugh. Profess deep compassion for the environment, or make purchases that demonstrate your values. Actions speak louder than words.

The activities that drive personal connection with an organization are operational in nature – they have little to do with marketing. As someone who makes his living as a design and marketing consultant, I won’t tell you that marketing is unimportant. It’s not easy to do well. And it’s especially challenging when an organization can’t deliver on its promise. Before you start thinking about the next campaign, first consider how you can design a better experience for your customers.

Engagement cannot be broadcast or found on any media channel. It’s personally delivered every day, one at a time – like a love note.

Related content:

Speak Human by Eric Karjaluoto
It’s Not About Engagement

Favorite Links: July 2011

We’re always in search of fresh thinking on issues that affect nonprofit marketing. Here’s some recent favorites:

Ten Things You Need to Know to Raise Capital for Your Nonprofit
Fast Company

The Case Against Designing Mobile Apps
Imprint

Why Bosses Need to Show Their Soft Side
Daniel Pink, The Telegraph

Social Media Agnostic

My faith is being tested. As someone who believes in the value of solid marketing strategy and good design, I find myself skeptical about the relatively new kid on the block – social media.

While I believe it merits a place at the marketing altar, when the prophecies of the true believers grow insistent and I’m asked to enthusiastically embrace that which I cannot see (or measure), I begin to wonder if I’m being sold snake oil rather than salvation.

Faith-based marketing
Most non-profit organizations I’ve worked with are mildly to severely short on staff and budget to tackle their day-to-day marketing. But the conversation with social media mavens often sounds something like this:

Non-profit: “Our social media efforts seem to be falling flat. What’s wrong?”
Maven: “For success, you need to commit more time to social media.”
Non-profit: “I don’t have more time.”
Maven: “Then you need more sophisticated analytics to track your efforts.”
Non-profit: “Where’s the return on that investment?”
Maven: “Oh, you can’t really measure success like that. It’s all about engagement.”
Non-profit: “What’s that?”
Maven: “You’ll know it when you see it.”
Non-profit: “What if I don’t see it?”
Maven: “Then you’re not spending enough time and money on it.”

Setting expectations
Compare the commitment for social media success to other time-intensive activities like gardening. Similar to social media, gardening takes planning, strategy (picking the right plants for your available plot of land and conditions), monitoring, feeding and weeding. Even then, factors beyond your control – like a hailstorm – can sabotage your efforts.

You may enjoy gardening and find value in its tangible and intangible benefits, but it’s wise to set realistic expectations. If you just want to grow a couple potted tomato plants, chances are you’ll have enough time to maintain your commitment and enjoy the fruits of your labor. If your goal is to feed the whole neighborhood, you may need some help, not to mention more land and a tractor.

Same old story
What seems to get lost in the hype is that social media is just like all other marketing efforts – success requires planning, meaningful goals and solid strategy. Without it, the only measurable growth will be in the number of marketers who’ve lost their faith.

Related content:
Looking past friend-counting
Social Media’s Massive Failure

Day Traders

Be fearful when others are greedy. Be greedy when others are fearful. – Warren Buffett

At the turn of the century, as technology granted ambitious individuals opportunity to compete with institutional investors, we witnessed the growth of day trading in the stock market. Day traders obsessively buy and sell positions, attempting to profit from market volatility. Unfortunately, around 80% of all day traders lose money.

Flash forward to 2010, a year in which Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was recognized as TIME magazine’s “Person of the Year.” In his commentary on the social network’s influence, Facebook Puts All Brands on Notice, branding consultant Simon Mainwaring writes:

The power of Facebook is the relationships it fosters and how that gives individuals and brands influence over their fans and friends. Variously called social capital or influence, this ability to exercise influence means that brands become day traders in social emotion and continually manage their reputations.

Facebook’s unmatched ability to instantly connect millions of people has changed the way we do business – of that there is no question. Where I take issue with Mr. Mainwaring is in his assessment of what that means for marketers. Do we really want or need to influence our customer’s “social emotions” on a daily basis?

Affirming this as a goal seems a bit self-serving for the social marketer, as it gives license to remain ever busy providing up-to-the-minute (or second) brand management. There’s another emotion at play here as well – fear. What if I’m not doing enough? What if my competition is tweeting while I’m sleeping? How come no one “liked” our latest Facebook post? To me, this behavior seems unhealthy.

The question should really be: Do our customers want to have “relationships” with us? Based on consumer trends toward self-service, evidence seems to be mounting that customers aren’t seeking a dialogue. Here’s a sobering thought: Is it possible your customers are “just not that in to you?”

Being responsive to your customers is always good business, whether face-to-face or online. Investing in social media will keep you plenty busy, but removing daily obstacles to self-service may do more for your customer relationships than all the tweets in China.

Related Content:
Why Your Customers Don’t Want to Talk to You
Ads in the Age of Hysteria

Don’t Wait for Perfection

The web is an amazingly flexible medium that can be updated at a second’s notice, yet many people seem to forget this when launching a site. A website needs to be functional and well designed when it is unveiled, but waiting for perfection is a trap that can delay a launch indefinitely. Here is how to avoid that trap.

Set realistic goals
Websites often get delayed because the scope of the site is too big to execute given the manpower. Don’t plan for content that no one has time to write or interactive features no one has time to build. Distinguish between functionality and features that are necessary and those that are simply nice to have.

For example, many organizations struggle with how to integrate social media into their website. While social media is an attractive feature, it adds little value if no one has the time to sustain it. Instead of setting up blogs, a YouTube channel, and an account on every networking site, determine how many channels you realistically have the time and passion to maintain. One well-maintained social media channel will be more effective than half a dozen that are not.

Not all problems can be avoided
Sites can be delayed by endless hypothetical questions. A common one I hear is: What if members of my audience are using a dial-up connection or an outdated browser? Yes, it’s possible that someone will want to access your site on Netscape, but frankly the number of people fitting this profile is statistically insignificant.

Be as thorough as possible when planning for the ways different people will be accessing your site. Make sure it is easily accessible from multiple browsers, screen readers for the visually impaired, and for smart phone users. However, it is impossible to prepare for every scenario. Inevitably, some people will encounter a few bugs.

Encourage people to report problems by including a link to your webmaster in the footer of your site. If enough people have the same problem, they will identify where the site needs improvements. Don’t waste time worrying about hypothetical scenarios. Wait and troubleshoot the real ones.

Embrace the web’s flexible nature
You may think your site won’t be perfect until that interactive slideshow is finished, or until you have time to write a great blog. Get over it. Don’t delay releasing new content or a more user-friendly interface just because a few bells and whistles aren’t ready. In fact, adding features at a later date can be to your advantage. New features draw the attention of search engines and give users a reason to return to your site after the redesign.

A good website is always evolving. Regularly adding new features and content should be the goal, not a reason to delay launching. If your organization’s website is perfect when you launch it, you’ve waited too long.

– Claire Napier

Favorite Links: October 2010

We’re always in search of fresh thinking on issues that affect nonprofit marketing. Here’s some recent favorites:

If It Won’t Fit On A Post-It, It Won’t Fit In Your Day
The 99 Percent

What Does a Campus CEO Need to Know about Social Media?
CASE Social Media

The Future of Publishing
Dorling Kindersley (UK)

Churn Baby Churn

A communications specialist at a Midwest university told me recently, “We’re putting out fires on a daily basis. Our department has six people to serve 15,000 students and we have no time to think strategically.” Sound familiar?

While too many organizations chase after the latest communications trends, adding ever more tasks to overworked staff, precious few seem inclined to ask: Why are we doing this? Or, better yet, should we be doing this?

Plan to make choices

Marketing should not be viewed as an all-you-can-eat buffet. If some is good, more must be better. It takes considerable discipline to take a step back and evaluate what is working and which activities are just distractions.

Practicing restraint requires having a plan – a communications strategy that defines objectives and target audiences, and sets priorities for the key messages and media channels used to reach them.

Economy of time

If time is currency, you don’t want to spend yours – or worse, your audience’s – foolishly.

In Kristina Halvorson’s excellent essay on The Discipline of Content Strategy, she writes: “Until we commit to treating content as a critical asset worthy of strategic planning and meaningful investment, we’ll continue to churn out worthless content in reaction to unmeasured requests.”

Do fewer things well

The benefit of taking time for strategy is that it encourages action with a purpose. It also allows staffers to shed activities that have been less effective, freeing up time to handle more promising ventures. The only downside to business as usual? Occasionally having to say “no” to colleagues. Or bosses.

By measuring your marketing efforts through a communications strategy, you’re more likely to provide valuable content that your audience cares about. And you can let the fire department handle the fires.

Related Content:

3 ways in which low quality content can damage your business