Why organizations risk losing social media followers

I’ve always been finicky when it comes to social media. I detest Facebook, but since I enacted the deletion script months ago for the second time, I don’t really think about it much any more. I use Flickr to host some of my photos but I don’t get into the community of it and YouTube’s infantile comment flame wars make it pretty much a browse only service. I save for myself later on Delicious, and LinkedIn is nothing more to me than a large colleague database. In other words these are not really social platforms, the way that I use them.

following isn't the social part

Twitter is my one exception. I regularly chat about shared professional or personal interests and, along with Google Reader, it’s my primary source of new information. I learn more from the links I click in Twitter than pretty much anywhere else. However, while it was the intrusive nature of Facebook that convinced me to leave twice, if anything vastly reduces who I follow on Twitter, it be the unwillingness or inability of mostly brands and nonprofits to understand how to use the medium and why their approaches are just noise, if not downright irritating.

On a personal level I don’t feel that it’s a big deal if people I follow necessarily follow me back. Nor do I feel I have to follow back everyone who follows me, particularly if a glance at their stream reveals nothing I find interesting. However, this approach is a mistake for smaller nonprofits, in particular. I connect with many small or local causes that have a few hundred followers at most. While the information they tweet is sometimes useful, the two-way communication is often not.

Why nonprofits need to understand the medium

I’ve never understood why a small organization with limited funding wouldn’t just follow back those who are showing interest in what they do, but it happens a lot. Being able to DM members and friends can be pretty important to nonprofits for the purposes of organizing and exchanging sensitive information. Creating real dialogue without a follow back is impossible when trying to DM a nonprofit is disallowed because they’re not following you. Just like that, high value social dialogue becomes low value broadcast noise.

Recently, as a couple accounts I follow were hacked, this was brought into even stronger focus, as phishing links were DM’d to me and there was no way to privately let them know. When I explained this to one of them publicly, they had no clue that this is how the platform worked. This is an organization to whom I’ve given money as a member. Not only did they not understand the medium, but they seemed to not understand why it would be valuable to follow back all their members.

Mind you, this same organization sends out aggregate newsletters and hasn’t a clue whether the recipients are members or not, as the newsletters often sell existing members the benefits of becoming a member. Frankly, this is insulting and disrespectful because the message is that they can’t be bothered with rudimentary member relations or email and member list merges. Further, if organizations take the time to obtain social media handles of the members who will provide them, it might be worth making the initial connection themselves.

Similarly, I’ve had nonprofits I connect with on Twitter ask me to DM them, again only to find out I can’t because they don’t follow me. In a related, but different vein, I’ve had organizations who do follow me ask me to email them … only to respond to the email back on Twitter, telling me to phone them. I’m not sure whether this is not getting Twitter or not getting communication in general. If I’ve taken the time to send them an email I’m obviously interested in more intimate communications. By responding to that email back on Twitter, after asking for it, they’ve discounted the effort my email took by not making the effort to respond in kind AND put it all on me to keep the conversation going.

If I was going to give small nonprofits a piece of advice around current online communication, it would be to take the time to find out who your members are and leverage every platform, where possible, to make a direct and personal connection to each of them. Yes, this is time consuming and many of them probably feel they don’t have the time. Losing paying members to apathy is probably far more expensive in the long run. Large nonprofits with tens or even hundreds of thousands of followers might have a harder time, but they can still do things better.  Meaningful social dialogue is the heart of online community organizing and, social media makes this so simple, it’s stupid to not do it.

Most brands need to do more than promote

I used to follow quite a few brands, mostly related to running, cycling and triathlon, and in my web design account stream there was a fairly liberal dose of user experience and web design rock stars. I lump these ‘people’ in with brands, because the way some of them communicate, they pretty much cease being people in any real sense and seem more interested in remaining conference stars than doing anything of real substance. Whether shoes or a speaking engagement, it’s about brand awareness. I don’t expect people or brands with a huge following to necessarily follow me back, but I do expect them to share useful information and answer questions, as opposed to incessantly self-promoting.  Frankly, it was this design rock star thing that recently had me revert to one Twitter account, with my web follows restricted to those accounts that only share tips and links – no more real people from the web world unless I know them personally.

I think Brian Solis pretty much nails it when he writes about why followers are disconnecting with brands on social media. While I don’t follow all that many brands any more, his sentiments are largely what has made me begin disconnecting.

Once-willing consumers will soon become reluctant to connect with brands or will completely sever social ties to brands once they deem the connection fruitless.

What Solis is getting at with regard to social ties is a key point (though I find it ironic that, as of my reading, he hadn’t chimed in once on the comment stream the above post has generated). If I want bland, one-way broadcast of a brand’s message, I’ll buy a magazine or watch their ads on TV. I suspect I’m not unlike many others in that, when I follow a brand on Twitter, I’m hoping they’ll not only respond if I have a serious question, but maybe they’ll toss something that I can use my way. I’ll even go beyond the study he cites, suggesting Facebook ‘likes’ are about receiving discounts and making purchases.

While deals on products are nice, brands should also be sharing with their social media followers, general and useful information about the things they use their products for, though this is far more likely to occur on Twitter than Facebook. For example airlines could send air travel tips, or running shoe manufacturers could share non-product resources or links to interviews with athletes. Sure it’s extra work, but hardly excessive, and it’s the kind of thing that builds loyalty because customers get extra value and they don’t feel like they’re just money in the eyes of the brand.

What I don’t need, however, is what I see for the most part. 250,000 followers, 17 following, and an endless stream of bland promotional tweets or retweets of glowing things some customer said. No conversation, no response to real questions and no effort at all to make their account personal or real in any sense. It’s not all bad, mind you. For every bad Expedia or GranFondo Canada experience (which admittedly surprised me) I’ve also been the beneficiary of wonderful Twitter interactions with the likes of WestJet or AxureRP. Not only are these latter two examples of those who solicit support questions by Twitter, they answer them quickly and will extend the conversation to email if the medium is not enough.

Meaningful social dialogue with customers and members is not rocket science, but it is also not easy. It takes time and work to connect with your constituents in a real way. As more and more organizations embrace social media platforms, many will end up giving up in frustration. There’s a lot of information out there and, with the social component key to succeeding on the web now, those who take the time to do the grunt work and respect their followers will ultimately succeed. Those who don’t will see an initial flood of followers dwindle and die, with their organizations likely to follow. I know I’m on the verge of a massive unfollowing. How about you?

One comment

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