Brian Fuller's blog on the media, marketing and content creation

The social media culture challenge (second in a series)

Posted on | August 4, 2009 | 3 Comments

What’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)  reveals itself in interesting ways in the electronics sector, which has had to face the “engineering paradox”—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 weren’t online, either by choice or company policy. This made building publishing and advertising strategies rather tricky. Flummoxed marketers—many of whom had no company Web site yet—told publishers that the audience wasn’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 isn’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 tide’s turning, and those surfing in on some big waves are object models in how to play in the water safely and productively. They’re leading by adapting their communications cultures quickly.

Deirdre Walsh, community and social media manager, National Instruments

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 ain’t broke, why fix it?

That’s not how Deirdre Walsh (Twitter: @deirdrewalsh) and John Graff saw it. Graff has been at NI for years. It’s a company that takes kids right out of the Texas colleges, and trains them in the “NI way.” 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. I’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 that’s where Walsh finds herself today: community and social media manager for NI.

“John said as long as you’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 there’s product feedback from customers, particularly on LabView.”

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:

“You can no longer control your brand, nor would you really want to. But you can guard the brand. If we have a customer who’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, it’s because they care.”

I asked her, how will this function evolve?

“It’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. It’s a nice handshake between traditional and emerging marketing models.”

Is it working: The company’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 they’re healthy for electronics.

The community approach and the openness seem to be working. Says Walsh:

“Right now our customers do really great things on our sites. Forty-six percent of all questions are answered by other community members.”

Additional Resources

To check out many of NI’s social media channels, you can visit:

Community landing page:

@labview: Feed for the company’s flagship product and graphical programming, run by Walsh and software engineer Todd Sierer (@toddsierer)

@niweek: Feed for the company’s annual August developer conference

@anengineering mind: NI engineers discuss issues within engineering with humor and insight; longer dispatches available on:

@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.

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3 Responses to “The social media culture challenge (second in a series)”

  1. Deirdre Walsh
    August 4th, 2009 @ 2:34 pm

    Thanks for the great blog post and interview @bfuller9!

  2. Kerry McClenahan
    August 6th, 2009 @ 6:56 am

    Great post, Brian. But I’d challenge the assertion that “engineers engineer, they don’t communicate.” They just don’t communicate with marketers, which impacts (or should) electronics companies’ social media plans.

  3. Brian
    August 6th, 2009 @ 9:43 am

    Kerry, good point. We recall the BBS communities that thrived pre-Netscape (1994) and were managed quite effectively by engineers for engineers.
    There’s obviously an opportunity for companies to enable engineers to act as their community ambassadors, if you will. And maybe the control and management of that doesn’t (shouldn’t) come from marketing but from some newly created corporate group.

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