How I learned to stop worrying and love social media

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“Does anybody have any questions for my answers?”

Henry Kissinger, the man who would bookend secret trips to China with appearances at Beltway cocktail parties to throw off reporters, once famously asked the above question during a press conference.  While funny, it’s indicative of the most extreme communications mindset (and one that often needs softening) in which not deviating from the talking points is paramount.

For those who subscribe to this line of thinking, the world of social media is a scary place indeed.  When everyone is now a producer, and not just a consumer, of news, anything you say can be twisted, contextualized, mocked, and repeated more easily than ever.  It’s understandably difficult for so many who were taught to control the narrative as much as possible to embrace it.

One of the best – or worst – things about social media is that even the most mundane things can take on a whole new life of their own.  This notably happened in November when Boston Phoenix columnist David Bernstein asked in a tweet

What would be on your list of Boston/Mass/New England “Intangible Cultural Heritage” items?

He then added a brand new hashtag to the end of it, #MAHeritage.  He says he expected it to produce a couple suggestions from his friends and followers, but, as he explains, “Twitter being what it is, the thread quickly developed a life, and a definition, of its own.”  As more and more people began tweeting using the hashtag, more of their followers saw what was going on and started joining in the fun.  Soon hundreds of tweets an hour were pouring in.

On the day it was first used I think I set a personal record for the most tweets sent in an afternoon, and now, more than a month later, it’s still active.  People continue to contribute suggestions, tweeting anything that contributes to our collective sense as Bostonians and New Englanders.  Some of my favorites include the TV38 New Year’s Eve Three Stooges marathon, 13,909, the Enchanted Village, and the Citgo sign.

It’s a brave new world when one little 140 character message can spark off a conversation that stretches across an entire region, but it represents an opportunity for businesses to extend their brands to new and untapped markets.  Fortune 100 companies recognize this, and most have at least one employee working full time on social media.  In fact, jobs in social media seem to be one area where companies are hiring despite an economy where roughly 10% of the population is still out of work.

It’s not always clear what will cause a social media meme to go viral, but if you can find that special magic (or hire someone who can) it’s worth it’s weight in gold.  At the very least, you will be more engaged with your clients, customers, prospects, and peers.  In an on demand, uber-customizable world, having an ear a little closer to the ground than the next guy can be the difference between falling by the wayside and vaulting to new heights of success.

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