Who Matters Most in Social Media? Not You!

Please don’t take this personally, but you are not the most important person in the world. (Nor am I.) If professionals and brands keep just one thing in mind as they develop strategies and engage in Social Media, it is this: “It’s not about me.”

In Social Media, you can and should have goals. Having goals helps to define how you establish profiles, who you follow, what you share, and how you measure success. Even for those who use Social Media purely for personal reasons, having goals and gauging qualitative success is vital; we live in a stressful world with many demands on our time, so we ought to be able to judge that our hours with Twitter and Facebook are worthwhile. But no matter your goal, it’s vital to focus more on your listeners than on what you care to say.

Right now, Social Media seems like a bright, shiny new toy because it is new to a lot of people. Twitter’s been around since March 2006, but as of the end of 2008, 70% of Twitter users had joined in just the past year. Facebook took almost all of 2004 to reach its first million users; thus far in 2009, the site has grown from 150 million to 250 million users.

As with any change in communication technology, Twitter is causing an upheaval in the norms and rules in communication and in this time of uncertainty, people and organizations are inserting their own rules of engagement. Businesses that would never dream of sending a spam email are encouraging their followers to blast valueless brand messages to their Twitter networks. Folks who would never send an email to their entire contact list in order to invite one friend to lunch are announcing their plans to every follower they have on Twitter.

How is one to know what is right and wrong when best practices in a new medium are still forming? That question sounds rhetorical, but it’s not. The answer is easy–just think “It’s not about me!”

This maxim isn’t based on cutting-edge Social Media theory but on two truisms as old as mankind: “Technology changes; people don’t” and “Communications is about the understanding, not the speaking.”

Technology changes; people don’t

Every time technology changes the way humans communicate, someone predicts it will alter the very nature of human behavior, and these predictions always prove wrong. In the 1930s, Philo T. Farnsworth thought his invention, the television, would be “a marvelous teaching tool,” ending illiteracy and permitting people from different lands to settle differences “around conference tables, without going to war.” Close, but no cigar.

The late 90s were full of financial speculation based on the idea the Internet had changed everything. High banner ad click rates convinced many that content would be free; Ecommerce was going to put stale old bricks-and-mortar enterprises out of business; and profits were derided as some sort of quaint concept like the buggy whip or waiting until marriage. Today, digital news is as much at risk as its printed counterpart because online ad revenues cannot cover costs; the list of top online retailers consists mainly of large offline retailers and manufacturers; and the financial markets made clear the importance of profits when the dot-com crash evaporated trillions of dollars of value, 500 dot-com companies, and half a million high-tech jobs.

Social Media will change much–the size of human networks, our ability to maintain soft relationships, the reach of the individual, and the transparency of organizations–but it won’t change humans. We cannot argue that the things people are not interested in today–interruption advertising, spam, others’ private conversations, narcissistic self interest, irrelevant babble–will suddenly become in vogue simply because Twitter exists. These types of “me”-focused messages create just as much noise in Social Media as in the real world.

Communications is about the understanding, not the speaking

George Bernard Shaw said “The problem with communication … is the illusion that it has been accomplished.” Twitter is filled with illusion–the illusion every tweet is read; the illusion others are interested in my every thought; the illusion that being followed means being heard; and the illusion that the larger the list, the greater the influence.

None of these statements is completely true, and none is completely false; their truthfulness varies from person to person based on the attention earned from the listeners. Communication doesn’t occur because words are uttered or a status update is tweeted; it occurs when those messages reach another person who cares enough to pay attention and can translate the meaning.

Thoughts of caring and attention on Twitter came to mind as I read the comments to my last blog post, Eight Twitter Habits That May Get You Unfollowed or Semi-Followed. I was honored (and lucky) to be picked up by the SmartBrief on Social Media, which resulted in 30,000 views, 67 comments, and 1200 tweets on Social Media Today. The volume of dialog about this blog post permitted some interesting insights about following and listening.

The most contentious part of my blog post was my suggestion that people will tend to tune out Twitterers who publicly thank others for retweets (RT) and #followfriday recommendations. Many thought that a public expression of gratitude was more valuable than a Direct Message (DM). What I found interesting was that, out of all the comments, just one person approached the issue in terms of whether Twitterers like or value seeing others thank each other (which is “you”-focused). Everyone else commented how much they liked to publicly thank people or how much they wanted to be publicly thanked (which is “me”-focused).

My intent isn’t to debate etiquette but to encourage people to think of what motivates followers to truly follow and not merely semi-follow; having people on your Twitter list is one thing, but having active listeners is another. Assuming you want to earn attention from those following you, then regularly tweeting a message pertinent to a tiny fraction of your followers seems likely to reduce your relevance and diminish the attention you earn.

Think of it another way: How often have you heard people complain of not having time to Twitter or of being overwhelmed by the microblogging service? Keep those people in mind when you consider these questions: How many of your status updates are of the type that others must scroll past to get to the interesting and pertinent tweets? And how many are perceived as valuable and worthwhile by almost all of your followers?

“It’s not about me” doesn’t mean you have to approach Social Media with a sense of altruism. It’s okay to have objectives, but it’s vital to keep in mind the people who earn influence are the ones who focus most on others.

Two comments I received really stood out as shining examples of the “It’s not about me” school of thought. Deb Kolaras shared a rule of thumb that forces one to consider his or her status updates from the perspective of others: “Would I say this to a large room of people?” Think of a room full of people including family, peers, and future employers, and consider that they will only “hear” your tweet and not the entire conversation you’re having. Will it make sense? Will it be relevant? Is it appropriate?

The second comment came from Christopher Sherrod who summarized this topic succinctly: “People love tweets that are useful. Be useful in your niche and people will follow you.”

Who matters most in Social Media? Everyone else! Strive to live by this, and others will perceive your value, listen to you, and connect in a very real way.

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