Marketers spend a lot of time, energy, and money building their social networks to connect with, engage, and share information with followers. How much should you invest in a platform and measure what you’re getting out of it?
Today, my guest is Shonali Burke, founder and leading instructor of Social PR Virtuosa and president and CEO of Shonali Burke Consulting. She encourages marketers to think about their social networks as a social community and shares how to connect with your social community to add value and meaning to your network, product, or service.
Eric: Social media. It can be frustrating sometimes. Marketers, I’m not going to lie to you. We spend all this time and energy around building our social networks, on increasing the number of followers we have, in the hopes that then we could share our thought leadership, we could create some one-on-one connections and engage with them, and of course, along the way share some product and service information that we have. But of course, algorithms change and sometimes it can feel frustrating even to get in front of the followers we actually do have without putting some money behind it, at least.
I think, for a lot of marketers that has us at a head-scratching moment around how much energy do I invest in this platform and how do I measure what I’m getting out of it. That’s the focus of today’s Actionable Marketing Podcast. My guest, Shonali Burke, talks all about it. She is the founder and lead instructor of the Social PR Virtuoso, she is the President and CEO of Shonali Burke Consulting, and she sits at the intersection of public relations and social media. She has found a way to really think about our social networks as a social community. The magic is, the secret sauce is, how do you motivate and build that social community, engage them and rally them around a movement, rally them around a story, something that they will connect with, that adds added value and meaning to your network, your product, or your service.
It’s a fascinating conversation. Oh, and by the way, how do you measure the return on that effort? Good topics and something we’ll dive into. In a really cool, surprising twist, we do this podcast absolutely live in front of a studio audience. We had a social media conference in town and we recorded it. Shonali was the keynote presenter. So, we just did it! Boom, live right on the stage. It’s fantastic energy. I know you’ll love the podcast, I know you’ll love Shonali. It’s a great, great episode.
My name is Eric Piela. I’m the Brand and Buzz Manager here at CoSchedule, and your host of the Actionable Marketing Podcast. Without further ado, let’s get AMP'ed!
Alright, ladies and gentlemen! Welcome to another episode of the Actionable Marketing Podcast. Now we’ve done 130 of these episodes and we are doing something for the first time we’ve never done before. We are recording this podcast in front of a live studio audience. Can I hear you audience? Love it. Very excited to be here, too. We’re having some fun, we’re trying something brand new, we are actually at my alma mater at Minnesota State University Moorhead, and we are actually here for Social Media Day.
We’ve brought our next guest on the show, Shonali Burke, and she’s going to talk to us about building social community. And part of that process, I think what we also want to do is understand how I think social media has become a platform for all, hoping to embrace or already embracing, but everyone scratches their head, “Am I doing this right?”
We’re going to ask Shonali a couple of questions on how we can really figure out and leverage this platform the right way. Shonali was the keynote of today’s event but our listeners didn’t hear you. If you could, to start, maybe give a little bit about your background and how you fell into the PR world and social media space?
Shonali: Sure, Eric. And thank you so much to you and to CoSchedule for hosting me and also being here at Social Media Day. This has been so much fun. It’s just been such a terrific day, so thank you everyone, especially everybody who came back after lunch.
Eric: Am I right?
Shonali: I literally did fall into social media and PR. My background, I think I mentioned during the opening keynote that by training, I am a economist and an actress. I didn’t mention the economist part but I mentioned the actress part. My first premiere was on stage, a little bit in TV, and I used to be on the radio and stuff. Then after I move to the US, I’ve done some PR in India and also worked in events management.
Quite frankly, I just did not want to start at the bottom all over again. I was like, “What can I do?” So, I networked my way into a job at a boutique PR firm in San Francisco, that coincidentally, or not coincidentally because I firmly do not believe in coincidences anymore. Everything is planned. Everything is planned, people. It just depends on how you move your feet which is why it’s so important to keep your feet moving.
The agency did PR marketing for Bay Area engagements to prompt these shows. I was like, “Woah, you should come and do an informational interview with us.” I have no clue what an informational interview was. In India back then, you bring forth an interview and you got a job or you didn’t. It’s that simple. It just kind of went from there.
So, moved to San Francisco, started in PR over there, got really interested in measurement and at the same time, met Katie Paine who I know you are very familiar with, and who has since become a great friend of mine. I moved to DC a few years later and been there ever since. It was really at the ASPCA when I was writing PR for them.
By then, we were already experimenting with social media, so people talk about how, do you remember MySpace? And the aid was big in MySpace at the time. That’s where we were really seeing a lot of community being generated through the social space. This is relatively, if you think about it, we’re talking 2005–2006. The journey just kind of went from there, it’s been amazing not just for my career but on a personal level, the connections that I’ve been privileged to make and the people that I get to meet and I get to come with places like Fargo.
Eric: Yeah. We’re happy to have you here.
Shonali: Me too.
Eric: You’ve got a career now. You’re the founder of the Social PR Virtuoso, you got your professor at John Hopkins University, and you have a consulting firm. You are as steep as you can get into the social media space as well as PR. My title, if you heard, is the Head of Brand and Buzz. We joke around that because my title used to be PR and Community Manager. We joke like it’s kind of traditional PR (dead?) because it’s really transformed for sure. Maybe my first question is, what is public relations look like in 2019 and how has it changed really in maybe the past five years?
Shonali: I think the perception of public relations unfortunately has not changed, which is that it is primarily media relations, it is publicity, it is spin, and it’s flack. And that pisses me off. Can I say that? I just did #SorryNotSorry. Hey, it’s not for lunch. What do you expect me to do? It’s like five o’clock somewhere.
Eric: We can put the explicit icon. We’re good.
Shonali: Unfortunately, that has not changed and I don’t think it’s going to change regardless of all the angst and drama that we made common friends that we have. If we go for a drink after this, we’ll be like, “Oh, you know so and so?” And, “You know so and so?” That’s how it works. But, I do feel that the implementation of true public relations which is, as Deirdre Breakenridge and Brian Solis in their way, way, wayback time machine book. What is it? Putting the People Back in Public Relations?
Eric: That sounds right, yup.
Shonali: It really is about that. If you remember that public relations, to take PR at face definition is about building and maintaining mutually beneficial relationships with your publics, then how do you do that? You get to the heart of who somebody is, what is important to them, and how does your product, or service, or offering help fulfill that need and bring them value. That is public relations.
The implementation of it, unfortunately, keeps getting pulled back into the media relations bucket. I’m not saying media relations is not important. It’s very important. But, it is not the only thing that contributes to smart public relations. That, to me, is the huge gap that, unfortunately, I don’t think is going to change. But that’s why we created the Social PR Virtuoso, where you really integrate social in a strategic way as opposed to you slapping on top of it icing on a really not-so-good cake, and see really how you could use it to improve people’s lives.
Eric: That’s interesting. I think, maybe some of the things that I’ve seen, at least we used to at CoSchedule was we basically integrated our PR team and our social team to be one team. I think sometimes in maybe classic organizations, there are two separate teams. One is promoting content and trying to initiate engagement and the other one is trying to write, tell the story, and get the media placement and other things. Are you seeing that? Is that a natural marriage between social media and PR? Are you seeing a trend with the clients you work with, who are taking that initiative?
Shonali: I think the clients who work with me drink that Kool-Aid. I’m not selling any other Kool-Aid. If you want to work me, that is the Kool-Aid there is going to be.
Eric: That’s how it’s going to be. Sure.
Shonali: It’s going to be measurable and I’m sorry you’re not going to get to tell me that you didn’t go to school for math. #JustSaying
Eric: That’s a lot of hashtags. I like it.
Shonali: I’m the hashtag queen, honey. I do see greater willingness to adopt that approach. But I think that goes beyond just looking at PR and social media marketing. That starts to speak to company culture. Then we’re getting into a whole other series of discussions there. Again, if you think about Dell, for example, they did this a long time ago. Remember with their war room and stuff? I’m sure people were doing it but Dell had the platform with which to share it. People learned about this amazing stuff that Dell was doing, “Oh, look at what Dell’s doing.” That was way after the Dell, do you remember that Steven, “Dude, get a Dell.” Sorry, I don’t know why that—
Eric: It’s a throwback. #Throwback
Shonali: #Throwback. So, long answer to your short question, yes, companies are seeing it as a trend, but again, I don’t think it’s really going to change unless a company culture changes. And that is truly where change needs to be in.
Eric: Sure. Makes sense. Maybe let’s get into the meat of the interview. I know for the listeners who are listening to the podcast, didn’t have an opportunity to hear your keynote. But you gave a lot of good examples about how to think about social media to leverage it to grow authentic communities. You had some great examples with the Blue Key. Example, another one I believe was around, what was the first one with [...]? How did I forget that?
But I think a lot of us, at least myself in a room, I’m like, “Gosh, Shonali, I don’t work for a non-profit. I actually work for a Software as a Service company and I’m trying to get people excited on social media about our marketing tool.” Or there’s people out here who were like, “I want to get people excited about tractors.” Or whatever your product or service it is, if you’re listening right now or in the audience like, “How can I use social media to build a community about what I want to talk about?”
If you don’t have this higher purpose that everyone would rally around, that’s maybe a bit more—for lack of a better word—corporate-y, how do you go about trying to build community when something that’s not quite as inspirational as a social movement or around a charity or non-profit?
Shonali: First I would challenge you to reconsider the fact of what you said about companies that may be working in Software as a Service, or tractors, heavy equipment, nuts and bolts or whatever, as not having a higher purpose, because what about just stepping back and saying, “Why are we here to begin with? What is the purpose of CoSchedule?” You’re making people’s lives easier and ultimately every product or service that succeeds makes people’s lives better.
Why does this scheme work? Because it makes life easier. Why do I use a Mac instead of a PC? Because it makes life easier and it’s more fun. Makes life easier, it’s more fun, it removes the pain to some extent or to a greater extent, and it is more effortless than using another product. Let’s face it, we’re lazy people. The people lazy. We want to do what is going to get us the quickest results or once it’s going to get us results in the quickest time possible with the least effort expended. Right?
Shonali: If you’ll look at anything you’re doing, I would encourage all of you to do this, or who are listening here live today as well as to the show, think about what you’re doing from that lens. Literally, you could do a version of a SWOT Analysis, just make a full quadrant, label them with those kind of ideas, and think, “How is my product or service fulfill any of these quadrants?” If it does, boom. That’s your mission statement. Because once you have your mission statement, then you know how you’re making people’s lives better and you tell them. It’s literally that simple.
Eric: Sure. I think we all get lost in what our part does or you’re on two sides. Maybe you love what you’re doing, you’re overzealous about how great your product is. We’re all marketers, that’s part of our job. Or two, you don’t necessarily think there’s a story there to be told. But your staying there could have been a story to be told and maybe look to what you provide for your customers. Do you find talking with your actual customers and hearing their stories is a great place to start? To figure out what that community might look like and the impact they’re actually having on your customer’s laps?
Shonali: I think there are at least two places to go when you’re looking for stories. One is definitely to the customers. If you’re asking them what works, how has it helped them, those are the obvious stories but also one of their pain points because that helps you improve that product. That ends up making for much more engaged story when you say, “Well, this is what we heard and here is how we fix it. Here is a better product.” Now you just literally build your ambassadors into that as well because customer XYZ, “He took my suggestion. I’m going to tell everybody how he took my suggestion.” Suddenly you just got yourself some “free PR,” right?
Shonali: But then the other really important place to look for stories is on the inside. Why did the founder or founders start the company? What’s in their background or customer story that led them to do it? Who’s our friend who founded Nimble? John, you know what I’m talking about. But he has a great personal story. Every single startup founder, entrepreneur, anyone—forget about successful people; let’s face it, not everyone’s “successful”—everybody has a story. What lead them to do what they do to create something, to provide that service specifically, and we just talk to them to find out.
When you are talking to your founders, your employees, why do the employees chose to work there? You’re with CoSchedule. Why do you choose to work there? Because everything we do is a choice. I don’t buy this, “Oh, I don’t have a choice.” No, you do. You do have a choice. You just suck it up and complain about it or you can actually enjoy the choice that you have made. If it doesn’t work for you, then change it. You can always change it.
I think those are the two most important places are to find your stories are from your founders, your employees, and then of course, your customers. By observing those stories, telling them with permission when necessary, letting people know you are going to tell their stories and you would appreciate their help in sharing. You can’t force them but you can ask nicely. What’s the worst thing that can happen? They’ll say no. And then suddenly you have this army of storytellers who are telling a story for you.
Eric: Hey this is a fun one, I hope you’re enjoying the conversation with Shonali. It’s just really cool doing this in front of a live audience. I hope you’re enjoying the conversation and the energy in the room. While I have you on break here, I would love it, if you enjoy the Actionable Marketing Podcast, please go out to iTunes and give us a rating and review. But before you hit submit, take a screenshot of that, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will hook you up with some CoSchedule swag as to thank you for doing so. I’ll really appreciate it. Alright, that’s all I got. Let’s get back to our conversation with Shonali.
You’re listening around and you’re like, “Okay. Maybe I have an idea or a story that I want to tell that I think would be worth telling.” What’s the first step, Shonali? It almost seems intimidating to take this risk of energy, resources, and potentially dollars to say, “Okay, now I need to try and activate our audience and build this community.” Is it an outreach? Is it as simple as like, “Hey, reach out to your social network” and be like, “Hey, this is what we’re going to be doing.” Do you reach out to the media and say, “Hey, we’re going to do this.” Is this maybe newsworthy to try and get some traction that way?
The hardest part is getting the wheel turning, I think. If there’s one piece of advice you could give them to take that first risk and that first step to try and build some of that community, what would it be?
Shonali: That’s a great question and I think number one, except I’ll probably give you a much longer answer. That’s right, I give long answers to the questions. But I think you have to know why you’re asking them to do it. What are you asking them to do and why, and why should they do it? The case of the Blue Key for example, we knew what people are asking them to do, which was buy a key for $5 and write a blogpost. We could explain why it was so important because it would help create awareness, ultimately other refugee issue, we tried more people to the Blue Key website, and ultimately grow the organization's email. It’s not just about tweets and likes, right? Come one, it’s over email. It’s always about email, people. It is always going to be about email. Always. Always.
You have to tell them what you are asking them to do, why it’s important, and then why are you asking them to do it. Why do you think they are so special and unique? Because they are. If they are, it worked to you as community members or community ambassadors, brand evangelists, influencers, whatever name you want to give it. It’s all a version of the same thing.
Why are you asking them to do it? That goes back to your brand persona, your research, all of that, which you may or may not have done. Sometimes, people don’t have a chance or the luxury of time to do all of that research and you’re going on your gut. Your gut is never wrong. That’s not a lot take to the board room. At least you could begin, you can implement for a few weeks, a month, two months test, have a benchmark and say, “Okay, here’s what happened when we’re doing nothing. Here’s what happened in three weeks, or a month, or six weeks when we did one thing. Here’s what happened in the next three weeks when we did two things. Oh my goodness! Look at how the label changed.”
Essentially, you just set up a benchmark and you may not even have a control at the time. But at least, you’ve done one basic crown of benchmarking and then when something works, you have data that you can then take back to your supervisor, and make some cases to the board and say, “Okay, we know that data show that this works.” Most of the time people won’t argue with data until it’s their granddaughter who’s on Snapchat, and then they want to be on Snapchat because their granddaughter is in Snapchat and then, “Forget about the data.”
Eric: It’s funny you bring up Snapchat. The reason this is so interesting at building social community because I think marketers have a way of just bastardizing every channel we can. It comes out like, “How can we use it make money out of it?” We infect every great channel and we can find a way to mess up Snapchat somehow, still. But always social media marketers’ organic reaches just become abysmal. It’s a pay to play space.
Community is like, “Hey, I can leverage other’s voices to help tell my story.” That’s the power of community, running around a story, and then knowing that they’re going to help amplify your story. That’s the holy grail is in this pay to play world of social media. How can I enable and activate this followership through that meaningful story and giving them purpose and passion around it of the things talked about?
One of the things that I used to hear when I worked from the agency but I hear now at CoSchedule is how do I measure the ROI (Return on Investment) which has been the biggest question for PR since day one? I’m going to put energy and resources in this and so my boss would then say, “Okay Eric, go for it.” But I want to see how is this going to impact my bottomline? How is this going to impact us? What do I measure?
For all of those maybe who are listening in the room saying, “Okay, I’m going to convince my CEO, or my boss, or my marketing director, whoever it is, I want to invest time, energy and try to build in the social community,” what do you suggest? I’m sure it probably varies by the goal but how can I get some tangible analytics? How can I get some tangible measurables to say, “Hey, here’s the impact or success this has had,” and if I can set the right expectations with management or leadership and you set a benchmark, what are those things I should be keeping my eye on or a pulse on to measure that? I know it’s a loaded question but go with it.
Shonali: Of course, as you said, you nailed it because it comes back to what your goals are. Everybody’s goals is going to be different. Nine times out of ten, you’re starting off with, “Well, how many followers do I have? How many likes do I have?” and then what? Then what? So what? What happens? Where are you sending? How are you directing? How are you redirecting that energy of people pushing the like button or the heart button? What are you doing to get them moving along that path, the customer path that we talked about? What are you doing to bring them into your fold as you convert them into customers, clients, whatever?
I think you do have to go back to having some data. If it is absolutely not possible and, for whatever reason, you’re not even able to spend time on your own, sometimes people do that. They’ll take that personal time and they want to try something, make sure that they’re plugging along with everything else that is approved and in the mandate, but then they will be doing their little test on their own but does not make doubly impact any of their initiatives, and then they have a case to make.
I would be shocked if a supervisor said, “What? You actually spent extra time doing more work to come up with a case to see how you would help us make money? Gosh, darn it.” Who’s going to do that? No one. Not if they’re saint, at least, not if they’re saving business. There’s that. If it is absolutely not possible for you to test something on your own and say, “Hey, here’s what I tried and you think we can test this?” look at what’s happening in the industry and put together your use cases especially for similar organizations. Otherwise it’s pointless, that you know your leadership trusts more or it has an eye on, or they are our competitor.
This is not a for-profit example but it is relevant because it’s the principle or the strategy. When I ran PR for the ASPCA, the biggest competitor, I can’t speak to it now, but from a mind share and donor-donor point of view was a humane society for the United States.
When we had a strategic planning, when we looking at competitors and all of that, obviously that is what would come up. Now we did a lot of really cool things, even if I say so myself—this is going back a long time so if you like you can, plus this has all been documented anyway—but nothing made my CEO, my then CEO happier than if the then CEO of the HSUS called and said, “What are you trying to do to me?” You have to know. Again, it goes back to understanding what makes people tick.
I don’t think there’s anything sleazy about sales. I had to learn this, especially as I was working towards launching my online program and I’ve learned more about that space. Sales is adding value to people’s lives if we what we’re providing them truly fits the need. You’re helping them solve a problem. But you have to understand what that problem is. You have to be listening for what people want to know, what they’re talking about, and see how your product matches up which is with the listing tools and dashboards and all of that come in which is why those are so important. I think a lot of time for people don’t see the forest or the trees.
Eric: Right. Andy Crestodina said that most of the time, the easier the metric is to measure and find, sometimes the less significant it is. I think a lot of marketers and social media experts, we get really excited when we see the likes, we see shares, and we see retweets. It gives us adrenaline rush.
I think there’s also that they can sometimes be vanity metrics that we get really excited about, but we have to go back as to what is the actual goal? Am I really trying to get an action beyond a retweet? Am I trying to get a landing page a visit? Am I trying to get and email subscription? Am I trying to get someone to sign up? I’m sure you have comments on that but that’s one thing that I typically see is, sometimes getting excited about maybe the wrong measurable.
Shonali: Oh gosh, all the time. And thank you for saying that and bringing me back to the actual question that you asked that I didn’t even answer, which is exactly that. What are you actually trying to achieve? What are the outcomes? What are your business KPIs, your business key performance indicators that you need to tie your marketing metrics to? Because that is what anybody cares about at the C-level. That’s what anybody cares about at the leadership level.
I think it’s really important to have your tracking mechanism in place but then you’ve got to know what your tracking. You know what I was talking about, the Blue Key example. I didn’t have time to share it in the keynote but essentially, what we were trying to achieve, from an outcome point of view, was that goal of 6000 keys by the end of that year. The point of that was not just to sell keys but to use it as an email opt-in mechanism, to grow the email file so that you can then put people into the email marketing loop and build sustaining doors. That’s what it always comes back to. That’s what it comes down for for-profit organizations, too. We’re just using different terminology.
What we did when we went out with our various initiatives, whether it was the blogpost that we have to champion strike or whether it was the Twitterthons that we started doing. The Twitter apps that people started hosting in conjunction with other organizations. The newsletter had distinct tracking URLs that we generated through Google Analytics and then just simply shortened—at the time we used Google URL shortener—to see what was impacting the traffic and then we already knew from traffic to conversions what was going on. That was one of the slides that I showed with the Pipedrives [...]. It just comes back to that. What are you trying to achieve? What are the actual outcomes that are going to make sense from a business point of view?
Yes, a lot o the times its sales, donations, and so on but the revenue can also grow when you are being more efficient, I mean you’re cutting cost. As you were talking earlier, maybe think of Jim Sterne’s book, Social Media Metric, which is one of the greatest books ever. Honestly, most business books are crap but Jim is a great writer and if you read one book, I recommend that you should read his. He has this really cute little Venn Diagram and it’s basically three things that any business is trying to do. Increase revenue, lower costs, improve customer satisfaction. Two are obvious, the revenue and the lowering of costs, but if you’re increasing customer satisfaction, then you’re being more efficient in how you maintain customers which makes it more likely that you will spend less money on acquiring new customers, which helps you be more efficient with cost and make more money. That’s what it comes down to.
Eric: Great. We’re kind of wrapping up the podcast here. What do you see as the most common mistake that either PR professionals or social media strategist or the executioners are doing? I’m sure with your consulting you see a misconception, maybe it’s a wrong way of executing or maybe it’s even at the get-go not thinking through the strategy. What is one pitfall that you would recommend marketing practitioners that they should avoid before going into this social community building?
Shonali: I think you nailed it when you said not enough thinking about the strategy, they just get really tactical. It’s all about the shiny tools, the editorial calendar, and then, “Who are we going to get to blog?” and, “Oh my God, now we have to do a podcast.” Why? They’re not asking the question why. I think if you just pull a little back and say, “Why are we doing this? How is this going to change anything? How is this going improve our personal lives? How is this going to improve the business? How is this going to help bring value?” It’s not an easy question to answer necessarily but it’s a really, really good one to actually begin the process.
Eric: Absolutely. This is great. Shonali, for the listeners on the podcast, if they want to learn more about you, learn more about your expertise, where should they go? Where can they find more information about some of your thought leadership?
Shonali: Probably the best place for anyone to begin their journey down the rabbit hole with me is my website, shonaliburke.com.
Eric: Fantastic. Thanks so much for coming on the show, and MSU, thanks so much for letting me host this podcast in front of this live studio audience. Everyone say goodbye to our listeners.
Shonali: Thank you so much.