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The Big Picture 13: Jennifer Kane on the Hard Lessons of Social Media

Jennifer Kane knows social. The Minneapolis-based social-media-marketing maven runs Kane Consulting with her business partner, Kary Delaria, and speaks and gives workshops nationally. Vivacious, loquacious, and down-to-earth, she loves to drill down beneath the next-big-thing glitter of the socialverse to the basic challenge it throws at business: are you ready for conversations you can't control?

The Line: Jennifer, how did you get into the social-media-marketing-consulting biz?

Jennifer Kane: I was a drama major, but out of college I decided right away I didn't want to be an actress—that's a rough life. So I did marketing for nonprofits, arts organizations, and then I did some corporate for a while, and I've been on my own for about ten years doing marketing consulting.

I had a really high-tech client—the Minnesota Interactive Marketing Association, MIMA--and I was promoting one of their events, and here were these interactive marketers using these new channels. So it was a really good trial by fire in using some of these tools. Soon more and more of the calls I got were "I want social media help." Not just "I want marketing help and social media should be part of it," but straight social. So after a couple of years we decided, let's just be a social media company.

I still do marketing consulting, but I usually come in under the guise of social; and anyway your marketing goal is your social media goal--it's the same thing. It should all be integrated--integrated into the whole company, because social media can be used by sales, or customer service, marketing, or PR.

The Phone-Company Analogy

I'm more akin to the person who comes in and puts in the phone lines. I open up these "lines" to many different departments, and you get what you get. One person contacting you on social media may say I want a job, another person may say I hate your company and here's why, another person may say I want to buy this thing. It becomes this global virtual switchboard. You can't tell people how to use the channel.

It's really great that I've been doing marketing and management consulting for so long, because a lot of the work with the bigger clients ends up being organizational development--sitting in the middle of an organization and asking, how is your relationship with the general public? How do you respond to people on the front lines? When something needs to be escalated, to whom does it go? When it's a big problem, do you have a crisis communication plan and how does that work? A lot of what I do is building Facebook pages of course, but much of it is also working on the day-to-day, because social media is only as good as the people who are using it.

The Line: So social media strategy is connected to marketing, but goes well beyond it.

Jennifer Kane: Yes. People ask, What's the ROI of social media? and I ask back—what's the ROI of your telephone? If you sit there talking to your wife all day, you're not going to make any money, but if you're working business leads all day, you're going to be affecting your sales goal. If you're working reporters all day, you're going to be affecting your PR or media goal. So it really depends on how you want to use these tools, where a company's gifts lie, and finding the right people to sit in that spot that have the maturity to be on the front lines when things are in crisis, to talk in many different capacities to many different people, and to traffic all that information. Some companies put an intern on that, and that's pretty chancy--you're talking on behalf of a corporation!

You can't just say, we're going to hire a marketing person to do this thing, although that's who it usually tends to be. What it really comes down to is a kind of amorphous skill set that a person has--they're nimble and they're graceful and they're articulate and they're fearless. You need a company that's comfortable with letting a person sit on the front lines and do that. We'll run into a situation where we're coaching that person on the front line and I can tell that they're afraid they're going to get fired if they say certain things.

Horrible Pizzas

The Line: Sounds a bit scary for the company.

Jennifer Kane: Social media is a disruptive force. A powerful, awesome positive force, but also a powerfully negative force when companies make great missteps. Most companies won't, but they hear these horror stories. Employees at Domino's did horrible things to pizzas and filmed it, and it was on YouTube! It was horrible for Domino's! Companies see this, and think, this is the death of us, right? We don't want to open the doors and be naked before the whole world!

The Line: So what makes it worthwhile for a company to take those risks?

Jennifer Kane: To make it really worthwhile you need to build a community of the people you want to reach. The first mistake companies make is just following a lot of people. Who's your target market, and where are they? If they're all on Facebook, you should be on Facebook.

Then there are so many pluses. You can crowd-source new ideas and new products. You can troubleshoot in real time. Ideally, if this is functioning at a high level, you never have to have a focus group again, in my opinion. You can say: you guys seem to be complaining about it because it's blue—would you like it not to be blue? Yeah, we'd like it green. By breaking down some of the barriers, you can serve your customer or client to a mega-capacity.

    A lot of companies don't want to hear the complaints, but these media are here and they're going to be used. And why wouldn't you want to hear what's being said about you? You will hear the negative, but the positive too. We have a feed on our web site, and every time somebody says something nice about us, I star it and it goes into a feed of nice things said about Kane Consulting. It's public knowledge. I just pull it into a feed and that's how I do testimonials.

If you're a horrible company, social media is the worst thing you could dream of. If you don't care about your customers, you won't like these tools very much. If you're a good company, passionate about what you do, you will get some grumpys in there, but for the most part it's very affirming.

The Line: In your workshops, you often point out how fast the social-verse moves.

Jennifer Kane: Yes, and that part is very hard. Social media doesn't jibe with let's-have-a-meeting culture. Some companies have asked me if I could write scripts for responding to social media, but there is no script for talking to the world. You don't know what you're going to get. That's really disconcerting for a company, because you can't know all the answers before you step in.

The Twin Cities and Social Media

The Line: How do the Twin Cities stack up as a social-media center?

Jennifer Kane: I feel like we're in a pretty good place for a number of reasons. The Minnesota Interactive Marketing Association (MIMA) is one of the biggest in the country. We have a huge creative community here, agencies, and so on, and I think that has supported the emergence of this kind of interactive specialist. There's also Social Media Breakfast; there are many of those around the country and ours is very large and established. Having such a strong creative community—if you have a lot of agencies you're going to have a large digital capacity, and you're going to have social as a strong part of that capacity.

Then you have organizations that have sprung up to support that—there are multiple organizations here that I could join just to talk social. It seems like a pretty large community; people I have met from other cities say, You guys are pretty strong. As for how innovative we are here, it's a hard thing to assess—while there are interactive marketing awards, there are no awards yet for using social. It's just so new—there's no established infrastructure there.

The Snake-Oil Factor

I've been doing this full time for maybe four and a half or five years, and that's a really, really long time. I know that in that time, the number of people who were working in some other capacity and are now social-media gurus has doubled. Everybody's hanging out a shingle saying, I'm a social media strategist, and we do have a bit of a snake oil problem. There are a lot of people who will say I'll build you a fan page, a Twitter feed, and get you 2,000 followers on your fan page, get it up and running for you in whatever time frame, for a thousand bucks. The company says, Great—but as soon as they leave, what are you going to do with it? It's like a child you've adopted. You have to feed it and care for it on a daily, sometimes hourly basis, if you're an active company.

What people come shopping for when they call me is for me to build them stuff and walk away. Because that's what they hear—somebody made a thing for them and then magic happened. So could you make that magic happen for me? And then I come in and ask Why? Who are you trying to talk to? And they're like, ugh! Strategy? Strategy's no fun!

The Line: Sounds like basic mission-statement issues, not high-tech excitement.

Jennifer Kane: It's a lot of sitting around a table asking, why are we doing this? What's the goal? Who do we want to talk to? What do we ant to say to them? Why do we want to say that? What do we want to do next—what does your sales funnel look like? So we get somebody to be a fan on the fan page. What's the next level? Do we need to get them to sign up for an e-mail newsletter? You got ten thousand fans? Well, how many burgers did you sell? Unless you can tell me how many burgers you sold, I don't care how many fans you got. Social media is at a point where it needs to grow up and play in the big leagues, and that means return on investment. And that means being able to tie some of these metrics together and say, there's a business case for a social media strategy…and that is not glamorous work.

Whither Social?  

The Line: What's "trending" right now in the social-media universe? What's on the horizon?

Jennifer Kane: The gurus in the field are all about "social business." Zappos is a social business. Everybody in the company tweets, and everybody gets keys to the car—they can tweet about what they want. That's kind of at the far end of the spectrum. The companies that have been doing social for a few years are ready to integrate it more deeply in their company. That is a long way off for most companies, and some companies won't ever get there. For most of the companies we're working with being a fully social company is a long way off.

The content has to be good, because there's gobs and gobs of it out there. If you make a blog post, you need to position it right; relevance and context are super-important, as is timeliness. Is this the right time of day? Are these the right people? Is this what they've been asking for? Are you advertising it in a way that is really appealing to read?

Another huge trend we're seeing across all social networks is the rise of imagery. The stuff that gets read is the stuff with pictures. Look at your Facebook news feed. Somebody just posts "I'm going for a walk," and it gets lost because--there's a picture of a kitty cat! Facebook knows this. They're making the pictures bigger in the feed, because the percentage of people who click through to look at a picture is vastly outnumbering those who read just text. And there's a lot of imagery involved with the rise of Pinterest, which is huge now.

It all moves so fast that people don't have time to read. You don't even have time to read 140 characters! It sort of becomes like a visual Whack-a-Mole: kitty cat! Flood picture! Cake!  It's not that people are lazy--they're overloaded. So now, every network we're working with, you have to have great images. They sell your post. They're like the maitre d' at the front of the restaurant. It's like I said at a workshop last night, I don't care if you put a monkey on it--just stick something on it! And that's new; it wasn't this way even a year ago.

The Line: How about your hopes for Kane Consulting? Where would you like to be in five years?

Jennifer Kane: It would be nice to not have to sell the strategy part, that hard part I talked about, so hard. Maybe over time the "shiny object" phenomenon will wear off. It would be great if people called me for what they need—the fan page and the strategy—rather than what they want, the shiny object.

Photos of Jennifer Kane talking with Managing Editor Jon Spayde by Bill Kelley

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