Social media: What service can you provide?

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Ask any of the thousands of so-called social media experts on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn what social media is all about, or eavesdrop on any of the social media panels held over the past three or so years, and you’re likely to hear a regurgitation of the same information:

  • Social media is about engagement!
  • Social media is about building a community!
  • Social media is about talking with your customers, readers, viewers, beverage consumers, etc.!
  • Social media is a two-way avenue where the brand is human and the customers are listened to!

Saying “social media is about engagement!” is kind of obvious. It’s like saying “telephones are for communicating by voice through distance!” It doesn’t need to be said anymore — we get it — yet so-called social media experts (social pundits, I call them) continue to offer the same advice.

All of those things — “engagement” and “community” and “being a human being instead of a robot” — are supposed to get you more likes, followers, brand engagement, a higher Klout score or something else that we in the social media world still haven’t figured out how to monetize.

Amid the buzz words on panels, in blogs and on LinkedIn profiles of “engagement!” and “community!” is one I haven’t heard a lot of, one that should be a buzz word that we embrace, and that concerns me.

“Social media is about providing a service!”

We like to say that social platforms are about engagement and talking with customers and building a community. But how many of us regularly interact with our customers, readers, viewers on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and Google Plus? Unless you work for a brand that offers customer support through social platforms, I’d argue that engagement between a brand, its community managers and its audience is pretty slim (not for a lack of trying though). Staffs are small and there just aren’t enough hours in the day to constantly engage with tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, of fans.

If you can provide a service, however, your audience is likely to stick around and recommend you to their network. Some brands have been providing a service offline for years — if Apple were to join Twitter tomorrow, it’d likely have hundreds of thousands of followers in one day (if not more). That’s because Apple has been providing a service to its customers for years, and the company carries with it brand recognition. It’s also why NBC News journalist Brian Williams, who is verified on Twitter, has almost 100,000 “followers” though he’s never published one tweet.

Like Apple, Williams has provided an offline service for years. People who like his offline brand will follow him online, even if he never engages, never holds a conversation, never attempts to build a community.

The idea of success by providing a service to your audience holds true for every brand and every individual on every social platform. The problem many of us face as digital journalists who don’t have a TV show or a popular column in a newspaper is how to build an online identity on social platforms that is both sought after and sticky.

The successful digital journalists who built an online network empire without the backing of an already-established brand achieved success by providing a service that was wanted and not being offered, or by providing a service better than what was already being offered. For example, there are a lot of journalists online who use social platforms to break news, but those who have built an audience around their service did so because the service they offer is unique.

The network I built around Facebook and Twitter came from breaking news with raw data and multimedia content. Two years ago, nobody was publishing court documents from the Tucson Shooting on Scribd and home videos of the Japan earthquake/tsunami on YouTube as “breaking news.” Nobody was tutoring journalists and brands on how to mine the Internet for that kind of content either. I filled both of those spots on Facebook and Twitter, while providing news content and tutorials on a third platform that wasn’t fully being exploited by news brands and journalists: Tumblr.

The result? Almost 10,000 followers on Twitter and around 7,500 subscribers on Facebook to date. People who stuck around, shared the content I pushed out with their network and, eventually, helped land me two jobs. None of that would have happened if people did not think I provided some kind of a service that they wanted. For some journalists and news organizations, it was content that they later reused or borrowed. For news junkies, it was raw data.

Do I engage with my audience? Sure! Do I have conversations with those who follow me? Absolutely. But I wouldn’t have an audience to engage and have conversations with if it weren’t for first providing some kind of service that they both wanted and needed.

Although, if all else fails, you could try giving this a shot. (TheOatmeal.com)