The Evolution of Professional Social Media or Why Twitter is Great-Tasting and Good For You

On October 10, 2009, I gave the following talk at TweetCamp Chicago, “a day-long “unconference” for anyone interested in utilizing Twitter professionally, or just learning more about it.” I’m just now getting around to posting it because:

A) Life previously got in the way and
B) I just got laid off so I’m burnishing my professional reputation in various spaces, not the least of which is social media.

I gave this talk to a varied group of newbies and Twitter power users; business-minded individuals who wanted new ways to promote themselves; journalists and writers of various stripes; and folks who were just interested in learning more about Twitter. If you fall into any one of those categories, there’s something in here for you.

And if you like what you see here and you think “Gosh, we could use someone like this in our organization” then peruse my resume and if I look like the right person for the job, send me an e-mail at ourmaninchicago at gmail.com.


Good afternoon. Thanks for coming back from lunch. I will do all I can to keep you from feeling like a nap.

First, I’d like to thank Maura Hernandez and Keidra Chaney for asking me to deliver the keynote address here at Tweetcamp Chicago. Having recently organized a conference of this size, I know the work that goes into such an endeavor and they deserve a lot of credit for giving so freely of their free time. Many are quick to complain about the lack of women and persons of color here in Chicago, but few do anything about it. So they deserve a lot of credit for filling a need.

Second, allow me to apologize for reading from prepared remarks for this talk. While I can extemporaneously talk a blue streak given the opportunity, you’ve all paid good money to be here and therefore deserve organized thoughts and salient points rather than a verbal stopped clock that’s only right twice a day.

To give you some quick background on me, I’m the editor and director of content at Playboy.com. I walk into work every day hoping and praying that people do still read us for the articles. As for how I got here, I’ve had a few different careers in radio promotions, tech support and social work – with a brief tenure as a substitute teacher – before starting a freelance career as a writer at Chicagoist.com, a local news and culture blog. From there, I landed at Time Out Chicago as its Web Editor, which is where I first started using Twitter. After two years at TOC, I moved to Playboy.com as a senior editor and was made editor in July of this year.

What I learned in each of these jobs was how to convey information or an experience to someone in a way that feels real, that feels personal. And that is exactly what the best social media does.

The title of this keynote address is The Evolution of Professional Social Media. At first glance, the title suggests that social media has finished evolving, that it has come into its own as a medium, as a platform, as a mature means of communication. Nothing could be further from the truth. For those of us who’ve spent a lot of time in the digital space, this becomes painfully obvious anytime you try to explain things like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or Digg to someone who doesn’t use these services on a regular basis. Let’s be honest: The easiest explanation of how you use them sounds a lot like dicking around to most people.

When I first heard about Twitter, I thought it was a really dumb idea. As much as I’ve made a career online, I didn’t feel like the world needed one more way to exchange IMs with each other. Plus, 140 characters? What could you possibly say in 140 characters? And what use would I have in sending a message to a whole bunch of people at once or hearing about what people had for breakfast?

(By the way, you’ll hear that line about breakfast a lot from people who, at best, misunderstand Twitter or, at worst, fear it. I’ll return to this point later but for now trust me when I say it’s a crock. I’m on Twitter all the time and I could count on one hand the number of times I’ve read “These scrambled eggs are a great start to my day!” or “Just eating my Fruit Loops!” I will, however, admit to extolling the virtues of my morning coffee on several occasions but that has more to do with the devil’s bargain I have with caffeine.)

ANYWAY!

What I didn’t realize – and what few people other than Twitter’s founders probably realized at the beginning – was the power of it to convey a larger picture, one short update at a time.

In April of 2007, TOC ran a story on Twitter. Creator Jack Dorsey was quoted at the end of the article this way: “I think text as a medium is not as explored as it could be. In a short message, in those tiny details, there’s a lot of meaning there and a lot of our personality.”

And that’s exactly it. Social media thrives because it brings personalities to the fore, yours, mine and even the personalities of businesses. It’s about a diversity of voices and if you’re not adding your voice to the mix…well, it’s just not as interesting. Have you ever gone to a party and just stayed in the background not engaging with anyone? Not dropping into a conversation, not speaking up, not injecting yourself into the discussion? That’s Twitter before you sign up, log in and hit send. It is absolutely pointless and boring…until you contribute.

Twitter and other forms of social media are already affecting you personally. They’re also changing the way businesses create a brand identity, and the way journalism works. But it’s nothing more than a tool for communication that is no more or less fallible than the people using it. The nature of it means it has not finished evolving and probably never will.

Now then: How does Twitter work for you as an individual? On two levels: as a way to enhance communication within a community and as an information resource.

One of the frequent knocks against Twitter is the suggestion that there are all these people out there that you HAVE to pay attention to and read and etc. etc. Let me ask you something: Between the moment you walked out of your house this morning and the moment you walked in the door here at Tweetcamp, how many strangers tried to tell you about their day or made you listen to their thoughts on Obama’s Nobel peace prize or told you “Hey you need to check out this link! OMGROFL!” Not that many, right? This is exactly how Twitter works: you choose whom you’d like to read or follow. Sure, there’s the occasional spammer or some other annoying person trying to get you to pay attention to their blatherings. But you run into Crazy People on the bus all the time and it doesn’t make you stop taking the CTA does it?

Most – if not all – of us are very busy people. We frequently lament our inability to keep in touch with friends and acquaintances or to do all that networking that we all know is important, particularly as journalists, writers and media types. The people on Twitter are not strangers you’d like to avoid, they’re the people with whom you wish you could spend more time. Twitter not only makes it easy to find out what people are working on and what they’re up to, it makes it easier to find time to do it. Rather than having to find a few hours out of your week to catch up with an old friend or trade professional tips, you’re able to do so a few minutes each day, several friends and associates at a time, replying to their questions, seeing pictures of their kids, and telling old jokes. It’s as if a huge group of important people in your life are at one cocktail party that you can drift into and out of at your leisure.

This cocktail party is like a series of concentric circles filled with friends, acquaintances, influencers, problem-solvers, and, yes, even celebrities. The information I get from the people I follow on Twitter creates a road map of the world for me. Spending a few minutes each morning checking my Twitter feed gives me a sense of which bus lines are running slow, how my friend Mike’s home-brewing project is going, what the weather’s like, the big local news stories and what Alyssa Milano is doing right now.

So how does all this affect businesses?

Twitter allows businesses to apply this level of personal engagement to their brand identities. That sounds like a lot of corporate BS so let me say it this way: Twitter allows businesses to seem human.

To illustrate this, let me share with you an experience I had at Time Out Chicago. I started a Twitter feed for Time Out Chicago in March of 2008 so we could report from the South by Southwest music festival. When I returned, I connected TOC’s blog to our Twitter feed so that every time we posted something, it would automatically send the headline of the post and a link to all our followers so they could click through it, our blog would get more traffic, etc. While not exactly a failure, it didn’t really succeed either. It would be like you coming into this auditorium expecting to hear me – a living, breathing person – give a talk on the professional use of social media and instead having me hand you a few sheets of paper with my talk written on it. It’s flat, there’s no personality. Once I started including questions or comments for our followers in our Tweets, and started responding to their replies to our content – along with those links – our followers grew. And people started to share the links among themselves and develop a relationship with us.

So let’s all agree to stop describing Twitter as “what I ate for breakfast.” Even as a joke. What Twitter proves is that more personal engagement is something people want. Not just with people they know, but with businesses they patronize. How many times have you rolled your eyes as you punched your way through a menu tree when calling a customer service line? Or sighed when you realized someone was working off a script instead of really listening to you? People want to know that the businesses they deal with are staffed by be people who are real. By people who seem like they eat breakfast.

Once businesses understand that Twitter is a form of two-way communication, myriad possibilities emerge. Want to know what your customers think about your product? Go on Twitter, search for the name of your product and see what people are saying. Yes, it’s a self-selected sample. But it’s immediate, costs nothing and allows you to follow up with people in a way that traditional customer surveys don’t allow. If you want to start a buzz, drop hints about what you’re working on. Or, better yet, bring them behind the scenes of aspects of your business they wouldn’t normally see.

We’ve had a lot of success with this at Playboy in live-Tweeting from parties at the Mansion, the Casting Call photo sessions or even goings-on in our office. (As you might imagine, this coverage usually comes with links to photos and I’m not ignorant enough to suggest that this doesn’t do most of the heavy lifting for us). The inner workings of our business are now open to the public in a way that was not previously available. The best part about it is these updates come to people via their laptop or their cell phone. It’s the embodiment of something I learned when I was in social work which is to meet the client where they’re at.

This isn’t insidious. Remember: These folks have invited your brand, your business into their personal lives by following your Twitter stream. You’d be foolish not to take advantage of those possibilities.

Now, this isn’t without its own set of challenges. It’s easy to sometimes overestimate the influence of the conversation that’s happening on Twitter, especially if the things people are saying aren’t positive. But there are case studies involving some of the most-groused-about industries out there like airlines or cable companies who have used Twitter to reach out to their customers, resolve their problems quickly and end up with happier and more loyal customers.

Still, you’ll need to make peace with the fact that your online brand messaging is no longer something you can fully control. Perhaps even within your own company. For example, how many people have heard that we’re putting Marge Simpson on the cover of next month’s Playboy? Most of you probably heard yesterday thanks the way we got the word out on Twitter. We did such a good job that even now Marge Simpson is still one of the most-discussed trending topics on Twitter.

But guess what? The word leaked out about this back in August. Guess who leaked it? Our founder and editor-in-chief: Hugh Hefner. On his Twitter feed. But it got picked up by a couple of blogs, and ended up building a small buzz that we capitalized on later with a larger push.

One of the challenges we have in using social media at Playboy stems from its very personal nature. But you have to allow the people who work for you the freedom to develop a voice that speaks to your specific audience and you can’t expect that the way you communicate in one part of your business will apply everywhere. We have a lot of different aspects of our brand from the magazine to the website to Playboy TV to Playboy Radio to the Girls Next Door show to our extensive licensing division which works very hard to slap the Bunny head logo on everything we possibly can. But this means the group of people who count themselves as fans of Playboy – and we have 1.3 million people on Facebook alone who say they are – all have a different experience with the brand. So we need to find a different way to personally engage with those people based on their individual experience with Playboy. Twitter is a great way to do this for all the reasons I’ve already outlined. Plus, we have a huge coterie of Cyber Girls, Playmates, various other Playboy models and even Playboy employees on Twitter who are all contributing to the discussion.

I want to wrap this up by talking about how Twitter can be valuable for journalists, personally and professionally.

It’s no secret that the many of the people in the newspaper-slash-publishing industry are wetting themselves with fear over where the industry is headed. It is entirely possible that gainfully employed people in this room could be laid off next week. How can Twitter prevent this? Well, it can’t. But what it can help you do is start expanding your personal and professional profile now.

Speaking as someone who has not been pursuing a writing career his entire life, I can tell you that there is a large group of folks – outside of the industry – who follow the careers of writers and journalists like other people follow Brad and Angelina. It used to be that a newspaper or magazine writer’s following was hard to judge. Perhaps a column would spur several letters to the editor or result in an angry follow-up quote from Mayor Daley at a press conference.

But if you’re a writer or journalist with a Twitter account, it’s very easy to see how many literal followers you have. What do editors and publishers see when they see that number? They see web traffic, they see potential press mentions. In short, they see money. And you making money for them means they’re more likely to spend money to hire you.

Let me give you a tip when you’re setting up that Twitter account. Do include your professional affiliations in your bio but don’t let your boss be the boss of your Twitter feed. Create your own personal Twitter account and tweet about your work there. It might be harder to get followers at first, but unlike other work assets, it can’t be taken away from you when you leave that job. And if your company is smart, they’ll want to leverage your presence by linking to it often anyway.

In our jobs as journalists, we are often only as good as our reporting. And in reporting, we are often only as good as our sources. Guess what Twitter is? A direct line to thousands of sources who are revealing breaking news every day. Food writers follow the many chefs on Twitter discussing their restaurants’ operations. Political beat reporters are familiar with Cook County Board commissioner Tony Peraica’s tendency to tweet whatever is on his mind at any given moment. Following several prominent people who make up your beat is a very efficient way to stay on top of the local and national trends that influence them. This makes you smarter and better at your job.

If you’re looking for an expert on a particular topic, Twitter is good for this, too. Even better, the transparency of Twitter and the Web lets you research a source before you pull out your notebook. That source’s Twitter feed likely contains several links to their blog, their other media appearances, and what primary sources they’re reading. Plus, you’ll get a very good sense of how they speak from their Tweets. I guarantee that someone who can consistently make a sharp, witty observation in 140 characters will be a quote machine for your piece.

At the beginning of this talk, I said we’d be discussing the Evolution of Professional Social Media. If I’ve done my job, you’re walking away from this with two ideas in your head. 1) The evolution of professional social media depends largely on personal interactions and 2) it is impossible for you to fully experience and understand social media without involving yourself in it. Luckily, the barriers to such involvement are low. And for those of you still worried that you’ll make a mistake as you put yourself, your business or your journalism career into the world of social media…well, mistakes are a part of life. And social media is life evolving because of them. One update, or one moment, at a time.

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