Developing a Social Media Strategy for a Small Business

As part of our Social Media and Informatics Course at the University of Alabama, my group created a social media strategy for a small business in Alabama. We were all very excited to be working for a real entrepreneur whose service we found to be interesting and a positive addition to the community. Dog-N-It is a company devoted to “pawsitive,” one-on-one dog training, including preparation for therapy dogs, and its owner wanted specific recommendations for her business as she contemplates the possibilities of a blog, a website, and various social media presences she could work to establish.

My group was excellent. I expected no less, frankly, as I knew three of the members from my graduate school cohort and had seen them in action. They are brilliant, professional women. As soon as we knew we were a group, we began sending out Doodle polls to assess the best meeting times for every member so that we could brainstorm, strategize and plan live in Blackboard. As is appropriate to a course like this, we also used the social media tools within Blackboard (discussion boards, email messaging tools, note files) as well as the more traditional emails and, a couple of times when answers weren’t coming fast enough to meet a deadline, a rare message sent via Facebook. One group member was unknown to us, and we were having some trouble communicating with her, which did make me worry, but in the end we were able to coordinate to create our finished report, which you can read here.

As the client contact, I plan to email the report to the owner of Dog-N-It very soon (as soon as I finish the drive home to Mississippi!), along with a thank you note for the privilege of doing an analysis for her business. We all very much appreciated the fact that this was a real project that would help a real person. It was a motivating factor for all of us — one I personally find much more compelling than just working for a grade and the value of learning, itself. Although I am a big believer in the value of learning for learning’s sake, an abstract notion is sometimes just not very motivational. Helping another person achieve success, helping her business flourish — knowing that business helps dogs and their people thrive and have more fulfilling, happy lives together — well, you cannot beat that!

Every person in our group contributed to this project (me, Kristina, Kate, Julia, and Darcy). Nonetheless, I would like to single out a few group members for special recognition.

First, I’d mention Darcy, for reviewing all our citations — a singular service to me since I have never used APA style before and worried constantly that I was mangling everything. Darcy did that for me after I’d completed my portion ahead of schedule (in advance of going out of town for a professional development conference), and I so much appreciated that I could leave this time-consuming task in her capable hands and relax.

Kate, in my opinion, deserves a couple of special mentions in this post, as well, first for coming up with a clever idea and format that would allow us to work as a group in such a short time and yet create a true group analysis, and then for pulling that shared document together into a cohesive, readable whole, editing it, and making it work as a usable report. If I were the business owner, I would get a lot more out of that report after Kate was finished with it. Bravo, Kate!

Lastly, I’d like to thank Julia for acting as an excellent host for our finished project over on her electronic portfolio and for communicating with our professor and keeping us all on track for our final deadlines. I know from experience that taking care of these administrative details is a priceless service, especially on a tight schedule like Summer 1 required of us.

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Rolling with the changes

How has my attitude toward social media changed over the course of this intense summer semester?

First, I realize anew how much there is to learn. And more than that, how much there always will be to learn because if any bit of our modern technosphere is destined for change, it is our social media. These are ever evolving — even to the point of causing a last-minute modification to the syllabus because one platform had been swallowed by another. Probably in less time than it will take to read this blog post.

We hear about these changes all the time on the news — I remember when the Periscope app was purchased by Twitter and the business/market news was all aflutter, and there is so much that is happening quietly, unnoticed by the news, startups and beta tests and on and on… Yet I realize I don’t often match my awareness of the constant flux and pace of change with an equal determination to stay informed. Sometimes I just let it slide past me, and this might be a dangerous choice. It would be so easy to fall behind and not find it easy to catch up. If I can’t stay ahead of the curve (and that is probably impossible for anyone with a full-time job that’s not social media centered), at least I owe it to myself and my service population and my staff to commit to staying informed and to do a little better job at keeping up with what’s out there.

Second, I realize that I can use some of the things I’ve been avoiding (Wikis) or misusing (tongue-in-cheek hashtag humor) in a more thoughtful and deliberate manner. As an information professional, I owe it to my peers to set the tone that fits the kind of information universe I want to see on social media. I can use Wikis as a collaborative staff training exercise and space. Hashtags have a place in my library posts but maybe less so in my personal Facebook feed, as humorous touches or otherwise, now that I’ve learned that tagging removes the barriers I erected with my carefully chosen privacy settings!

Third, I can perhaps stand to acquire a little more patience. It will be of great benefit to me when experimenting with the newest app or platform. I was too quick to want to throw Newsvine out the window. Now that I’ve explored a bit more, I can see more utility there and have a slightly more nuanced viewpoint about the gated communities that would not let me in. Mind you, I still plan to delete my account, like, the day after class ends.

Delete key image.Overall, my attitude toward social media is more open. More open to learning and discovery, more open to making mistakes along the way, more open to participating in new ways with others. I’m calling that a #win.

Folksonomies

This topic has renewed interest for me after a recent discussion at ALA’s Annual Conference here in Orlando. I was having dinner with two acquaintances who are academic librarians (fellow foodies) when the topic of diversity and inclusion came up. One of my dinner companions teaches a Metadata course and was explaining how she gets the notion of bias in controlled vocabularies across by having students identify terms under which they would search for themselves and then analyzing them as a class. In my case, for instance “white woman” might be an identifier, which might lead us to discover that “white” is not necessary as in the Library of Congress (LC) classification system it is presumed, a default classification that is unwritten but not unseen, like the silent “h” in honor, yet whose power is somehow felt every time we need to use LC vocabulary like “Asian-American woman” or “African-American woman.”

(I did a little follow-up reading on this topic once I got back to my hotel room, and I really enjoyed this piece which seems to be excerpted from Radical Cataloging: Essays at the Front, a 2008 publication available from the UA libraries.)

We of course segued into discussing the United States’ Congress most recent foray into cataloging, when they ordered the Library of Congress to not make a change to its subject headings which some 237 members of the House of Representatives consider to be controversial and/or incorrect. (For a full detailing of the situation, read here. Fellow library students, please note that you can weigh in with your thoughts on the proposed changes here.) The classification of knowledge has never been a neutral act, but this political backlash is quite chilling.

The trouble with controlled vocabularies is, of course, who exactly is in control? Government officials? Bureaucrats? Subject matter experts? Trained librarians? And no matter which one I would choose (presuming I get a vote, which I typically don’t), doesn’t every one of those come with their biases and prejudices intact?

So we come to the folksonomies. Democratic, open, available to all of us with our many differing points of view, backgrounds, experiences, diverse standpoints within our cultures and within our world. Free and tolerant of creativity and individuality. And Congress doesn’t get to say anything about it — unless an individual Representative decides to add their own tags. But nowhere will the algorithm recognize their tags as inherently more valuable than anybody else’s.

It sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?

Except that in practice, it can be total chaos. Bots can get involved, spam and trolling can run rampant, and well-meaning people invent nonsensical hashtags or classifications that make sense only to them, using their internal metaphorical encyclopedias as compasses rather than an up-to-date dictionary and an understanding of search behavior — acting more like poets and medieval map artists than like knowledge organizers. Even worse, a great classification can be undone by something as simple as a typo or a disagreement in spelling, either of which is very likely in our era of borderless communication and typing on smart-phones and tablets where a slip of the finger is only too easy. And then there’s smart-alecky people like me, who enjoy using hashtags as humor, and muddy the waters still further.

I guess in the end, I’d prefer a system of both controlled vocabulary and organically developing and evolving folksonomy. A folksonomy available to all the people that could be edited and reviewed by a worldwide, diverse panel of experts periodically, just to try and keep the open madness under control. But that had no ruling body to answer to, no government or political party or even single predominant culture to answer to or conform to its/their worldview. If someone starts working on that system for libraries, I’m ready to get behind it.

Until then, I’ll just keep in mind that every classification scheme has its drawbacks.

 

Are wikis weak?

My starting point when learning about wikis was, frankly, not positive. As a public librarian, I am pretty much perpetually frustrated with the tendency of my patrons to trust and rely upon that most famous of wikis, Wikipedia, as if it were, in fact, an encyclopedia.

And frankly, it’s not just a question of trust. I believe many of my patrons do trust me and my staff and place great value on the reputation of the librarian as a deliverer of truthful information. Yet you can explain over and over why Wikipedia is not research — I have short-form, long-form, and rushed-desperation form explanations memorized, I’ve used them so often — but you will quite often find yourself overruled by another core principle of the library profession: the Principle of Least Effort. Many times, a patron would rather have the quickest answer than the correct answer, and their essential belief seems to be that Wikipedia is “good enough” for almost anything. Good enough for their kids’ school papers, good enough for their business proposals, good enough for background research on population or zoning or community details to go before their local representatives and speak.

It drives me crazy.

I could never see myself participating in a Wiki, either. Why? Because while I write a newspaper column on behalf of my library and willingly submit to an editor there changing my words as needed, and I do not mind a group member editing my work to fit a research project or client proposal, I very much would mind someone editing a Wiki article I’d written. My thoughts could remain in cyberspace, perhaps far longer than I, myself, live, but altered such that my own intent or meaning was changed dramatically.

One of the great attractions, for me, to works of literature as a child was the implied immortality of the whole endeavor. To this day, I love that the act of reading allows one to sink into the mind of someone long dead, to experience live and in real time the thinking of one who lives across the globe now. It’s the only true time travel or mind-reading that humans have invented, and I shudder to think that when I read, I’m sinking into the hybrid slop of a hundred minds who’ve been slicing off bits of each other’s prose. Yuck.

(A friend of mine has also kindly pointed out that I hate the idea of the Wiki because it implies a loss of control. And I definitely have an inner control freak, although I usually manage to keep her dormant. Or at least quiet.)

So wikis, for me, at least at first glance, are mostly weakness, and not much strength. Unless you are talking about a Wiki with a gated authorship class. In the course of this class, I have located a use for wikis of this type which I approve wholeheartedly. I stumbled across library staff wikis which are used either to inform the public of some large ongoing project (say, a building redesign) or to keep an up-to-date, in-house manual of how to do each library staff member’s job. Each staff member gets a login and a password and can edit as they see fit.

How great it would be as a project for building staff morale and buy-in, and also as a repository for those tasks which don’t get done very often, maybe once every year or two years? I can see directing the new hire to explore the Wiki on his first few days as part of the on-boarding process. It could become the foundation, over time, of a new training manual, or it could be a method for keeping the traditional manual from ever going out of date. You could store documents there, too, such as request for reconsideration forms, which staff do not often need but might more quickly print out “on demand” than search for in the policy manual.

And because someone in administration would review all changes, there is still a mechanism for control. Which makes my inner control freak very happy.

Along the ground sideways

As an experiment in discovering lesser-known social media platforms, my #SocMedInfo classmates and I have been exploring Newsvine. Not to be confused with Vine, another social media platform that made the 6-second video famous. I basically set that straight above with a 42-second YouTube (yet another social media platform) video of real vines.

In nature, vines have several different methods of climbing. The ones in the video are climbing via twining. The stem tips are flexible and diligently search their area until they brush up against a suitable support structure, and then they coil around it lickety split until the plant is secure enough to send out another round of growth and a new flexible tip.

What happens if no support appears in time? The stem may fall to the side, finding “supports” along the ground to cling to, and unwittingly dragging the whole plant into a horizontal growth pattern.

What happens if the support is the wrong kind of support? Or if someone helpfully trains the vine in a way the tendril is not meant to grow? If it’s grabbed the wrong kind of support — say, a metal chainlink fence that heats up to burning in the July sun — that choice is going to hurt the plant. If the vine is trained clockwise around a support and its genes tell it to grow counterclockwise, some plants have been known to unwind themselves and do the whole thing over again until they’re growing in alignment with the instructions in their DNA.

Newsvine seems to work on a similar principle as a vine that climbs via twining for newcomers like me. We blindly search around for a suitable place to land and explore, and, in my case at least, find few suitable supports. Although I applied to many nations, not one let me in or even messaged me, and there was no easily identifiable “welcome newbies” or “beginner training group” to join. So I stumbled around in circles, trying to figure out which groups were active and potentially interesting, and finally joining an open nation just to grab onto something, anything really, in the short window of time available.

My support structure is a nation allied, supposedly, with some of the political views I hold. But I have not found that to be the case so far. I have found it full of people who hold the diametrically opposed view and comment in a two-faced way, clearly intent upon stirring up fights in the ranks if one reads enough of these threads to pick up the pattern and the subtext.  I was not thrilled by the posts, either, many of which seem to be strange choices given the focus of the group. I had hoped to learn more about the news, but many of the “new” posts were articles I’d seen months ago, or clickbait I’d dutifully ignored on Facebook.

Clearly, my tendril had gone sideways at the very least, or maybe grabbed onto an inappropriate support.

Given all this, I hesitated to seed anything at all lest I, myself, start a fight. What if I set off a fight that ends up being openly viewable when a future employer Googles my name? How will I look, to be associated with this post, this group years from now? Also, it just felt rude to come into a space and immediately begin posting. It’s like walking into a bar and starting a conversation with the bartender right away. It’s not my style.

I have long been a lurker, even when I love an online group. I would rather listen than talk immediately. I belong to several listservs and love them and learn so much from them, such as the Association of Rural and Small Libraries, the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association, and the Young Adult Library Services Association, and yet my name is not often recognizable there. I just don’t speak up unless it becomes clear to me that I should because no one is representing my invaluable input. Usually, someone does represent my idea or experience well before we come to that, and often they know more than I do. I enjoy learning from them more than putting in my two cents.

Nonetheless, assignments are assignments. I seeded an article. I was worried and anxious. I waited to be banned, based on the reports coming in from my classmates.

And…

Nada. Exactly nothing happened. Not one comment. Nothing. My anxious experiment fell flat. I’m pretty sure my tendril spun itself out on the ground.

I’ve just planted another seed. I’ll report back soon.

 

To tag or not to tag?

Hastag symbol plus the word hashtag.

The keyword you are looking for in today’s post, friends, is

Discoverability!

Making sure information can be found when it is sought is a huge part of what we as information professionals do. We take great care — and lots of staff hours, training, ongoing professional development, and labor costs — to make sure the resources we make available to our patrons are in a real sense available to them via our online catalogs and through the structured and coordinated layout of our facilities (if we work in libraries, because certainly not all of us do) and electronic platforms and spaces, such as our “virtual branch,” the library website.

Tagging is one way to see to the same core principle and priority of our profession in a social media context or online medium. Hashtags can make it easier for us to find the answers we need from fellow professionals, can give us ideas for Teen Tech Week bulletin boards, and can be a tool for grandparents to find and share what their grandchildren are doing at their #librarysummerreadingprogram with relatives and friends.

Hashtags may be used in a similar manner. Although I will personally admit to the guilty pleasure of enjoying hashtags used as social critique or in jest, the primary purpose of a well-used hashtag is to organize information and do that job quickly, concisely and well.

As for how we might use tagging in our professional lives, besides the ways mentioned above, as I read the assigned readings for our module this week, the one mention of hashtags that practically leapt off the page for me was that Kickstarter allows tags to help potential supporters find you and invest in your idea. This one use of hashtags alone could be huge for a library!

We might also get really creative with hashtags and tagging blog posts and turn them into part of a virtual program, as I did in the summer of 2015 when I created a Scavenger Hunt as part of Teen Summer Reading which ranged all over the college town my library served. When participants found a clue, they were to take a photo of their team in front of the object/building/landmark or with the person in question or wearing the thing requested, post it to one of two social media platforms, tagging the library and using a specific hashtag so that I would make sure not to miss any entries when tallying the scores. Those who did not use social media could also email the librarian those photos or bring in an analog version which required they answer questions about the clue in case no one on that team owned either a smartphone or digital camera, because we live in a place where the digital divide is still noticeable and we did not want to create barriers to participation.

It was so much fun and so easy to keep up with via hashtags that I designed another library contest for Banned Books Week that year asking teens to come up with a creative photo of themselves reading a banned book. I provided a list of banned and challenged books, an informational brochure, and let teen patrons use the three library iPads to take pictures of themselves anywhere in the library so everyone could participate. On my second foray into creating a social media hashtag, I shortened it up considerably and made it easier to remember.

As an added and unforseen bonus, cool, artistic, designer photos of our local teens READING kept popping up in the library’s Facebook feed, and teens were regularly linking to us on Instagram and Twitter, which brought many more teens over to look. It’s hard not to click when you see #bannedbooks anyway, right?

Tagging is essential for our work and meets one of the core principles of our profession, true. But it can also be a ton of fun.

I’m back…

In many ways, I’m back, thanks to my Social Media & Informatics Course at University of Alabama. Back to reuse and reboot this wonderful space for an ever-evolving professional portfolio, for one.

Back to using Twitter, for another.

I’m a little leery of this one, because I burned out on Twitter some years ago, back when I had a fairly popular gardening blog/website. I had thousands of Twitter followers, which is always seen as a good thing, right?

Well, as my followers grew, I gradually felt a lot of pressure to be witty and uplifting, ironically especially feeling pressure when Twitter users I admired followed me back or made friends with me. One professor of literature whose tweets I admired very much sent a gift certificate for books and some handpicked books to a 3rd grade student I was tutoring, which was AMAZING — especially watching M.’s face light up as she bought her mountain of books, but then I felt like I could never measure up to this professor’s ideal of me as this literacy-promoting nature guru.

There was a whole lot of analysis going on for every 140 characters after Yoko Ono followed me, let me tell you. Every tweet needed to be, you know, ART. Which is ridiculous, because they were never art before. Just sweet little observations of my garden and the woods I walked in around my house and our sometimes hikes in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

But that self-imposed pressure made me so much less likely to tweet anything good — or anything at all. I turned to HootSuite and then other social media management platforms, hoping scheduling in advance would help. But I kept struggling. It wasn’t fun anymore. One day, I just couldn’t tweet another character, and I quit cold turkey. Eventually, I quit paying to host my website, too. It was taking hours of my day just to respond to comments. A lot of people were upset with me, but in quitting social media and my hobby site for a while, I got my life back.

(You can skim that archive here, if you’re curious. Of course, very few people follow me anymore, because I haven’t posted since 2014.)

But just thinking about this brings me to my first thought about Social Media. What I noticed among friends who blogged and used social media a lot is this:  If it’s successful, it’s always a managed, manipulated identity. In my opinion, it works best when it’s a narrow identity, too, covering only a few aspects of your personality, almost hyperfocused on one or two interests to the exclusion of all the other stuff that makes you, well, a cool and interesting person.

People like to pigeonhole or categorize those they follow — perhaps especially on Twitter. I think Pinterest (here I am on Pinterest) can support a more multifaceted approach to the personality, but Twitter users follow people to see material about specific topics in their feed. I know because I did it, too!

Of course, we are all librarians-to-be in this course, so categories are our thing sometimes. But people are so complex! We don’t belong in rigid categories. Yet when I thought about suddenly posting library course content on my old garden/nature Twitter feed, I could just imagine the uproar of 2,000 plus people at having their image of me disrupted by the reality that I am a multifaceted person. “What happened to you? Why are you talking about information access and informatics? Where are the posts about the crows having their meetings at the fencepost and dew diamonds sparkling on the morning glories? Stick to the script!” I also knew I’d get a lot of “where did you go two years ago” stuff.

I couldn’t face it, so I made a new feed to tweet about library and information science things. Crossing my fingers my Twitter 2.0 experience is less emotionally demanding…