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MiNterview with Gary Koelling from Best Buy on Social Media

Posted on Sep 25th, 2008
Written by Lee Odden
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    Gary Koelling at a MIMA Event

    It’s social media interview week here at Online Marketing Blog and we have another excellent interview with a social media sage just for you.

    Gary Koelling is a blogger, Twitterati, public speaker and a social media pathfinder. He’s also Senior Manager, Social Technology at Best Buy. Best Buy is undoubtedly one of the “best” known brands in retail and in particular with many of the gadget-geeky readers of Online Marketing Blog. After seeing Gary speak at a MIMA event (pictured above) I thought it would be interesting to get a few of his insights as a social media evangelist within a large company as well as advice for others.

    For the uninitiated, can you describe your creative and writing background as well as what you do in your current position as Senior Manager, Social Technology for Best Buy?

    I’m a J School grad from the University of Minnesota . Unlike many of my classmates I took the low road and went into advertising. I worked as a copywriter for many years, most recently at Carmichael Lynch. I came to Best Buy in 2003 as a creative director. In the fall of 2006, six months after the launch of BlueShirt Nation, my day job changed. Most days my job involves building and maintaining social technology tools like BlueShirt Nation, Best Buy’s internal social network. And more recently, a universal gift registry slash wish list. With increasing frequency my job involves education, trying to help others understand what social media is and what it means to a corporation.

    How would you define “social media” to someone not fluent in interactive or online marketing?

    I hesitate a little to use the word education to describe the process of explaining to people what social media is. For one thing, what it is is constantly changing. New technologies and new ways of using them are being introduced all the time and this changes the tone and depth of our online and offline social interactions.

    The other reason I hesitate is because it’s not so much education as it is re-education which often means having to unlearn a lot of what they think they know about how to act. A lot of people say to me “I’m completely ignorant about this stuff” or “I’m totally dumb when it comes to this stuff.”  What I hear is “This scares me.”

    What are some of the common issues large organizations encounter when trying to evaluate and adopt social media technologies? Are you seeing more internal or external facing applications? (ex: building a private social network vs engaging in existing/public social networks)

    From about 1994 to about 2005 or 2006 our relationship with interactive media had been pretty much identical to the relationship we’ve had with mass media for about the last hundred years. The few create and the many consume. The how, what and why of the message is controlled and sometimes vetted by journalistic standards. Social Media doesn’t hew to this model because the center of control has been moved from the few to the many. This does not compute with our current math, our current approach of even calling it ‘media.’

    As a result I get a lot plaintive if earnest looks from people who have either been sent to me by their bosses to get smart about this thing or who understand that something fundamental is shifting under feet and they’re terrified. In both cases they feel helpless. And there’s the tragedy. The corporation, as a way of organizing group activity, has little room for what is social; trust, thoughtfulness, vulnerability – human. It’s required that we suppress these things and substitute policy, process and ambition.

    So when I tell people, “Be human” I get, “What does that mean?” or “Can we do that – who has to approve it?” At that moment I find myself having to help people remember what it was like to interact with real people. Could you get fired for acting human in this context? I suppose you could. The handicap that we’re running up against is that as a person, the corporation, or more specifically the brand that is presented internally and externally, behaves like a sociopath.

    The external or customer facing effect (as well internal) is that when in normal conversation brands tend to act paranoid, or narcissistic. “Nice day today” begets “Compared to what?” Or “How’s the weather?” begets “Beautiful day …  to buy some of my stuff.” To be fair, it’s not easy being social. It takes work. Even as “social” animals we have our struggles so is it really surprising that an abstraction that wants to be human struggles with it? Nah.

    What kind of impact has Best Buy’s internal social network, had and how did you come about creating it?

    The impact or value of social technology, like most ubiquitous technology, is hard to measure. You know a phone system has value but it’s hard to even know where to begin to take a measure of that. I truly wish I had a better answer but like any relationship, if you want to keep it healthy, you have to pay attention. You can’t just monitor it. You have to really pay attention. In paying attention the two things I tend to collect are 1) stories from users about how the technology failed them or helped them win and 2) admissions of fear. You can tell a lot by watching those two things.

    Can you share a few high level tips for companies that are in discovery mode when it comes to tasks such as deciding on social platforms and applications, internal management and success measurement?  Or should they take a less evaluative approach and just jump in?

    If you’re ready to count more failures than wins and if you can get honest admissions of fear – you’re almost ready to jump in. But first ask yourself “What kind of relationship do I (not We) want to have with my employees or customers? Give yourself an honest answer. If it’s a purely transactional relationship that’s fine. If it’s something else, try to plot it on a line of intimacy somewhere between “Someone I see a couple days a week in the elevator” and “Soul mate.” Hopefully, for their sake, it’s somewhere in the middle. Then practice. Keep it small. Say hi. Get to know each other. Try things. Learn. If a jaded old ad guy like me can figure it out, the rest of you should be fine.

    What are some of the resources (sites, blogs, books, events, networks, applications, etc) that you rely on for information on social media best practices?

    Here are  couple of books that have enlightened me:

    • The New Age of Innovation: Driving Cocreated Value Through Global Networks by C.K. Prahalad and M.S. Krishnan
    • The Future of the Internet–And How to Stop It by Jonathan Zittrain
    • Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations by Clay Shirky
    • Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff

    And here are a couple of sites I keep up with: and

    Thanks Gary!

    You can catch Gary in person speaking at next week’s Social Media Marketing Summit in San Francisco.