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Social Media Burnout

James L. Horton There is Facebook, MySpace, Linked-in, Twitter, Cafemom, Hi5, Ning, Bebo, YouTube, Doostang, podcasts and blogs, and that doesnt begin to exhaust available social media. Each service has users in the millions or, at least, in the hundreds of thousands. If users posted just once a week, readers, viewers and listeners would fall hopelessly behind. We are in social media overload, a growing condition that communicators should factor into their work. Or, to put it another way, when everyone uses Twitter, who pays attention to millions of Tweets? The symptoms of overload are several. There is fragmentation: No one can possibly cover all published material. There is drop-out as audiences grow tired of a medium or participant. There is selection. Audiences gravitate to certain social media and participants over time, but few of these outlets reach a definition of mass. There is less influence. With tens of thousands of media and opinions, there is less clarity for audiences. There is less credibility without the standards of editorial gatekeepers. There are weaker relationships between a publisher in a social medium and a wider audience. There are keys to avoiding social media burnout. They arent new, but they are more difficult to apply in social media environments. Relationships With social media, one can publish without concern for an audience because publishing is essentially free. Millions of blogs, for example, have no intent to build readership because they are musings meant for the individual who wrote them. For practical purposes we dont account for this social media publishing in PR, except for the noise it adds to the marketplace. PR concentrates on a subset of social media that have the intent to build audiences and deliver information to them. It is through these media PR seeks to get messages out whether by selfpublishing or persuading another to publish. With this subset, credibility and relationships are conjoined. A social media publisher concerned about providing credible information to an audience wants to know who is sending it and why. An audience concerned about getting credible information wants to know who the publisher is and the publishers predilections. Audiences are self-selecting. A publisher may be biased, a nut-job or a hard-news reporter and still attract readership, if the publisher speaks credibly to individuals who comprise the audience. PR practitioners, of course, seek to build relationships with publishers who are even-handed or leaning in the direction of a clients message.

Copyright, 2009, James L.Horton

The first guideline of avoiding social media burnout is to build relationships with the right participants and audiences. If you plan to self-publish, know your audience before you do. This is where pre-existing relationships are important. In other words, one extends existing affiliations to social media as much as or more than creating relationships by means of social media. There is a potential fallacy in social media sites such as Linked in. People can and do collect links in the hundreds, but few of them are effective or useful because many of the people to whom they link do not know them. What Linked In participants should do is to collect links that allow them to send messages to which people pay attention. These are usually fewer in number and higher in quality. Relationships have a dimension of strength. Some are close, others are mere acquaintances and still others, are hangers-on whom one may not know at all. This is the reason Linked in, for example, asks seven questions about a new person being added to ones professional network. It is a reminder to users to discriminate: Some users dont get the message. To build relationships more quickly, achieve independent recognition, so people seek you out or have people vouch for you. Both of these approaches might require relationship building outside of the social medium itself. Begin selection of relationships with monitoring in order to know what participants and audiences are interested in. Follow with communications triage -- picking spots to build familiarity carefully with an emphasis on quality contacts over quantity. The final step is conversing -- getting involved so people get to know you and you get to know them. After people know you, it is easier to send a message to them credibly. Relationships have a time dimension that is rarely foreshortened. However, establishing oneself in a social medium is not enough because of the nature of social media themselves. Audience reliance on any one social medium waxes and wanes without the permanence of more traditional media. For example, in recent months, many people have migrated from blogging to Tweeting. This is not unusual. Bulletin boards and forums of decades past would run their courses as participants burned out and left. After awhile, only a small self-selected group would converse among themselves out of the mainstream of the larger milieu. There was often little value in maintaining membership. If one is careful about cultivating relationships and contacts, it will become clear when use of a social medium is in decline. The PR practitioner should be prepared to move to where conversation has gone and to re-establish credibility. Newsworthy Once one has built relationships, be newsworthy. This key to social media is the same as a press release or media contact letter. Publishers and audiences go to where they find information of use and/or entertainment to them. One dare not abuse their trust because they can and will burn out and leave. Understand that

Copyright, 2009, James L.Horton

publishers and audiences rarely wait for your every pronouncement: Respect their intelligence and expectations. Ask several questions before you post: Is the information something that provides a different and deeper view of the audiences world? Does it allow the audience to work better, faster and less expensively? Does it offer something desirable for its own sake? Is it relevant to the audiences ongoing needs and desires? Does it pass the Why-should-I-care? and So-What test?

Be objective. It is more about what the audience or publisher values and not what you value. Burn-out is accelerated when one provides wrong or useless information. On the other hand, if an audience or publisher has placed trust in you, you can direct them to what you consider important for them to know and they tend to follow. In other words, your editorial discrimination matches theirs. On the internet, there are petabytes of information that are irrelevant to all but the most select of target audiences. Most people dont know, understand or care about most industries and marketplaces, even though these industries and markets affect them directly or indirectly. You cant force people to pay attention. While one shouldnt pander to audiences, one also should avoid moving so far from the mainstream that no one cares. It is a balancing act that traditional news media handle daily, but social media publishers might not. Two Choices With social media overload and fragmentation, it is more difficult to get messages out. It is harder because people burn out more easily in the face of thousands of choices. This raises a choice for communicators. How does one get target audiences to pay attention, especially if it is an issue that they dont much care about? There are two answers: You dont. Focus content and communications only on select members who care and are not likely to be burned out. Choose quality over quantity. You dramatize. Make compelling demonstrations of the importance of an industry, issue, product or service that lifts it into the active awareness of target audiences. .

Copyright, 2009, James L.Horton

This is no different than what PR practitioners have done since the beginning. However, there are difference approaches for dramatizing that PR practitioners might not be comfortable using yet, such as YouTube videos designed to go viral. With social media there is a need to heighten awareness of messages in ways practitioners might not have learned yet. Measurement Dont be ruled by measurement. Measurement wars in online and social media are an outfall of the transition from traditional communications to online. Demand for measurement is a way for marketers to postpone the inevitable and to protect themselves from second-guessers. Demand for measurement is rooted in the fear that something new is not as effective as something old: It is a way to put off learning. The effectiveness of social media is not sure-fire or proven for many industries and marketplaces. What works in consumer markets, for example, may have little relevance in financial markets. Use of social media can proceed only as fast as underlying audiences. While millions use social media, they might not be the right millions for a company, product or service. If so, burnout is a foregone conclusion. There is a way to find out testing. Because social media are variable in content and format, testing needs to be fit to each. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. Testing assumes one is prepared to pull back or invest based on results. Depending on the cost in time and resources to test, it might be best to follow a Google approach and to keep social media PR approaches in beta for a prolonged period until it is clear which programs are effective. This means one tests the use of social media repeatedly as an integrated part of communications plans. From an accuracy point of view, testing is best done in isolation one variable at a time. From a pragmatic point of view, this is difficult in a public relations campaign. Hence, results from testing are not likely to be clear the first few times one tries social media. Their value may emerge over time and through tests within tests. These might be offers made exclusively through the social medium to generate response, such as a free sample of a product. The PR practitioner can study the testing methods of the direct industry to get an idea of how to proceed. Persevere Get involved with social media for the long term and not just for the life of a program. Dabblers never really learn what to do or how to do it. They burn out before they learn. Because there are so many social media, it will be hard to be expert in them all, so dont try. Learn the media that promise the best pay-off for you and your clients. One might be a blogger, but not an active Twitter user and participation in Facebook and Linked-in might be sporadic. There is only so much

Copyright, 2009, James L.Horton

time in a day for you and for your target audiences. It is better to commit oneself to fewer media than to scatter oneself over many to little effect. If there is one lesson that communicators should take from the growth of social media, it is to use it well, if not sparingly. On the other hand, if one has compelling content, one can adapt it to several media easily, and it is smart for communicators to do just that. An informative blog entry can be boiled into a headline Tweet or a posting on Facebook. The question of what to do comes down to judgment and experience with social media. ###

Copyright, 2009, James L.Horton