I am a Senior Partner at Portland, a strategic communications consultancy, based in London with a global reach. I lead on content and digital strategy for the firm, which has a team of digital consultants and also an in-house content creation arm. Portland’s clients range from large corporates such as Nestle, Google, MacDonald’s, Apple, Barclays and Aviva to NGOS and Charities such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation through to governments around the world. We’re not a consumer agency so our focus is on corporate communications or public policy – essentially clients who are concerned about their reputation or want to shape policy.
How and why did you get started in social media?
My own background was in radio before I joined the Prime Minister’s office at 10 Downing St. We realised that social media was a good way of going directly to the audience, by-passing the often cynical mainstream media. At No10, I revamped their digital channels and got them onto social media for the first time. The PM’s Twitter feed (launched early in 2008) was the first of its kind anywhere in the world had used the platform and now has over 3 million followers.
What do you believe the benefits of using social media for business?
These days anyone can publish content – not only traditional media owners – which means that audiences now get information from a variety of sources. For businesses, it means people are having conversations about you, your sector and your issues – so why wouldn’t you want to be part of these conversations. Of course, social media is well established as a place you can build a brand or engage consumers but it is also a place where you can mobilise audiences around an issue or campaign; a place you can challenge other people’s opinions; and a space for genuine engagement with key audiences. Businesses now need to think beyond the press release – creating interesting content to be shared online – including case studies, the first person reports, the blogs, the pictures, the video, the infographics and data.
What do you think are common mistakes business owners make when building brand awareness on social media?
First of all, it’s not about broadcasting. Audiences now expect a level of transparency and engagement that is authentic. Too often a stilted pdf-led approach has simply been replaced with a stilted Twitter-led approach. The information minister of a Central Asian government once said to me that they prefer TV to social media because people can’t answer back. But of course, people are answering back via social media and, if you’re not present in those conversations you can’t put your side of the story. The other mistake businesses make is not to team social media seriously enough and delegate it to junior people. Doing social media properly requires thought and commitment. It may be the most public thing you will say, so understand the medium and don’t trivialise it or delegate to the intern. This means crafting a coherent and sustainable content strategy, aligned to the communications strategy, which provides context and explanation for your business goals. It means committing to authentic engagement on social media where difficult questions have to be confronted, not ducked.
What qualities do you think social media managers should have?
My own view is that managing social media needs to be spread around an organisation and not silo’d. Often, delivery is best devolved down to the people who best understand the product, service or issue. If you do have community managers, they need to plugged into the wider communicators objectives and understand the overall strategy and company ethos. Community management involves good listening skills too and the judgement when to escalate issues. I worry when the job becomes commoditised and formulaic as it is vital that audiences get a brand tone that is human and authentic.
How do Business owners know if their social media campaign is working?
It depends on the objectives you set at the start. You need to establish some clear goals at the start of a campaign – whether that is social shares (in the case of B2C) or new business leads (for B2B) or achieving some kind of policy outcome. For Portland, we are often charged with enhancing our client’s reputation, which is more difficult thing to measure. However, you can still establish a set of benchmarks and set goals for ‘moving the dial’ in some way over time.
How do you see social media evolving over the next 5 years …what do you hope to see?
I think there will be less emphasis on technology and channels and more on the content. Too often, we professionals obsess about platforms and tools when they are much less important than the message and messenger. Content provides the standout advantage, not platform. We are approaching what I call the ‘post digital age’. This doesn’t mean, of course, that digital platforms, services and technology will stop developing. It’s a recognition now that everything is digital and it is what we say rather than where we say it that matters. In a world where we are digitally literate and channel boundaries blurred, people don’t care – or even know – whether content has reached them via Google or Twitter, on a smartphone or in a newspaper. Does watching the news on iPlayer makes the source TV or web?
If you could share one best practice about using social media to grow a business, what would it be?
Get your CEO on to social media. There are some excellent examples of business leaders doing it well – Richard Branson or O2’s Ronan Dunne but not enough. The job of a CEO now is not just to execute a business strategy but to narrate it. And while there are, of course, potential down-sides to digital engagement, it also provides unprecedented opportunities. Digital offers business leaders the chance to communicate directly without the need to use the traditional cynical media gatekeepers. CEOs have the opportunity to gain a ‘voice’, explain positions more clearly and, crucially, shorten the gap between themselves and the audience. To do that well you need a coherent and sustainable content strategy and above all you need to be authentic. Authenticity comes with a sense of humanity, and that comes with occasional mistakes.