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Creating, Growing & Managing Identity in Social Networks

I gave this talk today at the Starkville/GTR meeting of the Public Relations Association of Mississippi.

Usually when I talk to groups about managing identity in social networks, the focus ends up being on privacy settings and information overload—how to balance the personal and the public and how to deal with the deluge of information we inevitably trigger by being involved in these networks.  Instead today, I’m going to venture out into the broader (and more helpful to you I hope) subject of identity creation and growth in business.  These topics are inevitably related, because whether or not you are a company or an individual, we all start out as newborns in any social network.  And like newborns, there is a natural process of growth and maturity that is inescapable.  No one is born into Twitter or Facebook with an identity, community and relationships in place, even if you are the most recognizable brand in the world.  The “who you are” in a social network relies on your work, your habits, your activities, and your connections as you create them.  Today I will go over what seem to be the current “best practices” for creating, growing and managing identities as a business in a social network.  There is no way for me to be comprehensive—at this point, people are building entire careers around these topics.  You may very well be more expert than I am at this.  I have been struggling with social networks for the MSU Libraries and for my own professional identity since 2007—and I mean struggling.   I cannot count how many times Facebook and Twitter have themselves convulsed and grown and re-invented themselves, often with me hanging by my fingernails along the way.  Not only that, but the Libraries and even I have done the same in the last four years—changing what we would like to be, how we would like to be seen, even our goals in the use of these tools.

And they are tools.  Tools you may not even need, or that may not be appropriate for you or the companies or organizations you represent.  My one guiding principle is to know about it, know about everything, experiment with anything plausible, but don’t implement anything unless there is a demonstrated need or goal.  Flat out.  There is no sense wasting time and resources on something that isn’t going to be used.  In fact, it could be detrimental.  A sad and static Facebook or Twitter page can be worse than not having one at all.

So….you have decided Facebook and/or Twitter are the place to be.  You have someone who is engaged and energetic and committed to entering into these relationships.  And they are relationships, with all that entails.  They take time and thought and creativity and investment.

The first thing to do is to begin to brand yourself.    Find a “username” that represents you that you can use across the internet in any social network you join.  For example, MSU_Libraries or AmandaClay or SBCoffeehouse.  In Facebook, it’s easier.  You can use whatever name you’d like—but make it searchable.  Make the name discoverable and simple.  You will be able to create a vanity URL for Facebook that identifies you—but at this point lots of them are taken.  Use a search engine like to find which ones are taken and make yours symmetrical across the web.  This is important for several reasons.  1) Findability.  People will expect that once they know your identity in one place, it will be the same in other places. 2) Search results.  This will create “ownership” over this term.  For example, if you search “AmandaClay” or “Amanda Clay Powers”, I am in most of the results.  For “Amanda Clay Powers” I am in all the results for the first eight pages.

The second thing is to decide who you want to be.  You will experiment in the beginning, and you will have your blue eyeshadow period.  Your mother will not be there to wipe it off for you on the way out the door this time, though, so begin cautiously.

Your page or pages can be “static”—I’d call it Web 1.5.  Web 1.0 was the web before RSS, blogs, comments on news articles, Facebook, Twitter, etc.  If you make yourself interesting enough, Web 1.5 can be okay.  You can push information out, become “valuable,” create an identity and a name for yourself based on what you produce.  There is nothing wrong with this, but it is a different thing than jumping into the interactive, relationship-oriented world of Web 2.0.  The “Live Web”—this is the web people talk about moving their lives into—and this is the web where the real riches of brand relationship happen.

They key to Web 2.0 is to jump in to the mix.  Becoming part of a community is about finding your “people” and listening to them.  And then interacting with them.  It will not happen overnight.  This is something that more than any other way of being on the web demonstrates the growth cycle.  You will inevitably start out small.  Small is a great place to be.  This is where you can begin to build you strongest relationships.  In fact, depending on the community you serve, you may not want to be much more than small.  Strange Brew, for example, has a limited community to draw from—they are based in Starkville and circumscribed by coffee drinkers in Starkville that want something more than McDonalds and come to that end of town regularly.  However, they have managed to build a strong brand and community on Twitter—and not by being “professional” in the strictest definition.  SBCoffeehouse has opinions on Twitter, engages with the community, “loves” individual patrons, and knows when finals are.  During finals, frequently they will offer specials that are “instant”—i.e. first come first served.  Or contests with coffee drinks as prizes to engage their base, like coming up with what to put on the sign outside their building.  But the only reason it works is because their base is already listening.  And the only reason they are listening is because SBCoffeehouse listened first.  Created a specific identity that melds with the role of the coffee house in a university town.   They also follow their followers.  And their followers respond.  For the comments they make get just as many responses.  They follow 2010 people and are followed by 2005.  In Starkville, Mississippi, they have built a community of more than 2,000 people.

It is critical in Twitter to follow people back that follow you.  Not only is it considered “good manners” but it is also necessary if they want to send you a “Direct Message.”  We won’t go into the ins and outs of Twitter at this point, but the critical thing to know is if someone addresses you, there is a way for you to separate that flow out from the rest of the 2000+ people’s chatter.  You can use an RSS feed or click directly from within any Twitter application to see them.  You can have it “pushed” to a mobile device so you never miss it.  This is a new feature, but an extremely helpful one—especially with the pervasiveness of mobile tech now.

This feature is also available in Facebook, but Facebook is a different monster than Twitter.  Generally you will choose to create a “Page” in Facebook, which is not interactive in the same way that Twitter is, and in this way they can be symbiotic.  In fact you can have your Facebook posts automatically put on your Twitter page or vice-verse.

There are advantages to Facebook, however.  One of them is analytics.  Another is targeted advertising.  There are certainly services on Twitter that can analyze your Twitter account.  I’ve got a list of them up on my MSU Twitter Guide, but the one I like most is called Klout.  It has nothing on Facebook, however, because people actually put real information about themselves on Facebook, and so you can get actual demographics.

And the point of any of this is to know your audience so that you can be valuable to them.  So you can engage with them.  And finding out what they are interested in is difficult.  Finding out what they are interested in that helps build your brain is the holy grail.  The only way to figure this out is to listen.  One of the features of the newest New Facebook Page is that you can interact on Facebook as the page.   This means you can comment as the Page and you can have your own “feed” composed of Pages you have “liked.”  For us, this is a collection of MSU Pages, so we can know what is going on on campus.  For you it could be competitors—just know whoever it is, they will appear as liked Pages on your Page.

Watch your stats (Insights in FB Page talk) and see where they are coming from, who are they—ages are easiest, what they respond to.   In my experience, it is notices about hours or library information, then pictures of themselves for the Libraries’ Facebook Page first, but anything interactive is good too.  This is dangerous because you have to hope someone is going to respond.  There is nothing worse than posing a question or asking for involvement and hearing nothing back.  This, however, is just part of the growth process.  You will make mistakes.  Respond to them as quickly as you can, with humor if possible.  Transparency is key–be real.

To sum up, these are some of the current “best practices” for creating, growing and managing identities as a business in a social network.  Branding yourself, choosing your goals, listening, interacting, and adding value are the ways you can create and grow an identity in a social network.  Not all social networks are the same.  Twitter has different value, reach and purpose than Facebook.  There are other social networks that are valuable as well—investigate and listen.  Find out where your customers are and if a tool will be valuable.  Experiment and be willing to grow.  Growth can mean failure.  Transparency is key—respect your community and they will respect you.

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