Posted on | August 4, 2009 | 3 Comments
Whatâ€™s the biggest cause of infant mortality among social media strategies? Culture. Social media strategies, like babies, need a lot of care and feeding early on by engaged people. But not everyone gets social media. How does a large organization with entrenched culture make it work?
The cultural struggle over social media (questions today are mostly when and why, rather than how)Â reveals itself in interesting ways in the electronics sector, which has had to face the â€œengineering paradoxâ€â€”the men and women who invented the technologies that enabled the digital age are generally trailing adopters. I wrote about this for EDN earlier this month (Engineers, vendors search for their voice, and answers, in social media). (Twitter: @EDNmagazine).
In the mid-1990s, the majority of engineers werenâ€™t online, either by choice or company policy. This made building publishing and advertising strategies rather tricky. Flummoxed marketersâ€”many of whom had no company Web site yetâ€”told publishers that the audience wasnâ€™t online (they could see them right there in their own neighboring cubicles) so why bother?
Evolution in Engineering
Eventually engineers (and marketers) migrated online, building jiffy Web sites (and dreadful ones too). This dynamic has repeated itself in the social media era. Many companies have no social media strategy, believing that the EE audience just isnâ€™t socially connected in great enough numbers to matter. (An editor-colleague of mine, Paul Dempsey, put it succinctly last week in the press room at DAC: “Engineers engineer, they don’t communicate.”)
But the tideâ€™s turning, and those surfing in on some big waves are object models in how to play in the water safely and productively. Theyâ€™re leading by adapting their communications cultures quickly.
Take Austin-based National Instruments, for example.
NI has had great success over the years with its marketing and communications programs. So there is little incentive to play around with something new and unproven. If it ainâ€™t broke, why fix it?
Thatâ€™s not how Deirdre Walsh (Twitter: @deirdrewalsh) and John Graff saw it. Graff has been at NI for years. Itâ€™s a company that takes kids right out of the Texas colleges, and trains them in the â€œNI way.â€ The burnout rate is high in the early years, but those who stay stay for a long time, and the culture is etched into them. Iâ€™ve seen few other companies anywhere that are so successful in driving their culture (and messaging) across the company. It has its astonishing moments: The communications team can weave important messages into karaoke songs late in the Austin night if it wants to.
Graff, Walsh says, pushes his group to experiment. (He may be as energetic in this way as his golf handicap is low). She began playing around with social media at night mostly to learn about its platforms, its nuances, its ethos. After a few conversations with Graff, he told her he needed it to be a full-time job, and thatâ€™s where Walsh finds herself today: community and social media manager for NI.
â€œJohn said as long as youâ€™re seeing benefit, then keep going. Really there was not a big fight internally, specifically because it helped with customer support. And we have gotten leads from social media activities. And then thereâ€™s product feedback from customers, particularly on LabView.â€
Control (or lack thereof)
The other cultural issue that social media stirs up is brand control and brand identity. Many companies shy from social media because of its implications on the brand. Says Walsh:
â€œYou can no longer control your brand, nor would you really want to. But you can guard the brand. If we have a customer whoâ€™s unhappy, who blogs negative, then we can come in and be the company that offers support and shows the alternative for how to do application. If that customer provided that feedback, itâ€™s because they care.â€
I asked her, how will this function evolve?
â€œItâ€™s it own thing. It will take key strategic people who understand it. I have my foot soldiers in different departments. I have a full-time engineer who responds to requests and understands social media. People from events, PR, communications, advertising sit on social media group. Itâ€™s a nice handshake between traditional and emerging marketing models.â€
Is it working: The companyâ€™s Twitter feeds have anywhere from scores to hundreds of followers, ramping each day; Walsh has more than 1,200 followers. Now these are not consumer-sector or enterprise-software-like numbers, but theyâ€™re healthy for electronics.
The community approach and the openness seem to be working. Says Walsh:
â€œRight now our customers do really great things on our sites. Forty-six percent of all questions are answered by other community members.”
To check out many of NIâ€™s social media channels, you can visit:
Community landing page: http://decibel.ni.com/content/community/zone
@niweek: Feed for the companyâ€™s annual August developer conference
@niglobal: corporate news and information
P.S. This week is NIWeek in Austin, so it’s crazy down there. I’ll reconnect with Walsh in the conference’s aftermath to see how their myriad social-media strategies and tactics worked during the event.