Lessons learned at social media camp

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socialmedia4_small.jpgADOTAS – I noticed the green dot on the corner of my nametag as I peeled mine off and stuck it on my blazer, but I didn’t think much of it. Entering the conference space of 92 Y Tribeca and spying the corners bearing labels for “Green Team,” “Yellow Team,” etc., I chuckled to myself — this was camp after all, and what would camp be without rival teams?

The PR Camp New York conference was offering more than canoeing and fireside singalongs (though we were promised chocolate and marshmallows, but no fire to make real s’mores) — a dialogue between public relations, marketing, agencies and advertising companies about the issues surrounding social media and its role in digital advertising. Counselors, instead of moderators, included representatives from Google, The Wall Street Journal, Razorfish and more.

In the opening remarks, Dan Greenfield, the organizer for PR Camp N and a principal at Bernaise Source Media, compared the idea of social media for business to the “One word: plastics” speech in “The Graduate” — it’s obviously important, but its future is frustratingly vague.

“We may disagree about many things in public relations and advertising,” Greenfield said, “but we all know social media is hot.”

Herded into their colored teams, conference attendees agreed that the chief drag is explaining ROI to company execs, or actually determining what ROI is. An acknowledgment across the conference was that there is no standard definition of social media goals. Engagement with consumers is a start, but that shouldn’t be finish line. Bumps in sales for retailers offering coupons through Twitter is a nice metric, but not every company has it that easy.

In the age of analytics, procurement and RFPs, businesses higher-ups want to see numbers, which are not always forthcoming in these types of efforts. The number of fans on a Facebook page can be a metric, but determining how engaged those users are is a whole other layer of work. Reach vs. engagement becomes a more important symbol.

One conference member inferred that corporations run on fear — the internal mechanisms are gears and gears fueled by anxiety — and social media is the exact opposite: it’s humanizing. So turning a squeaky, hulking machine into a human — wait a second, wasn’t this a Robin Williams movie?

In addition, social media has upended power structures within brands and revealed tensions between PR and marketing as well as agencies. There was also debate whether the members of Generation Y, whose members are flooding the business sphere, are truly the gatekeepers to social media. While most of them have grown up using MySpace and Facebook among other tools, many at the conference argued that the younger generation is lacking the skills to apply their social media knowledge to marketing strategy.

As the day rolled on, campers seemed to become ever more aware of the lack textbook methods of running social media campaigns — they require a great deal of strategy and creativity to execute and manage, and justifying all this effort to a board that’s fueled by figures may seem like a Sisyphean task. Sometimes, though, circumstances provide the catalyst for understanding value.

Counselor Morgan Johnson, manager of corporate communications for JetBlue, started at the company around the infamous incident in which passengers aboard several JetBlue planes were stuck on the tarmac for nearly nine hours because of a brutal snow storm. The traditional media uproar was fierce and headlines about the incident were scathing.

To appease the traditional media, JetBlue’s then-CEO David Neeleman appeared on television talk shows and was taped riding on planes immediately afterward. But marketing encouraged him to go one step further and reach out directly to consumers — fear of losing business drove the Neeleman to appear in a YouTube video apologizing for the incident.

While some of the user commentary was justifiably harsh, there was a large segment of positive messages, consumers who were impressed by the company’s transparency. Thus, JetBlue was sold on the value of social media.

And this was one of the most interesting ideas floating around the conference — using social media to bypass journalists (HEY! That’s me!). This seemed a recognition of the lack of faith in modern journalism on both sides of the fence. Companies feel unable to get a message across clearly and consumers are suspicious of the press and sick of sensationalism.

Shoving traditional media out of the way and reaching consumers directly could possibly be that enigmatic ROI that aids brands in seeing the worth of social media.

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