3 analogies to help executives ‘get’ social media

Your C-suite honchos are aware of online networks, of course, but here are several approaches to help them see the benefits for your organization.

One of the biggest frustrations experienced by PR pros and communicators is that their executive teams just don’t understand social media. As a result, it is difficult to get approval for social media programs.

If approval is granted (grudgingly), building internal support is like pulling teeth. If internal support is offered (skeptically), results are continually second-guessed. Too quickly, programs are scaled back or scrapped altogether.

It’s ironic that executives have so much trouble grasping social media, because it is more similar to what they do than any other type of marketing. If you are running into brick walls, try explaining social media in terms executives can understand with these familiar analogies.

Social media as a cocktail party

Executives do a lot of mingling. For them, the line between personal and professional is constantly blurred. When they walk into a cocktail party, they’re immediately confronted by a lot of noise and chatter. Some of the guests are people they already know.

The room is full of people who are good to avoid for one reason or another; there are also tons of people who are fun to talk to whether they have business potential or not. And somewhere in the room are potentially powerful business connections, people who might be in the market to buy a lot of stuff—or know somebody who is.

This is just like the user base of any social media site.

The executive’s job is to cut through the noise and make connections that count. He or she is going to be polite to everyone, because you never know where your next lead might come from. But the executive will move around the room, jumping in and out of conversations, sizing up various opportunities, and either cultivating relationships that seem promising or bypassing those that don’t.

This is just like engagement on social media sites.

Executives know that going to a cocktail party once a year won’t be productive. Building relationships takes time. People need to see your face more than once to know you’re serious. They need time to open up. And timing for a business deal may be better the second or third or 15th time around.

This is why social media takes an ongoing effort.

If executives do a good job of working the room at cocktail parties, everybody remembers them. This is like the brand recognition that comes from social media engagement.

Once the executive becomes a liked and admired figure among his business/social circles, people are more open to doing business and more confident in making referrals. This is how using social media to build brand affinity and thought leadership serves to generate leads and referrals.

In short, social media is a party in the most serious sense of the word. It’s where people come together to forge relationships with mutual business benefit. And by the way, it’s fun.

Social media as an industry convention

For a more complete picture of social media, a convention analogy is useful. If you’ve ever been to a convention, you probably know that cocktail parties are part of the equation, and we’ve already covered those aspects of social media above. But a convention is so much more.

At a convention, firms exhibit their wares and talk them up. To a greater degree than what usually occurs on a sales call, prospects and customers at a convention are invited to look under the hood, to kick the tires. This is like the content syndication and discussion threads that take place on a firm’s social media pages. They provide people with a more intimate and critical look “inside the box.” And just as we hope at a convention, we hope our social media content differentiates us from the competition.

Another advantage of bringing people into the convention booth is that it creates an opportunity for customers and prospects to talk to top executives. These opportunities work wonders in terms solidifying relationships, gaining market intelligence, and hearing valuable feedback on products and services. Social media conversations provide the same opportunities, especially when executives jump into the conversation.

Of course, getting people into your convention booth can be a challenge in itself. Just as with social media, building a fancy house doesn’t mean they will come. At conventions, smart companies invite key prospects ahead of time, often giving them an incentive to stop by and/or setting up specific times for a meeting. Once the show starts, they have freebies and other hooks to lure convention walkers—the more creative, the better.

This is just like the integration and conversion optimization aspects of a social media marketing program. Smart companies invite important business connections to visit their social media pages via email, on their websites, and even by phone. Smart firms use contests or free items or exclusive offers to give their social community a reason to take the next step in the business relationship. Smart firms might even use Facebook or Google+ Hangouts to host special meetings for a select group.

An analogy to explain your analogies

If the executive is skeptical of your explanation of social media, if he insists that you explain social media in terms of return on investment, it might be time for you to throw him in his own face.

What I mean is that social media marketing is a lot like the executive function in a business. Why does the public perpetually pillory high-profile execs who pull down seven-figure salaries? Why do employees so frequently have a dim view of their own leadership and management teams?

In some cases—rare ones—such criticism is deserved. But most of the time, executives take a beating because people are unable to see the direct line between what an executive does and what the company earns. They don’t see the value in an executive because his contributions are impossible to boil down to a formula or a clear-cut ROI calculation.

Social media is very much like an executive: It has unquestionable value, but it’s neither easy to measure nor perfectly measurable. And thank goodness, because if it were, social media wouldn’t be very useful-nor would an executive!

Brad Shorr is the director of content and social media for Straight North, a full-service Internet marketing agency. Follow Straight North on Twitter at @StraightNorth.

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