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Social Media Mistakes (and Solutions)

by TJ Barranger (TJ on Google+)

In addition to branding and publicity services, small businesses and non-profits periodically seek out my advice on social media strategy. While every case is unique, there are (in my opinion) some common—and avoidable—mistakes that many small businesses make. In this series, I will discuss five of these mistakes, in order of significance:

and offer some potential solutions you can implement on your own, or with the help of a consultant.

Mistake # 4: Ignoring Social Media Trends

When in Rome....

Everyone wants to capitalize on the power of social media when it comes time to issue a press release about a new product launch or a change in company leadership. But let's be realistic. It isn't every day that your business has some kind of big announcement to share. So what do you talk about when you have, well, nothing to talk about? Look at what's already trending on social media, and you'll find something.

Social media is, by its very definition, social. The social media landscape is a vast arena of ideas, where individuals can contribute opinions about or advocate for a myriad of causes and beliefs. And brands are expected to be part of the discussion. In order to stay relevant on social media and appeal to your audience, you need to be mindful of what discussions are trending on your networks. If you want users to engage with your brand, the best way to do it is to talk about topics that are important to them. Unfortunately, this is where a lot of small brands miss the mark (not surprisingly, many of the same small brands are also guilty of Mistake # 1, but more on that later).

Social media trends are easy to identify and follow since most major social media outlets support the use of hashtags (for the uninitiated, that's a pound sign followed by a keyword without spaces, as in #SocialMedia). What started as a tool to group and filter content by topic on IRC networks and Twitter has grown into a staple of social media marketing strategy. Facebook, Instagram, Google+, Tumblr, and a host of other social media networks support hashtags for initiating and following topics of discussion. But even without hashtags, Facebook and Twitter in particular are excellent at tracking what topics are discussed the most, and putting this information at your fingertips (watch the righthand side of your Facebook feed, or the lefthand sidebar on Twitter).

No, you don't need to chime in on every trending topic on social media, or even the most popular trends. Just as it's unwise to ignore trends, it's also foolish to think you can bandwagon your way to social media supremacy. Monitor your social networks for trends that pertain to your industry, your neighborhood, or to causes your users support. You'll find that some topics are very timely, and other discussions are ongoing. Participate in this arena of ideas how and when it makes sense for your business.

Let's revisit the hypothetical examples from my first article...

And let's see how each of these businesses might capitalize on social media trends.

Cathy's Cafe serves only certified organic and fair trade coffees, and she has a large following in her community among the socially and environmentally conscious. In the few days leading up to April 22nd, the hashtag #EarthDay will become one of the biggest trending topics on social media. Cathy can capitalize on the popularity of this trend in her neighborhood by posting a photo of her signature organic roast (in a biodegradable cup, with the words "made from recycled paper," in plain view, of course) along with a caption that reads something like this:

Start your morning with coffee...and a clear conscience. 10% off certified organic coffees all day. Happy #EarthDay!

In my last article, I discussed how Acme Paving might use Facebook and Twitter—not to sell contracts—but as a PR and lobbying tool to sway public opinion in favor of state spending on infrastructure improvements. In the coming election cycle, the state ballot will include a public question requesting a budget increase for road maintenance. Public spending has already increased each of the the last three years, and voters are feeling the pinch. Acme's business development manager has written an op/ed for the local newspaper in support of the increase, and proposing areas where the state government can offset the expense without passing it on to the taxpayers.

Acme's social media manager (who now works under the PR department, not marketing) can access the article on the paper's website, and share it to the company's Facebook and Twitter accounts with an appropriate status:

State can make roads safer WITHOUT raising taxes. Here's how... [Link to op/ed] #Question2 #YesOn2

Capitalizing on timely, positive trends is fairly straightforward. But what if a social media trend threatens your publicity efforts? What if breaking news or a crisis explodes on social media just as you were planning an announcement? You don't want to be ignored, but you don't want to appear insensitive to current events, either. The solution is to put on your kid gloves and move quickly. Let's work with some meatier scenarios...

Cathy has used a small business loan to add 80 square feet to her shop and expand her reading area. The construction is finally done, and the new space is ready to open. She sent press releases to the local papers, blogs, and social media outlets, and she's ready to get lots of attention. But the day before her re-opening, news reaches the wires that an earthquake has hit a village in a foreign country, and rescuers are searching frantically through the rubble of a crowded factory that was rumored to use forced child labor. In the midst of an international humanitarian crisis, Cathy's re-opening is irrelevant, and will likely go ignored, even in her own neighborhood.

Cathy wears her heart on her sleeve, and she knows she will lose a day's revenue anyway. So she phones the local editors who were planning to run her story, and posts the following update to the Cafe's Facebook page:

I am heartbroken as I watch the images from [#Country]. The children and their families desperately need our help. We just added some extra space, and we are using it to gather donations for earthquake relief. If you can contribute anything—canned food, blankets, or cash—please bring your donation to the cafe. A representative from [Aid Organization] will be on site all day to receive your donations. In return for your generosity, please accept a free cup of coffee with our gratitude. Please share this with all your friends.

Later in the week, as the national dialogue on social media shifts from the tragedy to the humanitarian issue of forced child labor abroad, Cathy uses the bully pulpit of social media to appeal to her customers once again. She posts a picture of the "fair trade" seal from a bag of her coffee, and adds this caption...

#ForcedLabor is criminal. Fair trade growers never use forced labor. Look for this label whenever you buy.

A politically charged statement, but one that echoes the philosophy of her business and has near universal support. Note that Cathy's message carries more weight without a mention of the cafe, because she is making her statement about fair trade without appearing to capitalize upon tragedy. However, the photo gives a clear hint that hers is one such business where fair trade coffees are available. Cathy has remained visible, relevant, and compassionate during a publicity nightmare, and consumers will remember her integrity.

Back to Acme Paving...

A late night collision on a notoriously dangerous stretch of state highway has killed a motorist. Authorities determine that the driver who caused the accident had fallen asleep behind the wheel. Acme had bid to repave this area just months prior to the incident, and the project manager's bid had called for the inclusion of grooved "rumble strips" on the median and shoulders. The state highway administration rejected Acme's bid and hired a lower bidding contractor, who paved the road without the grooves. The accident has created a firestorm on social media among local news outlets and public safety advocates, with the hashtags #DrowsyDriving and #WhatHappenedOnHwy7.

Since Acme is one of the top municipal contractors in the area, it wants to distance itself from the tragedy, and make it abundantly clear to the public that it was not responsible for paving this portion of highway. Moreover, it wants to push for the opportunity to repave the road the right way and earn state contracts in the future. So the PR team finds a link to an independent safety study—one in which Acme had participated—that concludes rumble strips are effective in waking sleeping drivers and preventing fatal collisions. The company releases the following statement on Twitter...

#DrowsyDriving & highway safety: experts say rumble strips can prevent #WhatHappenedOnHwy7 [Link to study]

Acme's statement echoes public concern about the safety of local roads. The tweet and the content of the study both imply that, had Acme won the contract, the road would have been built differently. The statement makes no mention of the winning contractor, nor does it implicate the state government (a prospective Acme client). But it does fuel public discussion as to why the road was built the way it was.

In each of the preceding scenarios, ignoring a trending discussion on social media could have harmed these companies. Of course, responding inappropriately to trends could be even more damaging than ignoring them, but I'll address that in my next few articles.

Up next, we'll talk about Mistake # 3: Trolling/Spamming.

FOOTNOTE: One final thought about social media trends. Never underestimate the value of a well-executed publicity stunt, particularly when it's for charity. As I write this, friends across the country are dousing themselves with buckets of ice water on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to raise funds and awareness for ALS research. And celebrities and businesses are getting in on the act, too. It's humorous. It's entertaining. It supports a cause that most Americans can rally behind without fear of political backfire. For more on the origins of the phenomenon, check out this article from the Wall Street Journal.


TJ Barranger is a branding and publicity consultant in the Baltimore, Maryland area with a background in business communications and online content management. He specializes in assisting small business and non-profit clients. Agree/disagree with this article? Share your comments via e-mail: