Make Up Your Own Mind On The Role of Social Media

Snow Shovels in Miami

Here is a story I heard from a friend.  Every July and August, the proprietor of a local store in Miami would run a special sale on snow shovels.  In the store would be a wonderful display showcasing the shovels with an exceptionally low price.  He had radio spots on WAIL 99.5, took out advertisements in the Miami Herald including coupons making the price unbelievably attractive.  And, every September, the storeowner would take down his display of low-priced snow shovels to make room for his annual Labor Day sale of cosmetics.  After observing this pattern for a few years, my friend’s curiosity got the best of him.  He stopped in the store and asked the owner “How many snow shovels a year do you sell on average?”  Not surprisingly, the answer was zero. “In fact”, the owner said “I lose money every year.”  My friend then asked, “What do you think the biggest reason for failing is?” Smiling wide he responded, “Well son, everybody knows nobody in Miami needs a snow shovel”.  Totally confused now, my friend asked “Then why on earth do you run a snow shovel sale every year?”  To which the owner said “Because in June I can get those shovels dirt-cheap from Michigan and with global warming one day all Miamians will need one.”

Snow Shovels and Social Media

Just like the storeowner in Miami, many EDOs are investing in social media programs because they believe the cost is dirt-cheap and one day capital investment decision makers will actually be using social media.

I appreciate many consultants will argue the point.  In fact, I sat through a webcast for EDO professionals that argued Facebook has 500,000,000 members, each representing a reason why you should be investing your limited promotional dollars in social media. In my mind, the logic is seriously flawed.  Consider the fact that over 2,000,000 people live in the greater Miami MSA.  To the storeowner in the story, that was 2,000,000 reasons to advertise snow shovels.  But, nobody in Miami needs a snow shovel.

If the strategic objective is to influence CEO perception of your community as an ideal location for capital investment, deciding to use social media because it is dirt-cheap is exactly like trying to sell snow shovels in Miami.  In both cases, the target audience is not sufficiently engaged in the media channel to make it a smart choice.

Is Social Media a Bad Investment Choice?

To be clear, no communication channel is inherently good or bad.  Your focus needs to be on ensuring you have a well-conceived strategy guiding your media choices.  In an earlier blog post,  I provided several strategies that would make investing in social media a smart tactical communication choice.  And, that list is far from comprehensive.  Social media is either a good or bad choice depending on the strategic objective you are trying to achieve.

It is All About Having a Valid Strategic Reason for Social Media

Your first step in evaluating any communication channel option should always be to define WHO you want to talk to.  Take the time to do the research and determine if your WHO target is engaged in social media.   If the members of your defined target are not engaged in sufficient numbers, then don’t fall into the trap of selling snow shovels in Miami.  No matter what any consultant tells you, lack of engagement by your target audience means social media is a poor touch point to include in your communication mix.

If your target audience is engaged in social media, then maybe it is a good touch point.  But, you also need to first determine if it is a credible source used for the type of information you are trying to communicate.  For example, when I was involved in branding prescription pharmaceutical products, Agencies would often present with charts and graphs indicating physician use of the Internet was growing exponentially.  Clearly, my WHO target was engaged.  But, on further analysis we discovered that physicians were using the Internet to check stock prices and research difficult medical cases.  They were not using the Internet to learn about specific products.  Consequently, investing in developing a product-centered Internet communication effort never had a chance to deliver a positive ROI. Bottom line? If your message is going to be ignored or disbelieved, then select a different media channel.

Beware the Sirens Song – They Risk Your Money Not Theirs

You are going to be challenged by consultants eager to charge you to create a robust social media presence. They’ll do their best to make you feel like the world is passing you by and if your EDO is not investing in social media you will somehow be left behind.

Investing in cutting edge media is a high risk, low ROI probability choice.  Being the “first mover” is only an advantage when it creates a barrier for the competition.  Being first is always more expensive than being second.  In a large part, because being first to do anything also means you run the risk of being first to fail and failure is expensive.  In business, the cost of being first is always evaluated versus the competitive value of being first.  If the cost:benefit ratio is not favorable, good business leaders opt for an alternative strategy.

Just for fun, ask consultants to put “skin in the game” and help underwrite your costs in exchange for a higher payment at a later date if the investment delivers a positive ROI.  Pay them out of the incremental benefit.  My bet is most won’t “put their money where their mouth” is.

Fast Follower – An Alternative Strategy to Consider

If your WHO target is CEOs and Site Selection Consultants, then in my opinion adopting a first mover strategy to use social media as a communication channel is a highly questionable choice.  The choice fails the first test – your target is not engaged in social media in any reasonable numbers.  And, it fails the second test – those who are using social media channels like Facebook are not seeking information to help them make a better capital investment decision.

An alternative approach for consideration is to adopt a “fast follower” strategy.  This strategy requires you to stay up-to-speed on how social media is being used in economic development and to make a real effort to understand best-in-class success models.  When a sufficient number of your WHO target is engaged, you can then move rapidly to take advantage of the media.  Your plan will be better informed and you’ll be able to move with a greater confidence that a positive ROI can be achieved.

Here are some good articles discussing fast follower as a sound strategy.

Test Mode – Another Alternative Strategy to Consider

This is similar to a fast follower strategy.  You get to the same end from a different path.  If your strategic objective is to build an organizational capability to effectively use social media, then use it to communicate with your citizens.  View it as a practical test that allows you to learn what works and what doesn’t work.  Position your investment as a test with your Management.  Establish reasonable measures and set reasonable expectatiosn.  But, most important, proactively learn with the intent to reapply your knowledge when enough CEOs and Site Selectors are legitimately engaged in social media.  Tourism and building community pride are two great opportunities to explore social media as a communication tool.

One website I would recommend visiting to get a perspective on what good looks like is the online community – .  Kevin Roberts (CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi, and author of Lovemarks 2005) was involved in helping create the website.  The target audience is clearly New Zealanders and the strategy is to engage them in a dialogue about their country.  Clear WHO definition, clear strategy, and it’s easy to envision how social media can be leveraged to support the program.  If I were a capital investor trying to better understand New Zealand, this would be a resource I would appreciate knowing about and visiting while compiling my short list of locations to consider for due diligence.

Remember – Social Media is About Catalyzing Dialogue

Social media is all about BUZZ.  As I’ve posted before, principles for effective management of social media can be found in the literature by researching the topic  “word of mouth”.  Social media simply provides a vehicle to facilitate the viral spread of buzz.  One of the secrets to creating buzz is to be buzz worthy.  Perhaps resources might be better invested in making your community buzz worthy than in creating a social media effort that engages too few people to make a difference.

If you are unable to get your messaging to go viral (defined as people share your message – often translated into their own words and appended with their own perspective), then social media channels are simply another form of mass media.

Learn from the Private Sector

I encourage you to visit the following links.  They provide some good information on the real business value of social media.  The private sector is still experimenting with the media channel.  Their learning can be helpful as you think about investing your limited resources in a social media program.  Let the private sector be your pioneers.

If you are in an EDO, consider leveraging your private sector members and ask for access to the person in their organization responsible for social media.  Take that person to lunch and share your social media plan.  You will appreciate the experience-based feedback.  And, since the private sector expert is not trying to sell you anything, you can have confidence the counsel you receive is objective.

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