The question that seems to be on the lips (including my own) of any person or company that wants to use social media to get a message out is: How do you reach out to people–strangers, consequential strangers, or close friends–without coming off as a snake-oil salesman? (Sorry guys, although I normally prefer the non-gendered “salesperson,” have you ever heard of a snake-oil saleswoman?) From my personal and very limited experience, here’s my best advice (subject to change, of course, as everything in the Internet age is):
Welcome diversity. Seek out connections who are different from you given any of the usual parameters of difference: class, race, religion, ethnic background, sexual orientation, age, occupation. This will connect you to people who have different ideas. In the last several months, mostly because I’m open to it, I’ve “met” men and women of all ages–people who are thinking about new concepts that might have taken me years to discover and whose opinions are different from my own. This has allowed me to build “bridges” to new communities where I find resources and a fresh perspective. I can then pass those ideas onto others. Otherwise, I’m just sitting here recycling my own ideas, which gets both stale and boring.
Position yourself as a collaborator. Thanks to thetechnology, it’s possible to communicate 24/7. Ask not ask what others can do for you unless you’re also willing to help them with their projects. Comment on their blogs, retweet, recycle–and give them credit. Social media should not be about numbers of “followers” or “friends” or how many people we have in our social convoys. It’s about connection. Admittedly, some of our online social ties barely qualify as relationships. You might visit a website only once because you happen to see an idea that intrigued you. But take the extra minute and add your two cents–and it will probably come back to you.
Be sincere. Not that there’s anything wrong with profit and gain (as Seinfeld might have put it), but they can’t be your only motives. If you’re connecting with people only to better the bottomline, get more bodies into your church or store, or convince people to buy your book, they’ll catch on sooner rather than later. And they’ll probably desert you. Everyone’s busy, everyone has an agenda. And while social media has increased the possibility of getting large numbers of people to pay attention, it has also made us a little more selective, if not skeptical. In my opinion, instead of figuring out “schemes” and “strategies,” just be…yourself.
Learn from people who’ve been there. It’s hard to believe but social network media dates back only a few years. And before we had the software to allow us to be in touch with our convoys, there were internet communities and other precursors of what is now exploding on the Internet. Here are some of the people/sites that have given me the best understanding of what it’s all about. Start with Nancy White’s excellent blog, “How I Use Social Media.” It’s one woman’s journey, but Nancy has been there from the beginning. I’ve also found Pete Cashmore’s Mashable an invaluable resource for understanding what various social network sites are best for and how individuals and companies are using them. Best of all, the site speaks to beginners as well as veterans of the net. I’d also suggest reading anything by Barry Wellman or Howard Rheingold. They’ve both been looking at internet communities for decades; reading their papers and blogs is like getting a crash course in how we got here. If you have any favorite people or sites, please include them in your comments.
Spend social currency not money. If you’re still uneasy about the new media, you might be tempted to hire one of the so-called experts out there–you’ll come across many of them. Their blogs and tweets promise to teach you “how.” And perhaps some of them can help, but it’s important to remember that no one knows “the best way” (or even the five best ways) to reach out to your people. So why not begin by spending social energy rather than money? It might sound kind of old-school and not very flashy, but the best idea might be to just get out there yourself, find a slice of common ground, and connect–one consequential stranger a time.