Interview with Sandy McMerty, Susan Merryman, and Lorna Shepard – Experts in the use of Social Media for Economic Development

The 2009 IEDC Annual Meeting is now in the history books. It was a very well run educational meeting with a number of excellent presentations. This year, everybody was interested in learning more about the successful application of social media in economic development. I had the good fortune of attending a plenary session entitled "Doing More With Less: Using Web 2.0 for High-Impact, Low-Cost Marketing". Jessica Tuquero, Account Supervisor with DCI, moderated this session and the panelists were Sandra McMerty, North Dakota Department of Commerce; Susan Merryman, Columbus Chamber of Commerce (Ohio); and Lorna Shepard, Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada. The presentations and subsequent Q&A impressed me so much, I thought it would be great if I could interview the panel so if you weren’t able to attend their session, you could potentially still benefit from their experience with and knowledge of social media.

  1. Question: Many Economic Development Organizations are keenly interested in social media because they believe it is a free communication tool to get their message out broadly. Based on your experience, what are the key questions you would encourage EDOs to answer before deciding to make social media part of their media mix?

    Sandy McMerty – The questions that lead to good marketing decisions rarely change for the medium, social media is no different. In the end the keys are: What product are you selling? Who is your audience? What is the message you want to convey? If the organization is targeting an industry it needs to know what messages support that before it starts using social media to get the word out.

    Susan Merryman – I agree. Social networking needs to fit in the organization’s broader strategy. It’s a tool, not a stand-alone strategy. Although it’s a "free" medium, organizations must still consider sustainability. Once you’ve determined if/how this fits in the overall strategy, consider: What is your goal? Do you have the resources – mostly human — to sustain a presence? How will you measure success? Do you have policies in place to guide participants?

    Lorna Shepard – Adding to the experts’ advice (with which I wholeheartedly agree), it’s critical to understand your target audiences. Not every EDO’s target is using social media currently; however, if an EDO has a goal of exposure or coverage, social media may make sense. Alternatively, if an EDO knows that the best way to reach their goal and target is direct sales or personalized communication, social media is not a replacement for (the typically more costly) sales efforts required to successfully locate a company.

  2. Question: What have been the biggest surprises you’ve had in implementing a social media strategy for your organization? If you "had overs" what do you perhaps wish you’d done differently?

    Sandy McMerty – It is way more measurable than people seem to think, but more than that, not everything that counts can be measured. If it can’t be measured is it still worth doing? Yes, if you can justify that it serves your end purpose. The only "had over" I would chose would be to start sooner.

    Susan Merryman – Results! I am amazed at the tangible results we’ve seen. The intangible are just as important, and impressive. If I had it to do again from the beginning, I may have followed my own advice with regard to sustainability and human resources.

    Lorna Shepard – I think recipients’ and targets’ reactions to the social media strategies: despite social marketing’s tenure, using, even the simplest tactics, makes our targets perceive our region as innovative, smart and current. A do-over for us: having more than the first two rounds of content ready BEFORE starting a campaign–sort of relates to Susan’s sustainability and resource issue. Oh, and another thing: if you’re implementing any kind of a social media campaign, take it as an opportunity to train newbies–we should have done more training so we had more resources more quickly.

  3. Question: Which social media channels have you found to be the most effective? Is there one you’d recommend over another and why?

    Sandy McMerty – For North Dakota, Facebook, Linked-in and Twitter have all connected with our audiences – different segments of our audiences, but they work the best. Likely, because that is where the bulk of the people playing online are right now. I can’t say I’d recommend one over another as each serves a little different purpose, and the goal is to find the one that works best for your organization. Remember: you mileage may vary from mine.

    Susan Merryman – In Columbus, LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook have worked well for us. We also have a YouTube channel. Our use (purpose) varies between channels. For example, Facebook is a great tool to reach Chamber members that are local to Columbus, but it has also positioned our employee recruitment tools on a very broad basis. Linked-In positions us in targeted groups.

    Lorna Shepard – Is email a social media channel? I guess seeing our email forwarded 300% is pretty cool, so yeah. We had a bit of (surprising) success with YouTube. Listen, there are people out there who have inaccurate impressions of Reno-Tahoe and what it is to work and live here. Showing a video from actual people living and working here was pretty effective. I think it’s safe to try a few, track which are most effective, then refine based on results. Just remember, once you’re out there, it’s very hard to disappear. Don’t go everywhere using the shotgun approach. Stick with Sandy’s advice: be strategic, even if it’s the first time out of the gate.

  4. Question: One theme in every social media discussion at the IEDC conference was that traditional success measures might not be the most appropriate to measure social media success. What measures do you use or recommend to ensure your program is effective?

    Sandy McMerty – Measures come in lots of different ways. The traditional web site measurements of unique visitors, time spent on site, etc. all still apply as your social media posts drive traffic to your site. Another tool I like is URL shortening and tracking services. I can measure the influence my posts have on certain segments of my audience dependent on my post topic. I also can measure referral sources to my web site from social media sources. The other crucial, but often unmeasurable piece, is the return I get from my influencers – those I interact with in social media. Their influence in sharing and spreading my message is not easily measured, but you have those nuggets – like our Ambassador in Colorado who encouraged a company to consider North Dakota in their expansion decision, and they are coming for a site visit – that let you know it is worth doing even if you can’t measure it.

    Susan Merryman – It’s important to decide upfront what success looks like and what behavior, if any, your organization is trying to prompt. A few of the items we monitor include leads from prospective companies, visits to web sites and share of voice. There are great tools (many free) that can help measure effectiveness and share of voice. Social media is not about reaching the most people; it’s about reaching the right people.

    Lorna Shepard – Ditto both Susan and Sandy’s great recommendations. Also, we do play up the qualitative feedback we get, e.g., "wow, that was pretty cool, I’ve never been reached that way by a region." But quantitatively, we look at the nitty gritty: click through rate, time on site, and number of forwards, downloads, etc. In other words, did we reach a narrow target ‘deeply’ by getting them to spend more time with our brand than the initial social media tactic kicked off?

  5. Question: You each spoke about the importance of authenticity in social media. I think this is an incredibly important point; can you reshare your thoughts in this interview?

    Sandy McMerty – Your reputation in social media is just as important as was in traditional media. Being credible and authentic in your posts is important, because if you aren’t your audiences will not listen online. They have the option of shutting you out and they will if they feel they can’t trust you. By being authentic, you become more human as social media is about building relationships. It’s more than a business relationship online, it is a window into your world and it better be honest.

    Susan Merryman – Social media is really niche conversations and, to be most effective, participants must have trust in the content source. So, "being yoursel" is crucial. If you aren’t authentic eventually that will come through – just like it will in any other aspect of your life. In this case, you stand to lose an audience and your reputation.

    Lorna Shepard – We used real members of our real workforce to share their stories, opinions and experiences. Way more convincing than, "Brought to you by your friendly economic development authority." Enough said.

  6. Question: Organization guidelines are getting a lot of attention in both the private and public sector relative to social media. There is increasing concern of litigation and misrepresentation. What advice can you offer to an organization that needs operational guidelines? Also, how do you separate personal use of social media from professional use; do you need to (or can you) put guidelines in place that regulate both?

    Sandy McMerty – We ask employees to blend their personal and professional lives more and more each day. The question of allowing them to use social media personally as work is somewhat like the old question of "will they use email for their personal needs." We’ve answered that question (yes) and it didn’t shut down business, it made employees more efficient. In a few years, we’ll look back and see the same thing in this realm. As for guidelines, so much of anything is common sense. Your organization likely already has good ethics, computer use and harassment policies – they can cover social media activity too. Simply give your employees the boundaries you want them to follow and then trust. You might be surprised at the ability of people to use their heads and govern themselves with some guidance.

    Susan Merryman – An employee is a representative of the business he/she works for beyond the hours of 8 to 5. That’s true on social networks. Employees in general want to "do the right thing" and I agree, much of this is common sense. However, because social networks were new to many of our employees, we did issue guidelines – mostly to help them understand the lasting impact they will have over social networks and to provide some tips for participation.

    Lorna Shepard – We conducted an extensive, national workforce survey in 2007. We also surveyed about 30-some CEOs who had considered or were considering relocating their companies (anywhere). We learned that every member of every type of organization ends up making their decision to move themselves or their company based on whether they can see themselves living and thriving in a city or region AND whether or not there are people like them living and working in a region. The deal-breaker is whether your region is a place where CEOs (and the workforce they need) want to live. So showing our personal selves and after-work personas is pretty much the most direct path to convincing someone in another market that yes, they will fit in and never regret their decision to move to Reno-Tahoe. Bottom line: people don’t relocate for the job. They relocate for the life.

  7. Question: Everybody loves to learn from case studies. Other than your own organizations, which organizations would you highlight as good benchmarks to learn from?

    Sandy McMerty – I’m super intrigued by Best Buy’s Twelp Force – it’s their online Twitter help force. If you post anything about a Best Buy product and mention them, Twelp Force is back to you in minutes. The organization of that is astounding and rock solid customer service based. Another one I think is interesting is the cultures of Google, Microsoft and other tech giants. They use the social media model better than anyone in letting their employees explore, learn and build. Google actually gives their employees mandatory free time to get crazy and build. It’s how most of their applications have been developed.

    Susan Merryman – Wow… there are many. Top of mind: Starbucks’ Starbucks Idea social network, which is aimed at innovating around three of their key areas – product, service and community involvement. It’s a very engaged community.

    Lorna Shepard – For me, personally, Southwest Airlines! How lucky for them that the type of communication that social marketing sort of mandates so fits with their participatory, laid-back, we’re-all-pals brand! You can get a tweet about your flight’s status from a guy who is on the same flight or you can watch a Youtube video of the famous rapping flight attendant! Magic.

  8. Question: What are the emerging issues/challenges you see on the horizon that should be considered when creating a forward-looking social media strategy?

    Sandy McMerty – More of us are playing on the playground, which usually means something will change soon. Keeping our eye on where we should be next will happen much quicker in this arena.

    Susan Merryman – I’d have to say noise. Many users are still struggling with providing value versus sharing a "company" message. One of the emerging opportunities it geo-focused information, which could be a game-changer for economic development professionals.

    Lorna Shepard – really good points, both! I’d add that I think there’s going to be a ‘rebellion’ among people who are on social media and just get overwhelmed–the people who’ve jumped on, but need to get off the train before their heads explode. So maybe this is a glass half-full situation: the people who continue to use and stay with social media are the true loyalists.

  9. Question: Any final thoughts?

    Sandy McMerty – If you aren’t there, get there now. It’s OK to do one thing to start. Figure out what works best for you and then measure your ROI – return on influence – and remember Einstein said it best with "Not everything that counts can be counted. Not everything that can be counted counts."

    Susan Merryman – Be strategic. You don’t have to have a presence everywhere. Find your audience, identify their needs, and commit to a sustainable program.

    Lorna Shepard – Listen, this whole social media thing still intimidates me because I am sure I don’t have it entirely figured out–and I like to understand everything I jump into–but you can take baby steps. Create a Facebook page. Then try LinkedIn. Create an html email and ask recipients to forward it on. Small steps like these are easy and less intimidating, and before you know it, you’re tweeting and running analytics and voila! You’re a social media expert.

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