Maybe you’re a Star Trek fan. Or maybe you’re a content marketer. Either way, you most likely want to…
(I know — it’s a lame joke. Just let me have this.)
But you can’t succeed at social media engagement by throwing some links at your followers and then riding off into the sunset.
Joel Renner, my guest this week, explains that you have to listen in order to begin the process of engaging with people and building a genuine community.
In this episode, you’ll learn:
- How to start the first steps of community building
- Why multi-channel communities are important
- Advantages of meeting “Internet friends” face-to-face
This podcast seeks to answer your questions about content marketing and digital PR with straightforward, actionable tips. You can find all episodes here.
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Amanda Milligan: Welcome to Ask Amanda About Marketing, a podcast in which I, Amanda, or occasionally a special guest, answer your questions about inbound marketing. Straightforward, right? If you want to submit a question, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to hear from you. Let’s get right to it.
This week we’re talking “social.” On the show, I have Joel Renner, who is the digital strategy and career systems manager at George Washington University and also the founder of @SocialRoadTrip, among other things, but I think that’s one of the primary things we’re going to talk about today. So welcome to the show, Joel.
Joel Renner: Yeah. Thanks for having me, Amanda.
AM: Thanks for being here. I was telling him that we’ve done a previous episode about Facebook engagement and community building, but Joel has a ton of experience in building communities on several different platforms and I think we’re going to touch on Twitter and Snapchat and maybe even LinkedIn.
So there’s going to be a ton of value in this episode. I’m really looking forward to this conversation. So just to get started, why don’t you give us a little bit of background and how you got into this kind of work?
JR: Well, it’s something that I’ve always been interested in—how people connect, how people communicate, and started working in higher education, seeing the link between education and people’s jobs. And so, a lot of times, people think of college as “not the real world” and then they have to get a job in the “real world.” And so, how you connect those two. And then I transitioned into helping the marketing director that I was working with at the time connect students to our resources and connect students to opportunities in the next step in their career.
Then took that a step further and said, there are people that are connecting online primarily through Linkedin from the career side of things and then a lot of these people are setting up informational interviews and meeting up in person and getting to know a little bit more—sometimes not about the person although that should have been a key—but oftentimes, you got a student going, well, what do you do and how do you do it? Do you have a job for me?
Which is a horrible way to have an informational interview, but it got me thinking. While there are meetups based on social communities that it should become a little bit more of a norm and it would also change how people act in Social. So when you think about how often people segregate their friends, right? Oh, I have this friend online. And then I have my friends in real life as they would say. I think that that kind of diminishes the impact that Social has in anyone’s real life whether it’s positive or negative.
So my idea was to kind of flip that and make relationship building online meaningful again. I started a couple different things. @SocialRoadTrip—the idea of you know, you spent time, you chatted with people online on any platform. When you come to their area of town, you shoot them a message and say, hey, let’s meet up and some people do and some people don’t and some people aren’t comfortable with it. But I think that starts a conversation around the idea that your friends online shouldn’t just be online friends.
If you spent time and they know about your life and you shared things with them, that meeting them in person really is a fun and cool way to learn more about them, about yourself, and there’s always these little pieces to that end. I actually today launched the “Just Be Social Club” and it’s around a lot of the concepts and ideas that I talk about when I talk about community building. Pretty much that people matter, online and offline, and that those principles really can kind of help make our social networks a better place to be for everybody.
AM: So what exactly does the “Just Be Social Club” entail? When people go to the site, what do they find or how does it benefit them?
JR: So we lost a day and we talked in our first piece around the meaning of what “Just Be Social” means to us. So there’s a group I think of nine or ten of us. I really should have the exact number down but it’s always changing and I have some amazing people that write for amazing publications all over. My friend Lucy writes for Social Media Today a lot. We have people that just write all the time, forever, all over the place. And so the idea is that they’re going to learn a little bit about what it means to us to start.
And then we’re going to be talking about how to use different platforms, new features to find engagement and build relationships. And anybody that’s been in business knows, you know, as nice as it is to have a good funnel and everything’s put in, if you automate too much of that process, you can lose people unless your end product is so needed and wanted by them that they have to go through that process.
And so putting a little personal touch on various pieces and parts of your funnel is super important—and also understanding your audience. I think a lot of times, people don’t understand their audience or they think of them as their audience and most of us think of whoever we have as followers, as a community, so that we treat people differently when you think of them like that.
AM: I totally agree. I love this concept of being social and the “social road trip” because it’s something I think I’ve even said on the show multiple times—it’s easy for people to forget that someone they’re emailing or talking to on social is not just their email address or their handle. That there’s a person there. Something in promotions too, like when people pitch, people still use templates these days and it’s like, no, you’re there’s a person receiving that email.
You’ve got to try to actually connect with people and learn about them and it really makes your job more rewarding too. Humans are social to begin with, we all want to meet new people. I love this concept of taking them from Social to actually meeting, you know, “in real life,” as you say.
JR: Yeah, we like to say “in-person” and try and stay out of “in real life.” But I know that it’s just the common nomenclature that people use so
AM: I like that concept too.
JR: I guess I’ll have to deal with it for now.
AM: So for @SocialRoadTrip, I noticed that you have a weekly Twitter chat and that it’s at 9:00 p.m. Eastern, which I thought was super interesting because there’s not a lot of Twitter chats in the late evening. And is that done as a way to differentiate it from like, “this is just business networking” to “this is actually wanting to connect with people?”
JR: Yeah, it’s the idea of sitting around and hanging out with friends and when somebody new comes in, they usually come in and they find a conversation or an idea or something and they pop in. Then they realized that we’re not trying to push things on people and that we’re having conversations and discussions.
I think too often it’s hard to get into a new community because maybe everybody knows everybody or sometimes even a Twitter chat, a lot of people sit and sort of listen and they just don’t feel like they can answer any questions.
@SocialRoadTrip chat is far from that. Last night, our chat topic was fall. So fall food, fall travel, favorite fall traditions and so everyone can talk about that. But the key here is that so often online, you stick to one type of topic. And so if you always meet somebody in Media Chat and you’re always talking about, you know, whatever Media Chat’s topic is. It’s not that you can’t have a side conversation because some of those side conversations are amazing. I’ve known a bunch of different communities that are built around some of those side conversations.
Initially, you go into a chat like Content Chat or whatever. It’s about content, right? And that’s what you talk about. While it can touch on other things, it’s not really there. @SocialRoadTrip’s idea is to talk about travel. It talks about our likes and dislikes and it’s kind of a networking forum that allows people to learn more.
What I’ve found it based on all those pieces is if I’m listening to my community and if they’re listening to each other, they have conversations and meetups all the time now. They share deals, you know, I know you’re into this, I just saw this deal. So because you’re sharing a little bit more about who you are, it opens up a lot of those possibilities and you find that there are caring people online, which in this day and age is actually news to some people.
AM: Yeah, especially if you’re lurking on YouTube comments, you are like that.
JR: Or just mention any politician online anywhere, right?
AM: Exactly, so yeah, I completely see that. I think that’s a lot of what’s hard for people, is to be vulnerable or open themselves up a little bit online. I mean, obviously, I understand where that fear comes from. But if you’re not getting to know people, it’s going to remain kind of at that superficial level.
So say somebody wants to start doing this they’re listening to this thinking, I haven’t really tried to get to know anybody or really put myself out there. So whether it’s from a personal branding perspective or if they’re thinking, my brand can really benefit from getting out there and actually interacting with our audience. What is that first step they should take?
JR: Listening. The first step is listening, whatever platform you choose find the relevant hashtags to the communities that you would want to be a part of or that you would want to build whether its regional, whether it’s national, international. Find and make sure that you have a good understanding of what are the options. Then, start taking people and asking questions, start conversations. I see a lot of people and even influencers or so-called influencers that like post their thoughts.
Right, and then there’s like zero engagement. So somebody’s got, say, fifty or a hundred thousand followers and they post their thoughts all day long every hour and there’s zero engagement. When you create a real community and you post your thoughts, you’re going to probably have a couple people that have your notifications turned on for you. But even when you don’t, I tag people all the time because I want to know what they think.
I don’t get upset if my friends can’t or don’t have time in that moment to answer that tagged question. But as an example, on October 26th, so Wednesday a couple weeks back. I posted a tweet saying that the “Just Be Social” community has something big coming.
And I tagged the eight or nine, ten people that are part of the “Just Be Social club.” We had decided to formally do some stuff and so I tagged them and they all were like, oh we can’t wait. Well those people while some of them did drive some of the conversation, that particular thread is still going, 6 thousand-plus replies. It broke Twitter, when you pop into that particular thread, you cannot see all of the replies, which is actually annoying but you can’t. It broke Twitter. I couldn’t load all of the replies. It then splintered into about three or four different conversations of anywhere from 15 to 25 people.
And that’s where you end up with a lot of action. That’s where you end up with understanding more about somebody. Now, can that be annoying? Yes, before Twitter allowed you to mute those kinds of conversations, I can only imagine how knowing that was. But the nice thing about this is that everyone opted-in. I only tagged I only tag people that were part of this group initially and then the splinters don’t even include everyone from that. So, you know, it’s been something that’s been a long time coming and it’s been a hashtag and a community that me and some close friends have had sort of built on the philosophy I guess is more of what it is, as opposed to a community. It was more of a philosophy. But yeah, it’s it can grow so crazy like that.
AM: I think that’s a great place to start. Having that philosophy then finding like-minded people who are willing to put in that initial investment and go out there and listen along with you.
JR: Yeah, for sure.
AM: Has there been anything that surprised you over this experience of @SocialRoadTrip and being online and talking to people? Anything that may have caught you off guard a little bit that you weren’t expecting?
JR: Yeah. I always am amazed when I think I know somebody online and they seem pretty open, how interesting it is to see the difference between who they are online and who they are offline. Some people are the exact same person and others have more to them that I like. I have a couple people I know that have more humor, more sarcasm, which is who I am offline.
Online, obviously, it doesn’t always translate or maybe you know, they’re connected to a brand or they work someplace where they can’t do all of those things. That’s a ton of fun to get to know somebody in that way. And then the flip side is those people that were extroverted online that are introverts in person. The fun part about that is that we start having a conversation in the middle, right?
We’re not meeting for the first time we’re meeting in person for the first time. So oftentimes, they are no longer as introverted once they’ve taken the actual step to say, I’m going to come to a @SocialRoadTrip event where I’m going to meet up with Joel. He’s in town or I’m going to meet up with you know, Ann, she’s in town.
Once they take that step, the conversation doesn’t start at “Hi. How are you? What do you do?” It’s literally in the middle. And so, those that are introverts find themselves to be very much more of an extrovert in our community because of that and so that’s something that I always find a little surprising—is the differences and the similarities between how people are online and offline.
The other thing is how there was—as many people talk about meeting up and as many people talk about, you know, great friends online or whatever—there wasn’t a ton of people actively trying to help people meet up. There was conferences. So conferences would do that but as a community, somebody would pop into town and if they were speaking at a local marketing club, that’s the only people that they would meet up with.
Whenever I travel, I try and meet up with anybody and everybody. I don’t go completely out of my way and ruin my schedule and get no sleep or anything like that. But if I’m in town for a conference, I spent some time and do my speaking thing at the conference and then that night, I have dinner with people from the conference and people from the city that I know. Then I’m connecting more people, some of them may know each other and some don’t.
So it’s always interesting though. Anytime you get a group of people together that primarily know that know each other from online, conversations are hilarious. Then obviously the flip side of that is how the people that are in their lives—whether it’s a spouse or a boyfriend or girlfriend—how they react.
So I think one of the things for @SocialRoadTrip is that people that are not on Social don’t quite understand @SocialRoadTrip, but when they meet someone on a Social Road Trip, it makes a lot more sense because we’re actually caring about that person. We aren’t just here for selfies and funny jokes and whatnot. I met the wife of one of my community members and she was like, yeah, it’s a little weird but at the same time, I could tell that like it mattered. That the people that were in your community mattered and you can’t get much of a better compliment than that.
AM: That was a really interesting answer and I think speaks to why it can be so valuable to meet somebody in person like you said because you’re getting more facets of their personality that maybe they don’t show online. And also that you have to kind of try to meet people in this way just like in person, you know people don’t just come to you. You have to go out there and introduce yourself and talk to people they know and introduce others.
JR: Yeah, it’s an extension of some of the work I do with MBAs I work with around networking and understanding how to start conversations whether they’re online or offline.
AM: Right so I can see this on Twitter, which is inherently—I think Twitter more than other social channels people know that they’re going to be talking to a lot of people they don’t know and really try to make those connections. But what about something like Snapchat and I know you started Snapchat education from the perspective of higher education, but I’m personally very curious about Snapchat because I think it’s one of the sites where it’s still pretty personal. People are often sharing with their friends, whereas Twitter is kind of just like an open community. Snapchat might be a little bit harder to infiltrate it—infiltrate isn’t the right word, but you know what I mean? So whether you’re an individual or brands, how do you start that process of saying, I want to meet new people or get to new audiences? What is the approach for Snapchat?
JR: Yeah, Snapchat is a tough one to crack. If you’re a business if your person you can obviously start with your contacts and you can usually find people based on phone numbers. You can also find SnapCodes and and and I’ve known many people to ask their communities on other social platforms, what’s your SnapCode? I would love to connect.
So that can get you started. For brands, I think you can do some of the same things. You can sort of ask and do some cross-marketing and “hey would love to connect with you here” and whatnot. But I think the biggest key with Snapchat is that you have to have a plan in place to use it. Not that that’s much different than others but there is pretty much zero organic reach if that makes sense.
So having throughout organic reach really changes how you think about the platform but it also changes what you can do and show on the platform. So that cross-marketing piece is super important and then definitely for small businesses and brands, pick a couple days where you’re active so you’re not sending stuff on Snapchat every day and then cross-marketing every day on all the other platforms. If every Tuesday and every Friday you have mini stories or mini shows, you know, that’s a great way to do some stuff.
AM: And you mentioned multi-channel marketing in our conversation before we started recording you said a lot of the stuff you do is multi-channel. What is the importance of that rather than speaking to a community just on Twitter? Why do you think it’s important to build your communities across platforms?
JR: Well, I think the biggest key with building a community anywhere or anything like that is—you know, a lot of people will say you don’t want to be on “rented” space. If Facebook changes their algorithm, if Instagram changes the way their timeline works or the feed works, from chronological to all of a sudden it’s just whatever they decide, it can make it hard for a brand or a person or a personal brand to show up.
But when you build community, those people want to find you. They want to have those conversations. They want to see those parts of your life. And so you’re able to say—you know, if Facebook just melded Instagram into Facebook tomorrow and you want it to stay on a platform, that was different, you would be able to tell that whole audience, we’re over here. That whole audience is invested in what you’ve been doing and will move.
Now, it does not always scale at the highest levels, but it will for the most part and so when you’ve created a real community as opposed to being a broadcaster all the time interacting and creating content that that breeds engagement, it’s a lot easier to move people around.
Speaking of Snapchat and Instagram and all those things, Instagram really catered to influencers. And so and Snapchat did not. Snapchat didn’t really do any of that. And once Stories came out, you have a lot more Snapchatters that were influencers moving to Instagram. You can debate the business model of both all day long, Snapchat pretty much as saying that we’re a personal place and we’re messaging platform for friends and communities and we aren’t something that’s going to be this huge broadcast.
I don’t think any one of those influencers had trouble moving to Instagram and telling their audiences and their communities, here’s where I’m at. And I don’t think that switch-over was that hard. I also don’t think it would be hard for them to switch back. Say somebody was an influencer on Instagram but wants to show behind the scenes or how they set up some of their photo shoots and all those pieces to then flip it and have them pop over to Snapchat. Again because they’ve created a community because they’ve created a need or a want that is there and it’s a thing that’s easier to do.
AM: Yeah that makes total sense and I liked what you said about how people want to—when they’re already interested in what you have to say or talk to you on one platform. They probably will be on other platforms. I’ve noticed in my personal life the different types of content people are sharing across platforms.
I deleted Instagram—or I didn’t delete it but I stopped using it about a year ago. I logged in recently and suddenly I felt so left out. I saw all the stuff that people I know were posting that they weren’t putting on Facebook or you know other platforms and you would think it’s obvious. But to me, it wasn’t until I saw that was when I realized that this was a whole other aspect of people’s lives that they were putting on Instagram that I was interested in. So I think that’s a really valuable piece of advice.
JR: I think there’s a huge piece there too with not sharing the same content across all your channels. Each channel should have content specifically built for it. And I think anytime you see marketers where it’s auto-posting—
AM: That’s my biggest pet peeve.
JR: —Yeah, it’s a huge pet peeve. It also speaks to how much they care about the content and how much they care about the people that are in their community. They probably are doing it because they think it’s easier but in essence, you can be making a smaller real audience for anything that you want and any actions you want your audience to take. So while you may have a large number, when you look at how many people moved on a link that you posted on Instagram or in a Snap that you posted, it’s going to get smaller and smaller and smaller because you haven’t spent the time to build those relationships.
AM: Right. So with your experience on all these different sites and this is a pretty broad question so feel free to focus over you see fit—but what are some examples of really creative ways to engage with people? Maybe you’ve seen this in the higher education section of Snapchat, like people or universities reaching out to audiences and really creative ways. I’m interested to know if you’ve seen anything really unique that’s worked, that’s caught people’s attention.
JR: So I do know—and it’s escaping me which brand it is, this must have been about a year ago, maybe a little less than that—but on Instagram, they just asked their audience to share a picture of them using the product and a local filter from where they are.
And that was a really cool way because they’ve built a little bit of community and now they have a bunch of user-generated pictures from around the world of people using their product. I know that my buddy Matt Horn that runs digital for I think it’s Newcastle University in the UK did something really similar as well. He used Snapchat to gather user-generated content from around the world.
So he just asked everyone to share a snap, “we want to see Geofilters from where you’ll be coming to campus from,” right? And he was able to get a ton of stuff from around the world. So the next thought that he had was, well, let’s try it on Instagram, do the same thing and again got some good responses. And then he goes, well, I could save these but like the actual story is going to go away in 24 hours because Snapchat’s ethereal like that.
And so how can I use this content in a way that continues to be you know visible? And so what he did was he mapped them on a map blog post and pinned each of the pictures with a little bit of a caption throughout so that people could mouse over and see exactly where everyone’s from and whatnot. So you now have content that’s from that.
So I think a lot of the times for Instagram stories and four for Snapchat stories and especially for geofilters, I think that it’s a great way to get some user-generated content that’s branded and/or location-based. It’s a great way to get that engagement.
AM: It sounds like as a follow-up to your advice to listen that the second piece might be to ask because I completely agree, user-generated content has much value and repurposing like that is such a great strategy.
JR: Yeah for sure and I think that sometimes the ask comes before people listen and sometimes the ask comes before people have proven their value. People and brands I think in general—if you start a Twitter account and you get to 300 followers and write a blog post and then ask your followers a question, you haven’t done put in any leg work with regards to getting them actually interested.
You know, one of the things that I love to do when I write stuff and when I also am looking at when I write stuff is, get information from your people before you write it. Ask for quotes, ask for perspective. And if you really like something in a conversation say, “Hey Amanda, you and I were talking the other day and I’d love for you to send me an email with your thoughts on this. I remembered you talking about…” blah blah blah. When you bring somebody in and then share their knowledge and information in your blog post, you can then say, thanks so much. Here’s that blog post. I used this part of your quote. Now, you have two people invested in this piece of content.
And so, you know that’s on the small end of things. On the high end of things, you have brands creating user-generated contests and they’re able to say on a grand scale “check out all the cool things that people are doing around this idea or this problem that we have or this question that we asked.” It’s the same thing—there has to be some incentive. Sometimes big brands incentive is the winner gets something. Other times, it’s solely to be showcased. I know Taco Bell did this a while back—Taco Bell just does all kinds of stuff on Snapchat.
Across the board, you know, they’ve done some interesting things where they send things out to people that mention “tacos,” right? And somebody will get just a mysterious thing from Taco Bell and they’re able to do and create some content with it. And you know, you don’t want to underestimate the value of anyone that has any type of audience. If I have somebody in my community that has seven hundred followers and they follow a thousand people that follow, that ratio doesn’t look great. But if every all 700 of those people know that person and act on what they say, that’s probably more powerful than having a hundred thousand followers and having only 50 people act on it.
JR: So I think the numbers game that people play with personal brands and the number numbers game even brands play—I know a lot of marketers that don’t always push back when their CEOs and their boards say, “we need reach, we need this, we need that.” They want big numbers instead of sometimes actions, and to be able to say, we did an influencer piece with these three community members that have a good following and are well-known and here’s how much revenue we got off of that.
And then we paid them based on how many actual actions went through so they were incentivized to do that as well, as opposed to—we paid this influence or $10,000 and we got 10 million potential reach from each post but then the revenue question is not answered. So you have to follow through.
AM: Yeah, I think that’s so important how your messaging it internally, right? That’s a great point. You don’t just count it by a number of followers and number of reach—its the actual engagement and how you can attribute revenue like you said. If you’re positioning it that way, I think that helps people understand how important the work you’re doing is.
JR: Yeah for sure.
AM: Well, Joel, thank you so much for being on the show. It’s been a pleasure and in the spirit of our conversation, we should definitely grab coffee sometime because we are both in D.C., which is a rare thing. I don’t have a lot of people at the show here in D.C.
JR: Yeah. Well, we’ll have to do that and I got to get some lunch. It’s lunchtime.
AM: All right. Well, don’t let me hold you, thanks again. I really appreciate it.
JR: Thanks for having me.
AM: Thanks again for listening. If you enjoyed this episode, click subscribe. Don’t leave me with the realization that I’m talking to no one and please rate and review on iTunes so I can keep making this podcast better and your lives easier. Take care.