Labcast: Shel Holtz Talks Content and Social Strategies

In this week’s Labcast, we’re discussing the keys to effective content and social media strategy with communications expert Shel Holtz.

Kevin: Hello and welcome to the Open View podcast. I’m Kevin Cain. Today we’re going to be talking about content and social media strategy with Shel Holtz. For those of you who don’t know Shel, he’s the principal of Holtz Communication + Technology. He has nearly 35 years of organizational communications experience in both corporate and consulting environments. Shel, thanks so much for being with us here today.

Shel: My pleasure, Kevin.

Kevin: As I alluded to earlier, we’re talking today about content and social media strategy. Given your very broad expertise, I wanted to start off with a really basic question. Even though you and I really believe in content and social media strategy, not everyone does. There still are those people who are holding off on getting involved. I was curious to know how do you go about convincing companies to get on the social and content strategy bandwagon when they’re not already doing so?

Shel: I think the biggest challenge is creating a connection in the minds of the leaders of organizations between this kind of activity and the bottom line results that they’re held accountable for producing. Far too often, people who are engaged in communications or social media or the online world present their case from a tactical perspective rather than making that link that this is the way we grow market share. This is the way we bring new customers in through the top of that marketing funnel. This is the way we address the kinds of challenges that are keeping you awake at night. There’s a willful lack of business literacy on the part of a lot of people who are engaged in the kind of work we do. We’re very, very good as crafts people but we don’t really have the fundamental business knowledge that allows them to make that business case. The more we can help our leaders understand that these are the things that are going to contribute to those bottom line goals that the board of directors or the owner of the organization are expecting from you, the easier it’s going to be to launch these kinds of initiatives and get more engaged.

Kevin: Absolutely. I would definitely agree with that. But what would you recommend to an expansion-stage company where they have to make a significant investment to get their social and content strategies off the ground? It’s not going to be an immediate return on an investment, so how do you get people to buy and hold until such a time as they can really see the payoff?

Shel: I think there are a variety of different approaches you can take to that. One is to not make that significant investment at first. Do some pilot projects where you can show some demonstrable wins that maybe aren’t monumental, but they highlight the path you could be taking in order to achieve those. I was just engaged in a conversation with Niall Cook, who used to run Hill and Knowlton, the PR agency out of the UK. He pointed out that the corporate blogs they’ve started, which are written by thought leaders in the organization, are driving more traffic and are coming up in more search engines than their institutional website because what they’re talking about is what’s relevant to the audience that they’re trying to reach who are conducting searches on those things. If you just start off with a couple thought leader blogs that, let’s face it, you can do on WordPress, and your investment is the time of the thought leaders in crafting this, you can start to show what that’s doing for traffic and engagement with your community and the discovery of your organization. I’ll give you an example. There’s a company called Indium Corporation that most people haven’t heard of and there’s no reason why they should have. They work in solder flux for the sonic conductor industry. They started blogging, thought leaders talking about some very detailed dimensions of the solder flux industry and they have increased their business by a factor of three or four times because now they’re being discovered by people who are looking for answers to questions or information that deals with these highly technical issues. That’s a content strategy that has driven people who may not have been aware of the organization before to discover them, which has led to increased revenue and increased market share. If you could launch a pilot program that launches one specific thing the organization is trying to do, using some of these free or low cost tools, demonstrate the benefit it accrues to the organization out of that and use that as the launching pad for expanding the program. It’s easy to get by in that way. I think you have to demonstrate that these things can produce the kinds of results you’re talking about, rather than just talking about the craft or the tactic itself.

Kevin: Is there a specific social strategy you’d recommend starting off with to compliment that content strategy you outlined?

Shel: I think the key word you just used is “strategy”, which means you’re coming up with an approach to achieve a goal. I think it starts with understanding what the organization’s goals are. I think part of the problem is that too many people that are engaged in this line of work want to jump into a Facebook “strategy” or a Twitter “strategy”. I’m even hearing now of a Pinterest “strategy”. Those are tools that you apply to the objectives you have set. Objectives are those measurable, achievable
time-bound discrete activities that are going to support that larger strategy. It really starts with identifying what the business goals are. I’m frequently dismayed by the number of people that work in organizational communications who don’t know what are the five business goals we’re trying to achieve this year. Or what is this year’s business plan? They’re not able to align their communications. Let’s face it: communications that are both social and digital, along with traditional, they’re not able to align those with the goals if they don’t know what those goals are. It starts with identify the goals that the leaders of the organization are held accountable to. What is keeping them awake at night? What is the business plan? Then, how can we craft a strategy that employs social and digital in support of those goals. That means identifying the broad approach that you’re going to take using these channels. Then setting the measurable objectives for them, then determining which tools are going to be appropriate for that. It’s not that we ought to be blogging, it’s that our goal is “x”, the strategy we’re employing to support that is going to incorporate the following objectives and in order to achieve those, we think a Facebook approach would apply really well and here’s how. It’s not that you want to look at a platform, necessarily, you want to look at what it is the organization is trying to achieve and what the communication challenges are around that.

Kevin: Let’s assume for a minute that we have an organization that has its goals in place and has already done some of these pilots that you recommend. What’s the best way for them to scale that strategy over time? Is it adding more types of social channels? Is it getting the right sources of resources in place, whether it be bodies in the companies or otherwise? How do you really grow it over time?

Shel: I think, first of all, to put together some sort of a central hub for the big picture social and digital activities in the organization is going to help,. As you’re looking at the tools that you’re going to use to support the work you’re doing, you’ll be making those decision with an eye toward scaling them up down the road. For example, you might start with Hoot Suite. You would look at it and say “Oh, that will really help us” but down the road, maybe you need to upgrade to Sprinkler. Somebody is studying that and looking at the scale of the operation that you’ve got going and making these assessments and centralizing the purchase or acquisition of the technology and that kind of decision making. What I see in a lot of organizations is that all of this stuff is dispersed and decentralized and as a result, you have one organization doing a deal with this provider and another one doing a deal with that provider. You end up with eight or ten different conflicting systems. That’s what doesn’t scales. What scales is when somebody is being mindful of what the organization needs and making those decisions for the entire organization and is able to deploy them out to the business unit so they can operate more or less discretely within this larger framework. They don’t have to worry about “Oh my God, what we acquired isn’t working now that we have 20 communities instead of two and we’ve already blown our budget on the tool we’re using”. I think it’s thinking of this thing more strategically and more holistically as opposed to just as as set of tools that different functions in the organization have access to based on their own discretion.

Kevin: One of those tools or social media channels you touched on a minute ago was Pinterest. I think Pinterest is something we’ve all heard of now, but six months or a year ago, most of us hadn’t. I think Instagram is another example. You know, Facebook’s acquisition brought them into the spotlight recently. It seems to me that there’s just ever more social media channels popping up and I wonder if in your view, there’s always going to be more and it’s going to be an endless process and we’re always going to take on more, or if at some point, we’re going to get to a finite group we’re going to use and the others will fall away? Do you have a future view?

Shel: I think there will continue to be new categories and you have to evaluate them, again, based on your strategy and if using them is going to support your strategy. Is this a place where your audience is going, which means you can’t ignore it for that reason? In the case of Pinterest and Instagram, I think they both fit into a new category of image-based storytelling. We’re starting to experience the world, to a certain extent, visually with a stream of images. That’s exactly what Instagram is. It’s just a stream of images. I found myself the other night when I got back from a business trip, very late, I got out to where I was parked and I found out I had a flat tire. I picked up a nail, I guess, when I was driving through the parking lot. I shot a picture of the flat tire and put it on Instagram. Is it great photography or great art? No. But it’s people experiencing the world through the sharing of these, actually a lot of them are mundane, images.

Why do we love it? I think we’re kind of hardwired to experience the world visually and have moved away from that, based on the fact that we’re more or less bound to our desks and our couches. We don’t get out into the would as much as people did, even 60 or 70 years ago, but certainly longer ago than that. These new technologies are giving us the opportunity to do that again through the images people are sharing through these digital and social channels. It’s a new category. Can you afford to ignore it as people embrace it simply because you feel you’re maxed on the categories and the channels and platforms you’re using now? No. Certainly, you have limited resources. But you have to jigger those around based on where you need to be. I think there are ways you can determine whether a new property, a new channel or even a new category is worth your attention. First of all, you look at Instagram and Pinterest and people are talking about them outside of the fishbowl, right? We hear a lot of gushing over new platforms inside the fishbowl. Remember Empire Avenue, for example? Or I posted a Tweet saying, “I’m still getting my daily updates from Empire Avenue. Is anybody still using that?” and somebody answered my question by tweet, saying “You know, you should ask that question on Quora”.

That’s another one that got a lot of attention inside the fishbowl that nobody outside the fishbowl had ever heard of, it’s still there and it’s still useful but does my wife’s hairdresser know about it? No. But she knows about Pinterest. She knows about Instagram. As the general public really starts to use these, I think you have to look at that as an indicator. Other things, as well. Are people spending a fair amount of time on it? On Pinterest, the average session is ten minutes. That’s an eon in the context of how much people spend on any given site or property. I think there are rules of etiquette emerging around it. Has mainstream media adopted it? Has mainstream business gone to it? We’re seeing companies like Pepsi Co. and Red Bull among those who are starting to get Instagram accounts going because if they can show interesting enough imagery, whatever it might be. It could be behind the scenes, inside baseball, with Red Bull it could be around the extreme sports lifestyle they promote. People will follow that and it’s more engagement with the brand. Can you ignore it? At your peril. If it’s something that people have really latched onto and it resonates and there’s an opportunity strategically to apply it so that it really does contribute to the achievement of business goals.

Kevin: Shel, this has been really interesting. I definitely appreciate the insights you shared with our audience here today. Before I let you go, can you let our audience know how they can get in touch with you if they want to?

Shel: Sure. Helmholtz is the center for all of my online activities. I’ve got links to all of the other places I’m engaged. My Preposterous blog, my regular blog, all the other places I’m making contributions. It’s all there at holtz.com.

Kevin: Great. Thanks so much, Shel, for joining us today.

Shel: My pleasure. Thanks for the invitation.

photo by: Sean MacEntee

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