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Social Media Interview Shonali Burke

Posted on Dec 3rd, 2008
Written by Lee Odden
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    Social Media Smarts Interview with Shonali Burke


    I first ran into Shonali Burke right before she presented with Katie Paine at the PRSA International conference, “True Tales From the Social Media Measurement Trenches”. We had not met in person before but were connected on Twitter. Social media will do that – facilitate real world connections.  Based on her PR and social media metric savvy, I thought it would be interesting to do an interview as part of our Social Media Smarts posts.

    Shonali Burke, ABC, is an award-winning communications consultant and self-confessed measurement fiend. She was formerly a vice president of media and communications at ASPCA. She and her husband are owned by three shelter dogs and live in the Washington, D.C., area. You can also find her on Twitter.

    How do you define “social media?”

    When the term first started being used and I was curious about it, I wondered what the definition of “anti-social” media would be. I’m not sure there is an answer to that question, because all media aim to reach people; can you imagine one that would aim to do the opposite? So to me, “social media” are those Internet-based platforms that facilitate and encourage two-way (or multiple) conversations and interaction in the pursuit of building relationships. Bryan Eisenberg’s recent post on the subject sums it up beautifully.

    What arguments or business case justifications have you found to be the most effective for investing time, people and other resources into social media engagements?

    Given how new the use of social media still is, it’s understandable for executives to have misgivings about investing in it, especially the C-suite who have not, to a large extent, grown up in a “Web 2.0” world. But if you can bring the “social” to the forefront, reminding them that business is, at the end of the day, about relationships, it will go a long way. 

    Traditionally, one needed to be part of certain networks of influencers and decision-makers to be successful in business. Those networks still exist, and are still powerful, but the ability for end-users or customers to voice their opinion directly about a product or service has greatly democratized the “old boys clubs.” The recent episode of the Motrin Moms is a great example. Business is about building, and catalyzing relationships. If you don’t have good relationships with your customers, they’re not going to buy your products or services, or be evangelizers for them. And you can’t have sustained, good relationships with your customers if you’re not going to listen to them. Social media provides a unique way to listen to your customers or target audience; it’s as simple as that.

    This is also why I think public relations practitioners are uniquely situated to grab the social media bull by the horns. PR has always been about relationships, though in recent years it seems to have been co-opted by “publicity” in people’s minds. The industry is in dire need of adopting a strong, methodical approach to PR measurement, that shows how building and sustaining these relationships is serving the organization’s bottom line – that’s what executives understand. I recently guest-posted on “Communication Overtones” on the subject, and if we combine our PR smarts with solid measurement, the sky is the limit.

    The beauty of social media is that it can be relatively inexpensive compared to traditional media outreach, requiring primarily time. That, combined with a couple of case studies showing the effective use of social media either by you (assuming you have dabbled in it, as I mentioned before) or by similar organizations to achieve desired, measurable results—or the dire consequences of not doing so—is usually enough to at least get the go-ahead to experiment (and if you’ve been playing around on your own, on a larger scale) with social media. 

    It’s important to remember, however, that in 9 cases out of 10, social media outreach will complement, not replace, traditional media outreach, since the latter can still provide great value, when used wisely; it’s also what a large percentage of top management are familiar with, and trust. Explaining that you won’t be throwing your tried and tested outreach to the wind but rather, are dipping your toes into a potentially extremely valuable new pool at little or no increased cost, will go a long way.

    When developing a social media strategy, how do you decide whether to blog vs setup social networking profiles vs Twitter vs image and video sharing or other social media tactics? 

    Even in the social media world, the basics about choosing one’s platforms and tactics are no different than when working in the “old” media world: know your audience, identify your measurable objectives, and THEN—and only then—select the items in your toolbox. If your audience isn’t on Twitter, what good will it do to invest the time and energy into setting up a Twitter account? If your product or service doesn’t lend itself to image and/or video-sharing, should you really invest in it? So the bottom line, as always, is, do your homework – do your research. This means get familiar with the various social media platforms, engage with and listen to your target audience, and understand how they want to hear from you… the results might surprise you. 

    What’s your decision making process when it comes to testing and implementing social media engagement efforts with specific tactics?

     The most important thing to remember about embarking on a social media strategy is that you have to commit to engaging. Social media is, first and foremost, a way to build relationships. Just as with “real” relationships, virtual ones need time and nurturing. So you need to ensure you have staff, or external resources, to do that. Make sure you’ve tested the waters by monitoring and listening to conversations first. Then, examine your objectives under a microscope, and use the tactics that are going to give you the greatest return on your investment, however you define that. A “nice to have” or an “I want to have” is not necessarily a “must have,” especially if it’s not going to achieve your goals effectively

    What strategies do you use to measure the effectiveness of social media? What metrics make the most impact upstream (C-level)?

    In my opinion, the smartest way to approach strategic communications is to outline the measurable outcomes you want to achieve at the beginning. Even though this is a fundamental of classic communications planning, it still amazes me how many practitioners focus on outputs and outtakes, rather than the actual outcomes. Katie Delahaye Paine, of whom I’m a huge (and known) fan, frequently posts on this at her blog.

    If you approach measurement from an outcomes point of view, then defining your metrics for social media becomes no different than defining them for traditional media. What do you want to achieve? What are the outcomes that will make the most impact from a business point of view, both qualitative and quantitative? Those are the metrics that are going to be most meaningful to the C-Suite. Aaron Uhrmacher wrote a brilliant post on this for Mashable a few months ago. And recently, Jason Falls posted an extremely thought-provoking article on his blog about social media ROI.

    Do you outsource any social media work and if so, do you have tips for company social media marketers regarding finding and managing consultants?

    In my last position at the ASPCA, we did not outsource any social media work at the time; we had one staffer on my team dedicated to the job. I have recently seen a growing trend in companies interested in engaging in social media, though. My recommendation to anyone thinking of hiring a consultant is to use the medium to do your research; see who’s popping up as a thought-leader via searches, RSS feeds, on Twitter, etc. LinkedIn’s Q&A feature can be tremendously helpful as well, since you can gauge someone’s level of experience and understanding of the subject by the way they answer questions. Turn to your local chapters of well-regarded associations, such as IABC, PRSA, and most importantly, SMC, to find out who would be a good resource.

    In terms of managing them, I think the usual best practices for managing consultants apply. Given how new a field social media is, though, I think it’s really important to hire a consultant you can trust and, once you’ve outlined their scope of work, let them do it. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, or ask for clarification when you don’t understand something—it’s ok for the consultant to be “smarter” than the client, that’s why you hired her/him, remember? But once you’ve brought them on board, treat them as a valued partner, and give them the same respect you would give to said partners. 

    Please share 3-4 resources for staying on top of social media marketing trends and tactics:

    The resource that I personally find the most valuable in keeping up with social media and all things related is Twitter:  I find out about events, new people/thought-leaders to follow and a treasure trove of blog posts and websites every day. Twitter has practically replaced my RSS feed (though I still check that out every few days).

    If there were one resource I had to recommend, it would be that. Just a few others are (and I know I’m leaving many out): Mashable, MarketingProfs, MarketingSherpa, and the blogs of Chris Brogan, Jason Falls and Kami Watson Huyse. SMC’s website is a good resource, as is WOMMA’s site (you can click through to its blog). And because measurement is an integral part of effective marketing, Katie Paine’s and Avinash Kaushik’s blogs are must-reads for me as well.

    Thanks Shonali!