Avoid Shiny Objects: Four Social Media Strategies to Engage the Fifth Estate

Geoff Livingston

As most professional communicators know, for centuries the media has been dubbed the Fourth Estate—the watchdog of power. In recent years, the industry has come to face citizen media—a new type of power that independently comments on government, business and, yes, the media. As businesses and nonprofits engage this new Fifth Estate directly, they wrestle with the best means of approach.

If strategy can be defined as the terms and conditions of how to engage with the Fifth Estate (or whether to engage at all), then there are many unique ways to do so. Individual voices, teams, mainstream social networks, applications, pages, groups, documents, wikis, your blog, their blogs—the list goes on and on. Be careful. In a world full of bells and whistles it’s easy to succumb to “shiny-object syndrome.” Instead focus on the actual strategy—the plan of approach toward your community.

The following four categories are the primary types of social media strategies that organizations use online:

1) Participation: This may refer to an individual (often called a social media or community manager) or, in more sophisticated organizations, a team of people whose job is to have conversations with their communities of interest. The primary purposes of their activity are interaction, building trust and developing relationships. Most customer service accounts on Twitter fall into this category.

Participation also is a precursor for success in the other three primary areas of social media strategy. In many ways it’s a two-step of listening and responding—basic, functional and necessary for any kind of dance, and utilitarian enough that you can get away with it for one night.

One of the best examples of an organization that fosters participation is the nonprofit Social Media Club. It’s no coincidence that co-founder Chris Heuer is one of the original proponents of participation marketing on the social Web. Social Media Club began in 2006 with meetings in San Francisco. Now more than 200 chapters exist around the globe to host conversations on and offline that explore key societal issues raised by transformative social technologies.

2) Service: Want to make Fifth Estate friends? Serve it with great data, content and applications. This seems easy, but there’s a fine line between serving and spamming that most inexperienced marketers and PR pros don’t recognize. In fact, many organizations begin their social media experiences by publishing content without knowing who their audience is, or if they even have one. This information is often delivered in a message format instead of a conversational tone.

If you engage in listening as the necessary precursor to social media engagement, your success becomes much likelier. Add participation and network-building before serving the community with content, and your chance of success increases further. Your application, wiki or content will be much more likely to resonate with the community.

An example of a content server is Rubbermaid, with its Adventures in Organization blog. Some entries feature products, but in all cases the blog explains about how to organize your house, other places or when on outings. Adventures in Organization provides stakeholders with practical information that matters in their day-to-day lives.

3) Top-Down: Many organizations assume they will not be able to invest the time in the grassroots effort necessary for full community participation, nor do they want to commit to a long-term content offering. Instead, they opt to build relationships with influencers, people that the larger community trusts and responds to, from bloggers to active social network participants. They seek blog coverage or social network profile endorsements using a relevant offering to the influencer. By building relationships with influencers, they hope the communities that follow those leading voices will follow suit.

The Gap engaged in an outreach program before the 2010 BlogHer conference, offering 100 influential female bloggers a $400 shopping allowance and a styling appointment at a local Gap. These women were described as influencers and speakers at a conference where Gap clothes would be seen by hundreds of other women. Many speakers tweeted using a #gapmagic hashtag and blogged about their experience, and most wore their new Gap clothes during the conference.

4) Empowerment: The hardest of all forms of social media strategy, empowerment assumes that the organization will commit to building a far-flung community. The empowered Fifth Estate members create conversations and ideas that are so extensive they exist well beyond the organization’s reach. Instead, the company or nonprofit becomes much more of a host and facilitator, available when called upon. The organization then creates initiatives and helps to sustain the effort over the long term. Crowdsourcing—including large-scale multi-city events, cause-based initiatives and far-flung internal organizational communities—is the most common example of the empowerment strategy.

Consider 350’s efforts with this type of strategy. The nonprofit organizes an annual global day of environmental action to reduce carbon dioxide omissions. It uses social tools to help local organizers develop their own events, to promote the events and to keep their stakeholders informed. In 2010, 350 organized 10/10/10 Work Parties to get people focused on actions, signing up more than 7,000 event organizers in 180 countries.

Most individual strategies fall under one of these four classifications. More than one strategy type can be in play at once, obviously, depending on an organization’s capacity and initiative. PRN


This article was excerpted from the forthcoming book, Welcome to the Fifth Estate: How to Create and Sustain a Winning Social Media Strategy by Geoff Livingston (©2011, all rights reserved). The book will be released in May 2011. Livingston, who is a co-founder of Zoetica, will be the keynote speaker at PR News’ Facebook Conference to be held on May 24 in New York City (click here to register). He can be reached at geoffliving@me.com.