How to communicate with the online community: a report from both sides of the wall

As part of Quadriga’s Online Communication 2009 conference, I was invited by the organisers to present some reflections about how to communicate with people online, drawn from both personal and professional experiences, in the form of an after-dinner speech. This was a new experience for me: I’ve never done an after-dinner speech before. Lots of presentations, lectures, debates and panels, but nothing in quite this format before, with no visual aid, nestled in between main course and dessert.

Rather than just post my notes, here’s a fully-written up version of what I said, including links to sources, resources, inspirations and further reading. Forgive the slightly odd formatting, with so many paragraphs – it’s structured this way to reflect the emphasis and pauses and topic sections as I spoke.

If anyone wants it, I was thinking about making an audio version available to download, because this is fairly long (about 25 minutes) – let me know if this would be interesting to you. And if you’re interested in me giving this presentation (or one similar) at an event you’re organising, do get in touch.

When I first told my friends I was coming to Amsterdam to speak to a room full of online communication executives, they asked me why I had to fly to Amsterdam to do that. Why do we all need to get together in one room? Couldn’t I just do it by email, maybe in a newsletter or a series of tweets?

Well, maybe – but if that had been the case, I wouldn’t have got to enjoy such a delicious meal and wouldn’t have met so many of you face to face. So thank you for giving me the opportunity to do that.

Actually, yesterday I asked my Twitter contacts whether there’s anything they’d recommend to a room full of the best and brightest communication professionals in Europe. I got a lot of interesting answers, many of which I’ll draw on later, but I particularly liked this suggestion from a contact who said:

“Just tell them they should promote the juniors for two months and let them run wild over the internet.”

Well, it’s an idea. Not sure it’s the first thing you could do, but still…

When Quadriga were putting together the conference programme, I was asked to present my perspective on online communication from “both sides of the wall” – as a keen online user both personally and professionally.

I’s just like to note that that implies the wall is somehow this insurmountable, divisive thing which is rarely scaled. In fact, the walls are coming down. I think it’s remarkably easy – and getting easier – to hop from one side to the other, and in fact the boundaries are blurring for many of us every day. I count myself as incredibly lucky that my professional life draws on my personal experiences and passions.

As part of that, I have a confession to make.

For the past ten years, I’ve been engaging in something weird and highly addictive that has changed my life completely.

I started doing it late at night in the privacy of my bedroom in a shared flat in North London, but the habit quickly escalated to encroach on breaks and lunchtimes at work.

Soon, it was always on my mind. If I wasn’t doing it, I was thinking about it, and when I couldn’t do it because I was on the bus or out with friends, I would find myself thinking about doing it later.

I talked to a few trusted friends, family members and colleagues about it, and they all looked at me weirdly and backed away. I learnt not to reveal my habit in public, because there was social stigma attached to it. I realised it wasn’t a productive or even necessarily healthy way to spend my time. I even used a fake name. But I kept doing it, all the same.

Gradually, through the internet, I became aware that there was a small but dedicated community of like-minded addicts, just like me, distributed across the UK and across the world. We met up occasionally in pubs and felt reassured that we weren’t as weird as everyone else thought. In fact, we dared to think that what we were doing might actually be exciting.

Over the years, things changed. More people started doing it. Some people got together because of it. A few lost their jobs because of it. But it gradually lost its weirdness and risky oddball reputation.

In fact, only a few years after I started doing it, I found myself talking about it in a meeting at work. I was a bit embarrassed – and strangely proud – to reveal that I’d actually been doing it for years by that point, but there was no getting away from the fact: I was – and am – a blogger.

I started blogging in early 2000, at first just posting up links of things I’d found on the web and the odd thought, idea or question. Through nearly ten years of blogging, I’ve:

made friends
developed an interesting network of contacts
explored ideas out loud
had questions answered
met a lovely man – and married him
discovered new people and ideas and sites and experiences and media
been stalked (not by my husband)
got a series of jobs

and most of all – most surprising of all – watched as something weird and geeky has become mainstream.

Blogging used to be a peripheral personal web activity – something you’d never tell people – but as the internet has become an important (dominant, even?) part of everyday life, blogging has developed from being a personal narrative towards being an important way to communicate with the world (wide web).

I also don’t need to tell you that it has become acknowledged as a brilliant way for brands and companies to engage with all those weirdos on the internet.

Weirdos just like me. And just like many of you, too.

So now blogging is old hat and normal, and Twitter is the next big thing, along with Social Networking sites and platforms like Facebook.

But they’re not that new, really. Or rather, the sites may be, but the central ideas, behaviours, user experiences, habits and patterns of adoption are the same. It’s all about individuals finding ways to communicate.

From my perspective as an early settler and long-term resident of both of these strange and wonderful new(ish) countries, I can tell you that there are actually striking similarities in the development and experiences in the early days of micropublishing, social networking and blogging. At the start, they all looked weird, niche, useless and unnecessarily revealing about the individual; but slowly at first, then quickly, they gained attention and acceptance and piled on users, until we got to a stage where people who DON’T use them are weird.

I don’t know about you, but if I can’t find a person or company on the internet, I’m suspicious. They’re less relevant. And that includes corporate users.

Those of you familiar with Gartner’s famous Hype Cycle know that it shows a curve a bit like a letter M that has run out of steam halfway through (actually, it’s a bit like my signature – I wonder what that reveals about me?).

The graph depicts visibility over time, and basically after an early technology trigger, visibility shoots up to what Gartner call the “peak of inflated expectations” before dropping swiftly into the “trough of disillusionment”. Then there’s a long, slow, steady climb out via gradual enlightenment, before a product reaches a plateau of productivity.

I think the experiences of companies and brands using channels like Twitter and blogs shows that there should probably be another landmark on Gartner’s Curve graph – the pot-hole of corporate cluelessness, or the swamp of misguided good intentions.

Before we go any further, let me just state clearly that it’s absolutely right that businesses should be using web channels to communicate with online users. It makes total sense to go where the customer is – as a colleague of mine, Martin Belam recently said,

“corporate communication channels are for corporate users. If you want to communicate directly with the public, you need to put your message across in the places they are most likely to visit.”

He’s right, of course – and the more genuine and human that communication is, the better it is for your communication plan overall.

Some organizations are finding the potential of communicating with users online to be enormously exciting.

As far back as 2004, Chris Kimber, from BBC Audio & Music, said:

“Only 10 years ago, radio was a one-way experience, but digital technology has given the radio ears that provide programme-makers with instant feedback. Before they had to rely on getting letters back but now we have chat rooms, message boards, text messaging and e-mail. Programmes can really connect with audiences in a way that 10 years ago they could not.”

And just yesterday, Techcrunch reported that Brian Roberts, CEO of ComCast, speaking at the Web 2.0 conference in San Francisco said

“Twitter has changed the culture of our company.”

In fact, there are now 12 people working to respond to information about Comcast being broadcast on Twitter.

So clearly if you do it right, using social media to communicate with – and listen to – customers is extremely beneficial both for the message and for corporate culture generally.

But it’s remarkably easy to get it wrong.

In the last few years, there have been a few brilliant – or should that be dreadful? – examples of brands using social media badly, with embarrassing or negative effects.

Recently, Habitat came a cropper on Twitter. For those who don’t know, Habitat is a premium furniture shop in the UK, which is known for elegant design (and high prices).

Back in June this year, Habitat created a Twitter account and started sending out updates. So far, no problem.

They were using topic hashtags on Twitter to ensure their messages were seen by the widest possible number of people. That’s not such a bad move if they used hashtags like #offer and #decorating, but worse still, they used hashtags for trending topics – things lots of people are talking about – which meant that their messages were completely inappropriate and irrelevant.

Some of their tweets included:

#iphone Our totally desirable Spring Collection now has 20% off!

#mousavi Join the database for free to win a £1000 gift card!

So, not just interruptive and unwelcome, like spam, but also insensitive, barging in on a serious topic and trying to get attention.

Imagine if I’d come and sat down at your table this evening, and after listening to the conversation for just 2 seconds, had said “Ah yes, tulips. You should buy my car.” Or “President Obama, eh? Hey, why not buy my car!” You’d think me very rude and badly behaved, wouldn’t you?

And so it was with Habitat.

Twitter users reacted swiftly – and badly. Some of the politer responses included:

“It’s hard not to label HabitatUK as a spam-bot. Terrible thing to do to a premium brand” (@mattfarrugia)

“It’s a sad day when a reputable brand resorts to using trend hash tags to advertise. Technically spam” (@raymosley)

“Wow, HabitatUK really need to clean up their act. Not what you’d expect from an otherwise classy brand” (@drewm)

So how did Habitat respond? They deleted the offending tweets and replaced them with some generic product messages with links to their site. Sounds good, right? Except getting rid of their earlier faux-pas smacks of whitewash.

Then a few days later, they issued a statement which read:

“The hashtags were uploaded without Habitat’s authorisation by an overenthusiastic intern who did not fully understand the ramifications of his actions. He is no longer associated with Habitat.”

In many ways, this compounded the issue, because rather than taking full responsibility for the activity that had occurred under their brand, and apologising for any offence caused by their clumsiness, they blamed someone else. Which led people to ask why they’d ceded responsibility for the whole social media marketing message and execution to an intern.

Lesson learnt? If you do something bad, recognise it quickly and apologise publicly. People are a lot more forgiving when you admit to your mistakes rather than deny any wrongdoing, or pass the buck.

A similar thing happened a few years back to my friend Tom Coates, another of the early UK bloggers. In 2005 he wrote a post about re-establishing contact with his estranged father, who he hadn’t seen for nearly 30 years. It was a difficult, intensely personal subject, and he was warmed by the supportive comments which came in response. Including one from someone called “Barry Scott” who left a sympathetic note and a link to his website.

Which is nice. Except “Barry Scott” isn’t a real person. He’s a marketing persona for a household cleaning product called Cillit Bang and his website was a barely disguised viral marketing platform.

Tom managed to find the company responsible, and contacted them. They eventually apologised for any upset, but again using the excuse that it wasn’t them, it was someone else that had acted in an unauthorised manner.

At the time, Tom like many others was shocked and irritated. He pointed out how selfish and unfair it was that the companies responsible for this kind of online communication activity seem quite happy to pollute or destroy the value of the enterprise for everyone else if they can derive even the tiniest return from it.”

Now, I know that you’re not like this. You’re not marketers, you’re communication professionals, and you’d never spam people with inappropriate messages via the social web.



But there are lessons here for us all – if not about viral marketing, then about handling the communication around a complaint related to your brand, product or service.

Put bluntly, these days, the internet in general and social media in particular makes it simple and straighforward for people to exchange outrage, and the links and information required to act on that outrage to make a complaint.

You only have to witness what happened last week when a legal team obtained an injunction preventing the Guardian from reporting any details of a parliamentary question about its client Trafigura, tabled by Labour MP Paul Farrelly. The injunction crossed a line by effectively banning (/censoring?) regular, legitimate reporting of parliament. The Twitter map lit up with outrage and cries of censorship. One commentator described the fallout:

Carter-Ruck’s attempts to quell any negative publicity backfired spectacularly. Whilst significant, the story would almost certainly have never had the same impact were it not for this unconstitutional intervention. It triggered what is commonly known as a ‘Streisand Effect’; where the attempted suppression of a story actually helps it spread. By publicising that they didn’t want publicity, they fuelled a worldwide Twitter storm. This ultimately meant they had to lift the injunction and the whole world knew that the two companies had been in cahoots to silence the media and, more worryingly, parliament. Not clever.

Just a few days later, the Daily Mail found itself at the centre of another Twitterstorm, when a columnist wrote a sneering, homophobic article about the death of Boyzone bandmember Stephen Gately. People online used Twitter, Facebook and blogs to exchange outrage, but also information about how to make a formal complaint to the Press Complaints Commission, and how else to raise awareness and put pressure on the publisher and its advertisers in protest about the piece.

Basically, every company or brand needs to have a plan for what happens if you accidentally find yourself at the centre of an internet controversy.

The best advice for dealing with situations like this is:

1. Don’t be nasty/stupid/wrong in the first place.

That’s it. Prevention is better than cure.

But if you can’t help it, and you’ve stumbled into something, then as noted before, you should recognise that you’ve messed up, apologise quickly, learn from the mistake and resolve to do better.

So now we get to the point where I tell you how to communicate effectively and appropriately with the online community. I feel like a tribal ambassador, coming out of the wilderness dressed in animal skins, with a bunch of demands in hand.

That’s not it at all – I don’t represent anyone tonight except myself! But I’ve been around as a passionate amateur and professional in the world of social media for long enough that I can at least share with you how I like to be communicated with as an online user – and that’s a pretty good basis for thinking about how I communicate with others in the same space.

The first thing to do, rule zero if you like, is to recognize that it’s not a single community, any more than there’s a community of mobile phone users or community of television watchers. People use social media in so many different ways and for so many different reasons that you need to understand them, their motivations and their culture before you can start to communicate effectively.

So the first rule is to listen, watch and learn.

In a way, you have to view it as an anthropological exercise. It’s participant observation, which is one of the foundation disciplines of anthropological fieldwork. You have to hang out with observe a strange tribe, get to know their ways, before you can start to interact with them properly or usefully. And bear in mind that making a wrong move might land you in the cooking pot.

That’s related to the second rule: Interact!It’s a conversation between real people. Exchange views and ideas and values. Pay attention. Be careful. Ask questions and learn. Answer question when asked. Be part of the community you’re with. That’s the “participant” bit of participant observation. Don’t just stand on the sidelines – give as much as you take: it’s conversation, not just “communication”.

The next rule should be obvious: Be authentic. Be transparent. Don’t fake it. Don’t pretend to be something – or someone – you’re not. Genuine enthusiasm and humanity is obvious, and infectious.

Think less about being on message and “communicating” and more about being authentic and conversing. In fact, given the choice, many people online don’t want to be “communicated to” at all: they’d much rather engage in conversations about the things that matter to them.

Most corporate blogs are rubbish, because they’re not authentic – they’re full of PR-speak. Changing a press release to first person tense isn’t blogging. Squishing press releases into 140 characters isn’t Twittering.

The fourth rule is: Be responsive. If someone asks you a question, reply with an answer. That means you have to ensure you have the capacity, will and corporate cultureand the time to respond to comments before you embark on a social media communication strategy.

With regards to time, if every one of you dedicated at least 30mins/day to participating online, and encouraged your colleagues and bosses to do the same, you’d soon see amazing results: not least, a growing awareness of issues, personalities, passions and ideas in your communities, and with it the ability to build proper relationships.

Remember, it’s supposed to be a two-way conversation – if it’s all one way, that’s not communication. That’s a broadcast. If you spot someone asking a question about your company or services, or something you know the answer to, it’s only polite to respond.

But brings me to rule 4b, which is: don’t be creepy. Don’t be a stalker. Don’t seize onto any mention of your product or brand and jump out at people from the murky shadows of the internet.

Some companies set up alerts/monitors which mean that they are instantly alerted at the merest mention of a keyword they’re watching, like a brand name. They pop up like jack in the box and start chatting as if they’d been participant in the conversation all along rather than the subject of it, or else they are silent and invisible online, only becoming active when someone invokes their name (negatively, usually). They might think they’re being responsive and reactive, but to users it feels intrusive, big-brother-like, odd. It’s weird to only respond. Don’t be weird.

On the topic of being responsive, the fifth rule is to be consistent across channels and time. The way a company uses social media should be properly integrated with other communication channels or strategies. So for example, it’s all very well allowing customers to have a two-way conversation with you on Twitter or a blog, but what about when they try and call your helpline or visit one of your stores – can they expect the same level of personal, responsive, human service?

And consistency over time means keeping up momentum. Social media shouldn’t just be an afterthought or an add-on, and it really needs to represent and reflect your brand culture and personality in order to be engaging. And it’s not just a passing fad, so if you start a blog or Twitter feed, it needs to be maintained. The web is littered with the husks of abandoned blogs, microsites, twitter accounts and the like, abandoned as soon as the project is over or the next big thing came along. Don’t let yours be one of them!

Rule six we covered earlier: Be prepared for how you will tackle it if – or when – you mess up. Remember? Respond quickly and accept criticism with good grace and try to learn from it.

And always, always, act with integrity. Because your engaged customers, followers and blog readers will be able to sniff out bullshit or whitewash, and will quickly call you out on any frantic coverups or mealy-mouthed half-apologies (hint: an apology which starts with “Sorry if…” isn’t an apology). Don’t underestimate the power of a social media backlash.

The seventh rule is a bit like the first, but it’s important, so I’ll say it again: listen to people. Forget about broadcasting to an audience and think about networks instead. Tapping networks for input – suggestions, ideas – helps groups and individuals and brands achieve better results. Even your harshest critics can reveal interesting perspectives about your organization which you may not have considered – or confronted.

Rule eight sounds simple, but you’d be surprised how infrequently it’s done. Social media isn’t just about your relationship with a user – it’s about their relationships with each other. So the rule is: help people look good in front of their network of friends or contacts. Help your users be first with the news,; give them sneaky peaks at new products; publicly highlight their suggestions if you value them. Make them look brilliant, powerful, respected, wise, wonderful, and they’ll appreciate you even more.

But be warned: make them look like a press release mule or a viral campaign schmuck, and they’ll look stupid, cheap or exploited in front of people whose opinions they care about, and may resent you for it.

Earlier this year a company called Moonfruit encouraged people to tweet using a particular hashtag in order to win a computer. On paper, the results looked like a huge success, generating more than 250 tweets a minute for several days. Traffic to increased 600%.

But the flip side is that they were encouraging people to spam their friends, to be in with a chance of winning. Some did it without thinking, but for a small but vocal group, there was a palpable sense of discomfort because the competition mechanic encouraged people to prioritise free stuff over the norms of social communication. Very effective for the brand, not so pleasant for the community.

The ninth rule is to make good stuff. Make sure your content is good. If it’s supposed to be funny or resonate with a particular audience, then ensure it does. The secret to making things viral isn’t in the comms plan: People get excited when you make good/interesting/convivial/stimulating things.

Finally, we arrive at rule ten. Rule ten is….there isn’t one. Or at least, not a fixed one.

Since social media involves a constantly shifting social, cultural and technological landscape, rule ten is to learn from your own experiences, and write your own rules. You know best what your particular organisation has the appetite and culture for, what they’re ready to handle. You’ll also learn quickly from your communities about how they want to be communicated with, and how they want to communicate with you – which platforms, tone, frequency suit their patterns of life and media. So try, learn, adapt, and stay flexible.

So there we have it – my ten rules for communication with online communities. I appreciate that it’s been a rich and interesting day, and I really don’t want to stand in between an audience and their dessert – that can be a dangerous place to be – but before I let you get on with your evening, I just wanted to say one last thing.

These two days at the conference present you with a unique and valuable opportunity. Look around you. You are surrounded by brilliant minds. People with experiences and ideas and strategies and questions which I am sure they’ll be happy to share if you just ask them. This is a great opportunity to exchange ideas and learn from each other, because however useful or insightful you find the speakers and random people like me who will talk to you from the stage over these couple of days, please don’t miss out on talking to each other.

So my last thought – rule eleven, if you like – is this: before you start communicating with online communities, try communicating with an offline one. Tonight, in this room, over dessert and a well-earned glass of wine.

Thanks for your time and attention tonight. Enjoy the rest of your evening, and your day tomorrow. Cheers!

How to communicate with the online community – the rules:

0. Remember it’s not a single community.
1. Listen, watch and learn what kind of communication is appropriate.
2. Interact.
3. Be authentic.
4. Be responsive (but don’t be creepy).
5. Be consistent across channels and time.
6. Be prepared for how you will tackle it if – or when – you mess up.
7. Listen to people.
8. Help people look good in front of their network of friends or contacts.
9. Make good stuff.
10. Learn from your own experiences (plus those of others) and write your own rules.

Special thanks to all the lovely people who follow me on Twitter and participate in this blog, for sharing their thoughtful/wise/silly contributions, experiences and ideas.

5 thoughts on “How to communicate with the online community: a report from both sides of the wall

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  4. Like it, but rule 4b is a guideline right?

    Sometimes the jack in the box can work and not feel creepy. Otherwise everyone’s just moaning on Twitter for nothing!

    Most people know about search. Soon we’ll be in a post-search world. We’ll click our fingers and a corporate genie will emerge and fix up our customer service beef in a jiffy. It’s coming.

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