How and why did you get started in social media?
I came from a previous job working in IT, running the network for a computer software company. I started working for the Liberal Democrats on literally the first working day of this century, and as social media networks began to take off I was the obvious choice to take on that responsibility, having that IT background.
That's how I got started, and I soon realized that even in traditional activities - in Britain we vote physically with pencil and paper, and that's been relatively unchanged since the late 19th century - even in those very traditional environments, the online world and social media in particular is absolutely crucial because it's such a powerful way of communicating.
What do you believe the main benefits are for using social media for a business, or even just a political party?
Where I work now, at Blue Rubicon, our business is very much about protecting and transforming the reputation of some of the world's biggest organizations and brands. We also work for many smaller clients as well - and the thing that is common across that full range of clients is that social media features so heavily in the lives of their staff, in the lives of their customers, in the lives of their stakeholders, in the lives of their suppliers. Sometimes more in their private lives than their work lives, but it is such a pervasive medium that almost any job or any task to do can be supported by social media in some way.
My favorite example was hearing a BBC journalist a couple of years ago talk how about they work and operate. She was explaining that for a lot of news stories, a journalist reporter might be assigned to cover a breaking news story, and they've obviously got lots of experts within the BBC to turn to for information. But the first thing a reporter will do is hit the online world, hit a search engine, to do a little bit of initial research so they know what questions to ask their colleagues. So if you're one of the influencers whose blog posts or tweets pop up in the first page of the search results, you've already got an "in" on the story before the journalist has started to think about how to put it together. So even if the story is about something in the offline world and is broadcast on the traditional mediums like TV and radio, the internet has still intervened at a very early stage to influence it.
What do you think are common mistakes for business owners when building brand awareness on social media?
The biggest challenge often is to avoid getting trapped in a silo. Classically, social media is thought of as a form of marketing, and so it's run out of the marketing function of the business, and for all sorts of very good reasons. But if you get trapped in that silo of using social media as strictly a marketing function, you miss out on other huge benefits such as using it for a reputation campaigning function, as an advanced early-warning function, as an internal communication function, and so on. So that's the biggest challenge - to get the right niche skills in place without confining social media within any one particular silo.
What qualities should a social media manager have?
Inquisitiveness is a key one, both in the company where they work and externally. Within the organization because of this ability of social media to be a helpful supporting actor to so many different parts of an organization's operation. The best social media managers are inquisitive about what else is going on in the organization, not just marketing, or just HR, or just internal comms. Rather, their mind is continually roaming across all the various fields and how social media can help in each.
In an external sense, inquisitiveness is really important because the social media landscape is regularly changing. There's a particular sort of risk in thinking that you know how to use it and therefore then just carry on doing the same thing month in, month out, year in, year out, without adapting to the fact that social media is a changing, evolving world. Look, for example, at how popular image sharing is now compared to two or three years ago, notably thanks to Instagram. That kind of image sharing popularity didn't exist a few years ago. So you need to keep up with the evolving landscape.
How do business owners know if their social media campaign is working?
It's really important to be clear about what your objectives are. Sometimes your objectives will be simply that you're using social media to support your marketing operations, and you can look at some hard numbers to quantify the extra sales generated or extra marketing leads created. But very often there are other very important social media benefits.
One of the most important is that If you are well established on social media and a crisis hits, you have those established channels that are well suited for quick communication, and can help you handle the crisis much better. These sorts of insurance-type benefits, where you may never need them but they're there when you do, have a lot of value. Those are probably the hardest to cost, because there aren't any immediate or hard KPIs to measure them.
How do you see social media evolving over the next five years, and what do you hope to see?
There are some fairly well established trends right now, such as the popularity of image sharing and the popularity of the sort-of-ephemeral networks where you share a message and then it gets deleted. These image sharing and ephemeral network trends are clearly the big ones, as is the move to consuming more and more content via mobile and tablets.
The other growing trend is the speed at which the internet is growing in the developing world, along with using mobile and tablets for access. And obviously social media is a big part of that growth as well.
If you could share one best practice about using social media as a business, what would it be?
The experts are often right, but they aren't always right. In other words, it's necessary to take shortcuts to get going on social media. Following the examples of established people who are successful in the field - they're doing this, so I'll do this - is a great way, even necessary, to get your social media practices up and running. But you also need to experiment on your own and find what works for you. If you follow the experts' advice exclusively, you're bound to get led astray here and there. Remember that they aren't always right.
What are your favorite platforms for social media marketing?
I think my answer to this question changes each time I'm asked, sorry! One that comes to mind at the moment, though, is the combination of Google Analytics and Google Webmaster Tools, because what you're often trying to do with social media is to directly or indirectly influence traffic to websites, promote pieces of content that are hosted on websites, or influence search engine results. So the combination of these two tools gives you a step-back look at what you're achieving, where the traffic is coming from, are you using the right keywords, and so on. There's a whole wealth of interesting information there, and because both of them are free and easy to get up and running, they're tools that almost anyone can use.
What tools do you currently use to manage your social media activity, and are there any limitations with them?
What I wish someone would come up with - if I could wake up tomorrow and find that someone had it would be wonderful - is much more intelligent ways of scheduling. There are a lot of tools that say that they will look at the behaviors on your account and come up with an optimized schedule for content. Those scheduling algorithms tend to be pretty much taken on trust. It's very rare to see any systematic reviews of how they actually perform.
Secondly, they tend to not allow you to set one or two basic parameters. Sometimes you may be after readership, other you times you may want click-throughs. It's extremely rare to find any that let you set your objectives first and then give you a schedule based on that. So more optimized scheduling tools based on these types of things would be great.