Monday, June 21, 2010

Finding the Right Noise-to-Signal Ratio for Effective Business Social Media

So, you've joined a Social Network because you've read articles about how great it is for businesses. And you have a lot of questions. One of them is, "what the heck are all these people blathering about?"

Today we're going to discuss the concept of the Signal-to-Noise ratio.

Signal is the name online veterans give to meaningful, substantive and/or on-topic conversation.

Noise is everything else.

It seems totally obvious that the key to effective business use of Social Media is to only talk about relevant stuff, right? Not so.

Social Media is talking to people. People are basically herd creatures. We respond better to people with whom we feel some sort of commonality. Liking the same team (or even just the same sport) is a simple way to establish commonality. So is liking the same band, food, TV show, book, graduating from the same school, etc. Failing this, we seek out people with similar experiences or interests, similar issues or heck, someone who likes the rain as much as we do. Anything to establish a common value between us.

Imagine for a moment coming into the office one Monday and for some reason no one is saying, "Hello," or "How was your weekend?" All day it's just "Bob, how the report coming along?" and "Bob, meeting at 2!"

It would feel strange. At least a "Good morning" would seem sensible, right?

The same is true on Social Networks. Even on a business-related network, there's a certain amount of give and take one has to expect. Normal greeting patterns, chitchat about the weather and teams and other banal conversation is not only normal when people talk, it's bonding behavior. We ask about the vacation, chat about that local sports team, revel in the new technology with which we are connecting to the network. This "noise," brings people together. 

The problem is, of course, when that "noise" creates as many 'them' as 'us.' Person A, B and C might love chatting about politics on their intranet's social network, but it might put off Person D. Person D might see the conversation as distracting noise, where A,B and C see it as signal and totally relevant to their functioning as a team.

(As an aside, when you're in a face-to-face meeting, check out the expressions of everyone while the "chit-chat" portion of the conversation is going on. You'll be able to see that every topic is going to create at least one outsider. The person who doesn't care about sports, the person without children, the person who doesn't celebrate that holiday. Good interpersonal Social Media means not letting that kind of thing go on to the point of exclusion.)

Truly effective use of Social Media has to balance signal and noise. Detractors tend to see the whole as noise. As a person recently told me, Social Networking exists because people like to share pointless information with the world. I replied that it's only pointless if you don't care about it. To someone who does, it's not pointless at all. Most people automatically categorize other people's signal as noise. :-)

To create signal, engage in a conversation. 

It's a good bet that most of what you say randomly to the universe at large is noise. But when you talk with another person, any topic automatically gains relevance. The more inclusive the conversation, the more relevant. This is what "trending topics" are on any number of networks - topics being discussed by a lot of people at once.

To nurture signal, create a conversation

You have your opinion, and other people may or may not feel comfortable responding to it. It's a better idea to ask a question, or offer an option for response to encourage people to take up the mantle of the conversation.  Step in from time to time to nurture the conversation and feed it; nudge it when it gets too off-topic. Take it for a walk when the conversation gets bogged down in a fruitless path of discussion.

To expand signal, reach outside the group
It might be as easy as linking to a related conversation somewhere else on the Internet, or retweeting something tangential that someone said. It might need more work, you reaching outside your network to bring in someone outside this particular conversation, but on point to the topic. Getting a fresh voice to join or a subject expert to weigh in can rejuvenate a failing signal.

Don't be afraid of noise

There's nothing wrong with starting your day asking Bob how his kids are, or saying you had a great time on vacation. Don't fear being a little "noise"y. 

It's what makes us human and you never know, you might find a new person who has something in common with you.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

4 Quick Tips to Get the Most Out of Social Media

I'm a born button-clicker. Because of training, experience and nature, I jump on any old system and start pounding around until I find what I want. But even in the world of Social Media, not everyone is going to be comfortable with every system - and those of you who who run your own businesses barely have time to read the paper, much less develop a Social Media Strategy.

(For the purposes of this post, "follow" is the term I'm using, but it refers to "friend" "like" "connect" "follow" or any other term a particular network may use to indicate that you and another person are linked.)

Here are a few quick steps to get the most out of *any* Social Media platform:

1) Start by following someone you know.

At this point, it's rare to have no one you know who is on any kind of Social Media platform. You may have a sister on Facebook, a colleague on LinkedIn, a peer on Twitter, a mentor on Foursquare. Before you set yourself up on any network, contact that someone  - let them know you'll be joining. This gives you a friend/follow/contact right away and a resource to ask questions of. Perhaps they might be glad to walk you through the system. (They might not - and not every active user is a good teacher!)

Knowing someone on the system you choose also means that you have a network built-in to the platform you've chosen. (See #3.)

2) Know why you are following them

Your friends are your peers, but your peers may not be your friends. You know that, of course. And every Social Media platform has a different focus. You may love your boss, go to picnics with him/her and the family - and be perfectly comfortable adding your boss to your friends on Facebook. On the other hand, you may prefer to keep a strictly professional relationship between the two of you.

By "know why you follow" a person or company, I mean that you need to be mindful not only of their communications to you, but also your communications in return. Are you transmitting the kind of image that you want those people to see? Are your posts confident, cheerful, depressed, determined? Every single post you make  will contribute to a whole picture of what *you* are.  Likewise, if you follow someone for industry news and all they do is talk about their pet, it may be time to cut the connection.

3) Follow their friends

This is not an absolute command, of course, but if you joined a network with a few contacts already in your pocket, one of the fastest ways to build your network with peers and friends is to look through their contacts.

If your sister's on Facebook and you're the last one in the family to join, chances are she's got all the family contacts. :-) The same is true for LinkedIn or Twitter - chances are your peers have already found each other and you can find them quickly by looking at what groups they've joined, what contacts they have, what lists they've built.

4) Learn the platform

It's a fact that, as an adult, you are expected to somehow be instantly competent at everything you do. As an expert, even more so. I was training someone this past week on a system I had *never* seen before - how does one even do that? Well, I was used to the kind of system type it was, I have experience in similar things, and I'm not afraid to click around until I find what I'm looking for. However, after a few minutes, I found something even better - a tutorial.

Almost every platform out there has "help" or a tutorial. But, because we're busy adults, we skip it, thinking we can figure it our on our own. Well...don't! Take five minutes and watch the tutorial, read the help. Scan the Frequently Asked Questions, you'll see what basics are covered right up front.  Use the resources available to you, then ask your peer (remember - the first one you followed) for follow-up advice.

5) Only follow people/companies you want to engage with

One of the weirdest phenomenons in Social Media are the people with 10,000 friends, or who follow 25,000 people. How on earth can they manage amounts like this? There are ways - there have to be, don't there? We'll save that for another post. :-) When you're first joining, if you're not used to the ways on the online world, it seems like a lot of noise, compared to the amount of information you actually get.

To manage this "noise" (discussions of meals, rants about random unrelated things, comments that might seem inappropriate, weather, traffic, etc. Stuff that seems irrelevant, but is actually quite important in building lasting relationships....) start by only following people and companies you want to talk and listen to. That means, your close friends/peers you interact with or want to interact with regularly and companies or organizations you *actually* care about. Don't feel pressured to follow a group because the people you follow follow it. If you don't care, don't follow. You may love your local deli for it's coffee, but really don't want to know about the Thursday lunch specials it's running.

Start small - a few people you want to talk to regularly or semi-regularly. A company you frequently use and would like to know what the news or specials are. A news source you trust and like. When you get used to these, feel free to expand beyond your pace, or not at all, if you're happy with the status quo.

There are no hard and fast rules to building or manging your network. Do what you want to do, the way you want to get the most out of your Social Media.

Project Wonderful