Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Going Virtual

I spent the morning session of Interactivity at a session called "Virtual Marketing: Real Dollars." What with our recent launch of our new (and still-in-progress) website for Kidcity and my on-again-off-again relationship with this blog*, it was at the top of my list of Interactivity Must-Sees.

The presenters, Alex Hillman & Annie Heckenberger, both of Philly, actively denied that they were experts in social media -- in fact, they said that no one is an expert in this field, since everyone is learning as it is being created. Ok, so maybe they aren't experts, but I think we can at least say they are VERY ADVANCED.

And then there are the rest of us.

Should I back up? Does everyone reading know what social media is? (hint: this is) Alex and Annie covered the basics of Facebook, MySpace and Twitter (boy, do they love Twitter), but the real value was in listening to their banter and absorbing just how big this new way of interacting and living online really is -- as Annie said, without a trace of irony that I could detect, "I like to call it "a new universe"."

So bypassing the issue that some of what they said was just slightly above my head, I did pick up some solid themes that all of us old-school face-to-facers need to learn.

First off, if you are trained in conventional PR techniques, or you think this is just a new way to promote your children's museum, then you should think again. Alex and Annie stuck to their message that your first step in the online world should be to listen -- not to shout. Alex likened it to a cocktail party - siddle up to some people, say something nice and supportive, get to know them -- don't just barge in saying "Our museum is having Clifford the Dog in our lobby this friday - you should come". Just like in real life, manners and generosity count.

On the other hand, they dangled the plum of free marketing -- Annie likened social media to "word-of-mouth on steroids". That's hard for us to resist!

Alex shared these beginner tips for when you are ready to dip your toe online :

1. Reverse the bullhorn. In other words, listen more than you talk. Don't oversell!

2. Be part of the community you serve. That means dialoguing, cheering for others, as well as asking people to help you.

3. Create an amazing experience (just my personal comment here that I think this should be #1 in everything - if you have to choose between upping your maintenance budget so that nothing is ever broken, or adding a PR staff person to manage your online image, there's no question you should do the maintenance first, since the first thing you're going to hear from your visitors online is: everything is broken - what's with that? But that's just my two cents - the new media makes it impossible to whitewash over your faults -- but more about that in #4)

4. Embrace the Chaos. When you enter the online conversation about your museum (which, like it or not, is already taking place on the mommy blogs of your region), you can expect a certain level of frankness, and sometimes negativity, about your museum. That can be scary from a PR perspective. Instead of deleting or blocking it, the new "virtual marketing" way to handle this negative feedback is to breathe, listen, apologize and find a way to turn Mad into Glad. Wait a second -- isn't that Customer Service 101?!

Finally, Alex and Annie stressed that we shouldn't worry about making a big splash online; instead we should go for the slow build. A little is better than nothing. Spending a short time on lots of different sites is better than putting all your eggs in the Facebook basket. The worst thing you can do is to start something too big and then burnout.

In an effort to extend my social network, I gave my card to both Alex and Annie. Maybe they'll read about themselves on my blog! If so -- thanks guys - it was a really valuable experience for us to hear your perspective: you set a good example and I learned lots.

*Just to assuage my own guilt at neglecting this blog, I'll mention that I do blog, early and often, at www.middletowneyenews.blogspot.com, which is a hyper-local news blog that I write with a few friends. While I've been here at Interactivity scarfing up Philly cheesesteaks (gluten-free, natch), the Middletown Eye has been roiling with a town-gown spat about vegan meals for the homeless and a recent invasion of carpenter bees at the corner of William & Main.

No comments: