I was about to go through a process where I would quit following over 450 people. I had face-to-face relationships with some of them. I was doing this in the name of being helpful.
A few years back I wrote an article that continues to resonate. It’s read, tweeted, facebooked and spread around. It’s about what happens when you exchange the “content strategy” and “social media engagement strategies” for a simple basic practice: being helpful.
Following this practice will result in business social media use that is reliably meaningful. It doesn’t go stale or require enormous investments of time and money to begin and maintain. Nor does it require that your social media team be made up of “rockstars” or other high-charisma personalities.
Since this basic practice doesn’t go stale it is something that you can explore and improve; it’s a skill you can develop instead of a checklist you throw away.
You don’t have to be “engaging” anymore.
For the hardened businessperson it may sound trite to focus on being helpful. For those who mistake plans for strategy, replacing their content plan or checklist with “being helpful” might seem dangerous or unfocused.
Let’s be clear though: I’m not talking about unicorns and rainbows. I’m talking about developing the systems and skills to have a meaningful impact on others. I will provide some examples of ways to measure results as well.
The practice I’m going to describe is more hardened than most “cut-throat” sales schlopp. It achieves more strategic objectives than posting X times per day, including a picture in every third post, and ending each post with a question.
The purpose of this basic practice is to generate goodwill, identify and wisely participate in social markets, and to move your business objectives forward.
If you work these principles and you aren’t getting those three things then this practice doesn’t work. Note that it isn’t that “you aren’t doing it right.” If you don’t get those results then the practice itself doesn’t work.
What I describe below isn’t for everyone. It is real work.
There are six fundamentals to this practice. Let’s examine them.
Fundamental #1: Have some specific real-world experience (or perhaps a product) that is helpful.
In order to be helpful to other people there’s a pre-requisite, something you need first. It is either an experience or a thing or an experience with a thing. Notice that this isn’t too complicated. It’s just three options.
If you are working for a business the “thing” might be your product.
It’s important to note that what will be helpful will be your direct experience, not what you read about something on a blog post once when you couldn’t get to sleep. But actual detailed experience that you can recall and describe. Ideally, your experience should include the outcome of what you did or what the thing turned out to be.
If you don’t have this, then spend time going out and getting it.
Fundamental #2: Follow actual people (as opposed to Brandbots, Selfbots, etc)
In the early stages of exploring a new tool or social network it makes sense to follow a wide variety of people and brands. But eventually those early exploratory stages come to an end and you know enough about the tool to use it with some degree of proficiency.
When that moment arrives stop following Brandbots, Selfbots or other accounts which don’t exhibit “humanlike” behavior. Allowing these extraneous accounts to occupy space in your feed–and more importantly, in your mind–will waste your time and dilute your efforts.
If you’ve been using social media for any length of time you know exactly what I mean by “waste your time” and “dilute your efforts.”
Humanlike behavior is easy to spot: the account engages in dialogue as often as it simply broadcasts information. Brandbot behavior is very easy to spot as well: the account is simply a feed of links. Selfbots are just like Brandbots but they don’t have links, they just feed information into the social channel with no sincere or meaningful back-and-forth conversation with anyone.
Keep in mind that even though I use the (pejorative) “bot” suffix Brandbots and Selfbots could very well be operated and maintained by a human. In the case of Brandbots the account is likely being maintained by someone following a content “strategy” or else has been put on autopilot (by someone following a content “strategy”).
Selfbots are almost always maintained by a human but one that is perhaps a little self-absorbed or naive. If a Selfbot is automating it’s usually just a re-broadcast of their preferred social channel–a bunch of Facebook links in a Twitter feed is a classic sign of a Selfbot.
The fact that accounts can be operated by either humans or bots regardless of whether the account has a human profile image or a branded profile image is why I encourage you to focus on “humanlike” behavior. It allows you to set aside any prejudice about brands vs people and instead focus on what the account is actually doing.
Many brands, following social media “engagement strategies” (or worse “best practices”), are perfecting the artifice of appearing humanlike while actually being botlike. The easiest of these to spot are social posts that include insincere questions–the account doesn’t care about getting a response, it simply wants its followers to click on something.
Don’t follow any of these sorts of accounts. You can’t truly help them anyway. It is like trying to be helpful to an automated voice messaging system.
The Inevitable Objection: Not every…
For those of you who might raise the objection that some of these Brandbots are useful in the same way as an RSS feed is useful–getting links to interesting articles etc–I feel your pain.
On Twitter, for example, I once followed just over one thousand different accounts. I now follow fewer than 150. I have a method of having cake and eating it too which I will outline later on in this article.
For now though: don’t follow bots. Only follow accounts exhibiting humanlike behavior–accounts that ask sincere questions, accounts that interact with other accounts.
Fundamental #3: Follow people who appreciate being helped.
Once your social stream is cleared of bots you’ll be able to get a clearer sense of the personality in the accounts you follow. Since you aren’t distracted by insincere questions, interesting links and news etc, you’ll be able to know more about what makes different accounts tick.
Ditch the complainers
You will notice that some accounts spend a lot of time complaining. This is normal humanlike behavior. People complain a lot; they let off a little steam. Perhaps it isn’t entirely wise to do so in a public media outlet, but it’s better than bottling it up and exploding later.
Still, that doesn’t mean you have to follow it.
Many businesses, in the name of being “responsive,” have trained social media users to complain more. People who complain on social media get special treatment. How much special treatment and how abusive the complaining account is allowed to be is something many businesses are navigating.
The time they are spending navigating this sort of thing is time that isn’t being spent improving their product or working with customers who appreciate them.
Even if an account is complainy about a variety of topics, don’t follow it. Spending your time with someone who has a generally negative outlook will yield less results than spending an equal amount of time with someone who has a generally positive outlook.
Following complainers on social media encourages them to complain about you. Your own tolerance for how much complaining makes someone a complainer will be different from anyone else’s. But if you notice it then it’s probably too much for you.
The inevitable objection: Not every…
First, if your job is to monitor brand mentions or customer support, definitely use a system to catch and handle customer complaints. Handling customer complaints and feedback is its own initiative and should be handled accordingly.
Second, there’s the humor aspect. Many complainers mask their attitude in irony or satire. This can definitely be funny–humor is often the best way to complain when there is a significant power differential between the complainer and the object of complaint.
But it’s still complaining. It’s still asking for trouble. You’re just asking to be the subject of irony and satire instead of an actual complaint. In many ways it’s worse.
If you enjoy the humor aspect of a complainy account, I have a way of having cake and eating it which I’ll outline towards the end of this article (yep, it’ll be the same method used in handling beneficial bots).
Fundamental #4: Cherish the grateful
Some of the accounts you follow will sometimes express gratitude. You’ll see them thank other accounts. You’ll see them express gratitude.
You could, if you were geeky enough, develop some sort of fancy sentiment analysis algorithm. But frankly you don’t really need that. You can just scan someone’s recent posts and see if they ever express gratitude.
These are accounts you want to stick close to. These are the accounts where you have the potential to do the most good for your strategic objectives.
The reason is that these people already know how to tell other people when something is great. You won’t have to train them or ask them or barter with them for this. They already know how to reward good social behavior.
Goodwill and meaningful interactions are formed with gratitude. You want to increase interactions with people who “get” gratitude in the same way that a business wants to increase interactions with customers who have money.
Fundamental #5: Train yourself to look for the special hashtag that people who want to be helped use.
Once you are following accounts that exhibit humanlike behavior and are noticeably more grateful than complainy, you are ready for the next layer of this social practice.
In order for you to be helpful in a social sense, someone else has to want help. That’s the social part: the someone else. You, of course, want to be helped as well; you want someone to do something helpful for your business.
A gathering place for people who want something is a market.
A good marketer identifies how the help someone else wants or needs aligns with the kind of help a business can provide.
Once upon a time, people would go to a geographic location literally called a “market” because that is where the people who wanted help could get it.
The metaphors of geography and location followed us to the internet where there are certain web “sites” that serve as markets. Ebay, for example, is a market for people wanting help getting rid of stuff and people wanting help buying used stuff.
The social market, however, is a little different. Ecommerce sites are built around market-specific tools: product discovery, product display, financial transactions.
Social media sites are built around communication tools: posts, messages, forums. Social sites themselves aren’t inherently a market.
But there are individual moments when a market arises amid all of the communication occurring on a social site. At that moment there is a social market. The moment could be fleeting or it could last for some time.
Knowing the when a social market exists and when it doesn’t is the difference between ham-fisted bellowing of sales schlopp and advancing your strategic objectives.
The hashtag for people who want to be helped
Luckily there is a hashtag, a special text symbol, that is used whenever a social market moment is initiated by a potential customer. This hashtag is used on every text-driven social network out there, not just Twitter or IRC (the most popular network for and the originating network of hashtags respectively).
It looks like this: ?
That’s right, whenever someone sincerely wants to be helped he or she will use the special hashtag for people who want to be helped–the question mark. It pre-dates Twitter.
It’s older than longitude. People have been doing this since the 1400s or so.
Knowing what to look for takes much of the guesswork out of knowing the moment a social market has arrived. Just look for a question mark. If you see one, a social market is very likely in play.
Since the single best cue you have for knowing when a social market is occurring is the question mark, you now understand why it’s important to stop giving attention to accounts that are insincere in their use of that symbol.
Insincere question marks–a hallmark of brandbots and ironists alike–move your attention away from the real social market. Insincere question marks train you to miss the social market.
Missing the moment a social market occurs isn’t helpful. It isn’t helpful to achieving your business objectives. It isn’t helpful for the person who sincerely wanted help as well. It’s like having a cart-load of vegetables to sell but deciding to listen to the town crier or town fool instead of the people who want to buy vegetables.
The inevitable objection: Not every…
It’s true, not every single question mark in your social feed will mean that a social market has opened up. Even if you’ve eliminated all the Brandbots, Complainers and Ironists.
Sometimes someone who is generally not a complainer will get a streak of complainy in them. Sometimes a brand account that is mostly humanlike will have a streak of Brandbot (perhaps they are trying a new “strategy”).
This is why you’ll need to train a bit on this one. With a little training you’ll quickly spot which question marks indicate the opening of a social market and which question marks are just tossed out there.
This is a skill that you will improve over time. However, even if you’re just beginning you will learn quickly. Remember, asking questions is something humans have been doing for a long time now.
Chances are you’ll have a harder time unlearning whatever you’ve already heard about social media “engagement” than you will in learning to recognize when someone is sincerely asking to be helped.
Fundamental #6 Spot someone looking to be helped.
If you’ve made it this far you’ve already done a significant amount of “real work.” You’ve eliminated noise from your channel, you’ve thought about people you might be able to help, you’ve learned to look for people who are sincerely looking to be helped.
Now all you have to do is show up.
This is the part where things get put into practice. Look through your stream. See the question mark. Evaluate if that question mark indicates a sincere request to be helped. If not, continue on. If it is then you’ve completed this task.
The inevitable objection: Not every…
You can’t always be logged into your social accounts. You will miss some social market moments because of this.
You can build technology tools to help minimize this, but there will always be some moments that are missed because you can’t be social 24/7/365. This basic practice is about being helpful.
It would not be helpful to you if I didn’t say that it’s important for you to have some time of your own as well.
You will not spot all of the social markets available. Sometimes this will be because you didn’t get rid of Brandbots and Humorists. Sometimes this will be because you simply weren’t skilled enough to tell that what looked like an insincere question was, in fact, a sincere question.
These are things you can fix by revisiting the previous fundamentals. This is a practice, not a checklist. Each of these fundamentals are to be practiced continually. You will get better at spotting insincere questions and therefore get better at eliminating Brandbots and other accounts that move you further away from the social market.
As you get better, you will want to revisit each fundamental.
You may not spot all of the social markets because things change. An account that wasn’t a Brandbot gets run by a new person who turns it into a Brandbot. An aspect of the technology might change, making it more challenging for you to spot the hashtag of people who sincerely wish to be helped. Any number of things could change.
When things change, these fundamentals may need to be re-evaluated entirely. The basic practice, however, will remain; being helpful doesn’t go out of style or become out-dated except in very dire circumstances.
As your practice deepens you will be present for more social market moments. Even from the beginning, however, you will be present for more than before you were doing this practice.
My experience with the basic practice of being helpful
There may have been some questions along the way about how one of the fundamentals wasn’t true every time. I’m going to share some of my experiences with applying the fundamentals to my Twitter account that I hope will help you get through these issues.
My experience is based on starting Twitter use fairly early in its run, when there weren’t many people on it. Then a lot of people got on it. The character and nature of the network changed as it transitioned from a geeky early-adopter thing to a more mainstream network.
I learned that the practices I had been following when Twitter was a mostly insider, small group of people weren’t effective once many people–and especially many marketing and news outlets–started using it.
Culling the follow list to improve the stream
At my peak I had followed about 1,000 different Twitter accounts. All of them I had followed because I either knew the people or liked the brand or liked the person’s links. They all had some value to me.
But in aggregate, it was an endless stream of noise. I couldn’t see what was happening with people I could help because they were being drowned out by ironists, news outlets, and people paid to use social media.
I began whittling down my list of people that I follow and I found that every hundred or so people I stopped following made a noticeable difference in my ability to help real people.
If you’ve been on Twitter for awhile and would like to consider whittling down your list of people you follow, maybe the way I did it can help.
First, I simply unfollowed people who weren’t using Twitter anymore. There were a lot of dormant accounts. I went through my list and anyone who hadn’t posted something in at least a month was dropped.
It may seem like a chore to do this but it really isn’t. I just chipped away at it.
While removing the inactives didn’t necessarily make my stream better (they aren’t posting anything, remember), it was helpful for me. I was reminded that there are some people I enjoy connecting with and helping that I was no longer reaching because they weren’t on Twitter anymore really.
I sought those people out in different channels and media where they were more active. For some of them, it turned out that email was a great way to stay in touch.
After the inactives were removed I moved on to the news outlets and brandbots–accounts that simply dumped link after link into the stream. I made lists for these, sorted by the general category of links being posted.
Now, when I want links from really smart people I go to my really smart people list and there are tons of links. In fact, I usually read these items in a different application entirely–Flipboard–so that when I’m in Twitter I don’t even think about this.
I used the same approach with ironists. I just made a category called “humor” and let that hold all of the people who are funny but don’t really need my help with anything.
I also used the list approach to group people in industries I serve but who are unlikely to need my help with anything. These lists end up being sort of like my own trade publications for various industries.
That took care of all the easy accounts to unfollow and by this time I was down to around 600 accounts. My goal was to get to a Dunbar Number of around 150. That meant I would be eliminating 450 accounts that were most likely people and I might even be able to help some of them. But, since I’m just one person, I want to focus on the 150 who are most likely to need and want my help–not just anyone who has a pulse.
My stream was already incredibly improved from when I began. I could have stopped. But I didn’t because I wanted to see if would get better. It did.
I looked through my list and anyone on the list that I communicated with more often via some other channel–email, phone, Facebook–I dropped. I knew I would be able to be helpful in a different channel so I wasn’t terribly worried. This was hard, but it did wonders.
Off-topic and on-topic
I also got more rigorous in my assessment of the kinds of things people posted. I noticed a lot of people spend a lot of time posting about alcohol. Though I enjoy having fun with my friends and clients, I don’t have a lot of help to offer on the topic of alcohol. It isn’t my industry really. So I dropped these accounts.
It doesn’t mean these people aren’t my friends or that I don’t like them. Just that I don’t need to read a lot of posts about a topic that doesn’t interest me.
They were “off-topic” for the kind of social markets where I’m most helpful. You may have a different set of “on-topic” or “off-topic” things than I do. You might have a greater or lesser tolerance for “off-topic.” I dropped this particular group of accounts because they were off-topic for me and I didn’t want to be distracted from things that were on topic.
I didn’t want to miss social markets because I was thinking about how much and what kind of alcohol people are consuming.
I also make an effort to connect with these people in other ways and in other channels where they are more likely to be on-topic.
By the time I went through this phase of culling I made it below 150 accounts. Now, whenever I see a post in my Twitter stream, it’s from someone I have the potential of helping. It’s also from someone who tends to be talking about subjects where I can be helpful. These people are likely to be grateful when others help them.
In addition, my Twitter stream is no longer a constant rush of information. It’s easy for me to keep up with it if I want to. I still can get all the news and industry gossip via my lists when I want to. But my focus is front-and-center on the people I can help.
This “slowing down” of the stream has been wonderful. It also encourages me to be more helpful and more humanlike myself.
Some simple results I’ve had since getting below 150.
Now that I can actually see what’s going on in my Twitter stream I’ve been able to have more useful interaction with people. For example, I noticed that a person I follow, @seanjtaylor was trying to make better coffee with his aeropress.
I don’t have experience with aeropress myself. But I had noticed several days earlier that a friend of mine, Chris Cox aka @CampaignReboot, was becoming a complete coffee scientist. Recognizing that a social market was in play for making better coffee, I simply brokered the meeting of these two people.
They worked it out together. And the end result is that someone learned to make better coffee.
They also expressed their gratitude at having that exchange take place.
In addition, a friend of mine in the town where I live chimed in on the topic. A week or so later I noticed on Facebook that this friend was wondering what to do on his staycation. I suggested he come to my studio and learn how to do stop-motion animation. He offered to teach me about aeropress coffee as well.
So in addition to helping my own “branding” effort with the original coffee-making brokering, I learned about aeropress myself, got some great content for my website, and gave my friend something fun to do for a few hours.
My business objective on Twitter is simply to be helpful, so this was a definite win for me. I have this objective, even though it might seem soft, because Twitter is a great network to establish “thought leadership” and also increase individual branding.
People remember when they are helped. Even if they don’t remember exactly what it was, they remember that something positive is associated with the person who helped them. Eventually these accumulate. People seek me out on Twitter and elsewhere because they know I am helpful–they see it demonstrated.
You might have different business objectives. That’s ok if you do. Simply adjust your focus or target to match your objectives.
If you want to drive more traffic to your website, for example, look for people who need help with the kinds of things your website solves. If you want to expand the reach of your social practice look for people who are interested in hearing and learning about the things you talk about.