Several years ago, when we first started to see social media take the stage, I jumped right in with both feet and never looked back. I was fortunate to be an early adopter – I say fortunate, because that means that most of my mistakes in using social media were seen by only a few people early on. I got to learn the lingo and understand the norms for each of the platforms before I was connected with hundreds or thousands of people.
When I speak about social media, I still recommend playing around on the platforms first to understand how to use them. But today, I want to talk about the incredible importance of listening first when you join a new platform (and this advice goes for even the savviest social media user, since every platform has its own unique style).
To give you a little background, before I switched my major to computer science, I was an anthropology major, and ended up minoring in it. I LOVE anthropology, and what really ignited my passion for it was the work I did in linquistic anthropology, which is defined as:
the interdisciplinary study of how language influences social life"
Most people consider linguistic anthropology as the study of endangered languages, or foreign languages, but what I loved (and love) about it was studying how various industries have their own lexicon and norms – my favorite assignment was the paper I wrote dissecting the strategic plan our college had published, which had a far more business-oriented than education-oriented tone. The paper I turned in was actually twice as long as the assignment, because I was so enthralled with the subject.
So I suspect that’s one of the things I love about social media – the individual cultures that each platform creates. We’re all like our own little societies, with our own languages (think "connections" on LinkedIn, "likes" on Facebook, and Twitter, with its tweets, retweets, and more) and our own norms. The norms are where we can get ourselves into trouble, and is reason #1 why listening first is so important.
Each of the platforms has its "enforcers," those people who have self-appointed themselves as the keepers of the rules, who will smack down anyone who makes a mistake (well-intentioned or otherwise). If you listen first, you’ll get a sense of what the rules are, and you’ll be less likely to break one – it’s not critical if you do break a rule (other than in those cases where you might do something to severely damage your brand or reputation), but it can hurt your social media equity. We’ve talked a little bit about social equity before, which is "the perceived value of individual, organization, or brand reputation and following online."
There are a couple of tried and true things that boost your social media equity across all platforms:
- Sharing more of others’ content than your own.
- Engaging with people and not just broadcasting.
- Thanking people for sharing your content.
And each of the platforms will have their no-no’s as well. So to get the best sense of what these are, when you’ve staked your social media real estate (that’s what we call it when you register for a site and make sure you’ve got your username – preferably your actual name), sit for a little while and listen to what’s out there. You’ll have to connect to people to do that, but it’s a good first step.
The other reason for listening first is to get a sense of who the "players" are in the field. It’s like joining a new firm – when you walk in the door the first day, there might be that guy who greets you and takes you under his wing. He seems great, but it might turn out that he’s the same guy that everyone else in the office hates. Maybe he’s the office gossip, or the one who’s always trying to make himself look busy without actually being busy. In short, he’s the one you don’t want to align your reputation with, because you’ll be painted with the same brush.
As with most things, online networking is the same – there will be people on social media who may seem to say all the right things, and do all the right things, but just because they know how to use a hashtag doesn’t make them an expert (or the person you want to associate yourself with). And sharing their content, or engaging regularly with them (especially if you give them a lot of credit), can make you look foolish or out of touch.
One of the biggest concerns I hear from my attorneys is that it’s hard to tell online who actually has the expertise that they’re claiming to have – and that’s absolutely true. It’s also true that when you go to a cocktail party, you may meet someone very slick who says all the right things, but similarly doesn’t actually have the expertise to back that up.
That’s why listening is important, as is biding your time. With a bit of experience, you start to understand who the "experts" really are, and who is just claiming to be one of them. You’ll see who is genuine about their use of social media, and who is really just gaming the system to boost their own reputation.
As with your offline reputation, you want to take care with your online reputation, and two tried and true ways for doing this both have listening as their focus.
- Listen first to get a sense of what the unwritten rules of the platform are – these will be different on each one, and what’s appropriate on Twitter will not necessarily be appropriate on LinkedIn.
- Listen first to understand who the important people are – both in your industry area, and in social media in general. The "social media experts" are important online, because they’ll keep you up to date on what the new technologies and trends are, so you don’t have to do the work yourself. A general rule of thumb here is that if someone refers to themselves as a social media "expert" or "guru," they aren’t.
We all need to take a step back once in a while and make sure the people that we’re engaging with are the people that we want to be associated with. Your reputation will often precede you professionally, but online, you have the opportunity to start from scratch in many cases. Make sure that as you build your network, you’re building it with the right people and the right content.