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Old School Social Networking: Meet Some People in Real Life

It’s been about a year since I made a major change in my professional life. Last summer, with another Celtics season behind me, I remember walking home from work and wondering to myself, “What am I going to do with myself this summer?”

Working for a professional basketball team means late nights, 70-hour weeks, watching three or four games a week, and scarce free time for the better part of six months — eight months if you make a run to the NBA Finals. So when the offseason arrives, it’s something of a relief, but there’s a bit of a void as well. You’re not used to 40-hour weeks and if you’re like me, you can often find yourself, well, bored.

But boredom was only part of the equation. More than anything, I realized that I worked in digital media, an environment that changes almost daily, and yet I knew very few professionals who had similar lines of work in Boston. While I had made plenty of contacts across the sports industry, my digital marketing/social media network was non-existent.

And sure, you can learn about the digital industry by reading and tweeting every day. But you can learn a lot more by talking to people. In person.

While I’ve always been outgoing (some would argue I’m borderline obnoxious), one thing I’d never been completely comfortable with was going to networking events. I always felt like my free time shouldn’t be work-related, precisely because it was so limited in the first place. And talking to strangers in a forced setting never appealed.

But I’d decided I needed to make that change. I went to a few networking events thrown by the gang at BostInnovation, a group of young entrepreneurs who are all involved with a host of different startups here in the Boston area. And after meeting some interesting folks at some of those events, I actually started looking forward to the next gathering. Then I started to actively seek out new events, while continuing to stay involved with the gang at BostInnovation.

Between going to networking events and getting more active with social media for my own “brand,” if you will, things started to change and change quickly.

Launching peterstringer.com and finally activating my professional twitter account (@peterstringer) led in part to speaking about the Celtics’ digital marketing efforts and success at conferences around the country, something I’d never even considered in the past. After each panel or presentation, another opportunity was knocking. And suddenly, my eyes opened to the power of networking.

Real world networking, that is.

In the past year, I’ve probably met about 100 professionals I didn’t previously know. That number may not be very impressive, but for someone who actively avoided networking events in the past, it’s a sign of a sea change in my own career. It hasn’t been a 100% positive experience; by becoming more visible, I’ve made myself very accessible to pesky vendors who’ll use every possible angle to approach me with their miracle social media software.

Overall, that’s a small price to pay.

So if you’re not doing it already, get out there. Meet some people in real life. Just like the good ol’ days. It won’t hurt. I promise.

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Forget Facebook – Why LinkedIn Should Be More Worried About Google+

After a much-ballyhooed private beta launch that’s reached 18 million users, where does Google+ fit into the social networking landscape? Or better yet, who should really be worried about the search behemoth’s social networking arrival?

Google+ has drawn numerous comparisons to Facebook and the popular theme seems to be that Google is poised to take on Zuckerberg’s 700-million+ user empire. Facebook’s continued work to block contact exporting to Google+ is feeding that fire.

Still, I’d argue that LinkedIn, and to a lesser degree, Twitter, should be much more concerned with what’s brewing with Google+.

Google’s already suffered two well-documented stumbles in the social networking space over the last few years with Wave and Buzz, but it’s different this time around. Google+ quickly gained street cred with the social networking uber-gurus, and as the invitations trickle down to garden-variety social media experts and everyday folks, the hype and chatter continues to build.

But the question is, why? What has Google achieved with Google+ (Or should we really call it Google Circles? Or is that just one feature? Paging the Google marketing department…) that has everyone so excited? Will it really be a case of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” with Google regaining online supremacy and toppling Facebook?

I’d submit instead that digital-savvy people are more scared than anything. I know I am; I feel like Google’s finally gotten it (mostly) right, and as I result, I need to drop anchor in case Google+ explodes. The Circles concept is much more analogous to our real-life relationships than Facebook’s “friending” mechanism. People are quickly growing more comfortable with the idea of connecting online with nearly or complete unknowns, but still want privacy controls to filter their outgoing missives and basic data set. Facebook, despite continuously changing the rules of engagement, has failed to make this easy.

The Circles concept resonates for those of us with geek sensibilities, and so far we’re embracing Google+. Given the buzz, as soon as Google+ brand pages are available, I’ll launch one for the Boston Celtics, and add the +1 button is coming to Celtics.com as well. I presume similar organizations and brands will follow suit. Our new Google+ Celtics page won’t catch our five million Facebook “Likes” anytime soon, but if people are going to be discussing the brand there, we need to have a presence.

But here’s the big reason to watch Google+: Since Google’s already the reigning champion of search, it stands to reason that Google+ profiles could soon become the new social directory of the Internet. It’s somewhat surprising that it’s taken Google this long to figure it out, or at least to unleash it on the masses. After all, LinkedIn profiles and Twitter posts have been peppering Google’s search results for some time, and even the most pedestrian of social networkers understand that their contributions to these networks are highly searchable by default; in fact, that’s the whole point of LinkedIn for many of its users. So it stands to reason that Google’s been contemplating this step for a while.

But as I finally got around to fleshing out my Google profile this week — I’ve never been a Gmail guy so this was a fresh start for me — I really tried to think about what makes Google+ different, and why it’s so critical to participate. And despite the shiny new features like “Hangouts” and “Sparks” (something sports brands should keep an eye on), I keep coming back to search engine results.

Simply put, if you haven’t Googled yourself in a while, drop everything and do it now, or at least after you’ve finished reading here. Search results are constantly in flux, and you’d have to imagine that Google will eventually rate their own profile pages higher than third party results for a bunch of obvious reasons. The most obvious of which being dollar bills. So far, Google+ profiles are devoid of advertising. But how long will that last? Google draws almost all of its revenue from advertising. They literally make billions of dollars on this each year.

You do the math.

With 100 million users making white-collar wages, LinkedIn has built a highly-targeted audience that should carry incredible advertising value. Obviously, Google is interested in competing for this audience.

But back to what it all means for you. When it comes to basic personal branding, LinkedIn is the dominant platform. Chances are, if you meet a young professional today, you can track them down instantly on LinkedIn. But the profiles I’ve seen to date on Google+ appear largely professional in nature, and Google+ looks and feels much more like LinkedIn than Facebook, and that’s with good reason.

Unlike a Facebook page, where nightlife pictures are de rigueur and dominate the photo uploading activity with the understanding that they’re, um, mostly private, a Google+ profile seems inherently intended to be public. Unless you really want those college keg stand pics coming up in search results against your name, Google+ probably isn’t the place for them, even with privacy settings in place.

The young professionals set, and for that matter, anyone else who has a vested interest in building an online brand, seems to get that and be comfortable with it as well. If Google+ results are going to eventually be the first thing that comes up when you’re searched, you’d better control what shows up. You’re already working on your brand now with LinkedIn, a Twitter feed, and maybe even your own blog/portfolio site. But if you want to control it tomorrow, get your Google+ presence sorted now.

LinkedIn launched several years before the social media explosion, and because of that, most users are still reluctant to connect with people they don’t know. LinkedIn explicitly tells them not to do it, and for most people, that makes sense. A LinkedIn profile is a reasonable facsimile of a resume, and exposes quite a bit about one’s identity. With that in mind, LinkedIn profiles are typically kept private to users outside your network.

LinkedIn is vastly dissimilar from Twitter. There’s the strong perception that by connecting with someone on LinkedIn, you’re vouching for them; drawing that conclusion from a Twitter follow is a much greater stretch, although a retweet tends to convey that connotation.

That perception probably hurts LinkedIn’s growth, and it’s unlikely to change unless LinkedIn takes the Circles approach and acknowledges the complexities of interpersonal relationships. Currently, when you fill out the brief form to invite a connection on LinkedIn, the site warns you Important – Only invite people you know well and who know you.” When you click on this message, a pop-up window informs you, “Connecting to someone on LinkedIn implies you know them well.”

Google+ goes in the other direction, offering pre-fab circles called “Following” (“People you don’t know personally, but whose posts you find interesting”) and Acquaintances (“A good place to stick people you’ve met but aren’t particularly close to”), recognizing and encouraging the growing trend Twitter really popularized: following people and personalities that you’ll never likely meet in real life.

With all of that in mind, mainstream adoption will take time for Google+. Launching their iPhone app on Tuesday was another step in that process. Still, the average social networking user will need a compelling reason to find time for Google+ updates.

With all of that in mind, I asked an old college pal who’s in one of my Circles what he thinks of Google+ and its potential staying power. He Facebooks as much as the next guy, but isn’t on Twitter, just learned about Instagram last night, and has yet to do anything significant with his Google+ account.

His take: “I just don’t get it. There’s enough social media crap going on anyway. I mean, people keep adding me and I’m like, OK. Whatever.”

Sobering? Perhaps. Time will tell if it gains mass traction with the non-digerati. Still, amassing 18 million users in a two-week private beta is encouraging, and a reality check for the Foursquare fanboys out there who recently celebrated 10 million users after two years. While LinkedIn should officially be on watch, I don’t think Facebook has much to worry about in the short term.

That said, I’m sure they’re paying attention like the rest of us. Close attention.

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I Will Follow: Social Media Lessons from U2

Seeking a few friends who wanted to join a band, Larry Mullen Jr. started U2 by posting a note on a message board in the Mount Temple Comprehensive School in Dublin in the fall of 1976, almost 35 years ago.

If that’s not old school social networking, I don’t know what is.

Yet, had Mullen decided to start U2 in 2011, you could presume he may have posted a note to his Facebook wall, or perhaps tweeted his intentions to form a band. And once the guys got together and started jamming, Island Records might have been out of luck; these days they could have just gone Bieber-style and released I Will Follow on YouTube.

Either way, since the mid-80s, Mullen’s creation still reigns as the biggest band in popular music. A corporation unto itself, U2 has grossed millions of dollars on platinum albums and wildly successful tours. Although their underwhelming PopMart tour almost sent the band the way of Friendster and MySpace, nearly bankrupting them in the process, they’re survivors in a dying industry. With all of the transformations and reinventions U2’s undergone along the way, there’s a lot to be gleaned from the history, music and marketing of Ireland’s most famous export.

U2

U2 has always been out in front of technology, and they can teach us a little bit about social media as well.

With that in mind, here are a few lessons from Bono — by the way, how the hell is that guy not on Twitter? — and the boys about Social Media courtesy of some of their most famous tracks, as well as a few deeper cuts for the superfans out there.

Out of Control – The band’s first single in 1979, this tune is a reflection on the idea that the two biggest events in life, your birth and death, are out of your own control. Pretty heady stuff for a bunch of 18 year-olds. But the song’s message rings true in social media: Some things in life can’t be controlled; brands need to realize that as much as they want to, much of the conversation around their product/team/celebrity will be out of their control in the social media space.

Your brand will be discussed across multiple social platforms, and while you can try to influence customers and “choreograph “the conversation by asking questions of your followers or pushing hashtags, you really can’t manipulate them and they’re much more likely to let you know when they’re upset. You’d be best served accepting this reality.

Seconds – “It takes a second to say goodbye…Push the button and pull the plug…say goodbye” – Seconds…that’s how long it takes an accidental tweet or poorly conceived status update to do its damage. Once published, you can’t put the proverbial toothpaste back in the tube. Sure, you can delete the tweet, but it really only takes one person to retweet it, and it’s saved forever. Just ask Chrysler. Your brand and its sullied reputation will be front-page news on Mashable, and these days, CNN as well, and the collateral damage could include someone’s job — perhaps your own.

Tryin’ To Throw Your Arms Around The World – While this tune’s presumably about a hangover (having been to Dublin a few times, this feels accurate), the title is appropriate for social media marketing managers who are tasked with maintaining communities across disparate sites and platforms, and new services are popping up every day. So how do you decide where to establish a presence? You can’t be everywhere all the time. I’d suggest dropping anchor (at the very least, reserving your brand’s username) as services pop-up, and to periodically check in on them to see if they’ve gathered critical mass.

For instance, in the photo-sharing universe, there are plenty of fledgling platforms, but the Celtics have caught on quickly on Instagram with a little bit of effort and by reaching out directly to the nascent platform’s creators. The result? At 10,000+ followers, the Boston Celtics are already the biggest sports property on the service and rank among the biggest brands delivering regular content to Instagram.

Mysterious Ways – Do you have any idea how Facebook’s news feed Edge Rank works? Why does Twitter decide you’re similar to certain people? And how the hell does LinkedIn know whom you may already know (typically, with scary-good predictions until you hit the 500 connections mark) outside of your network? There’s a lot of math behind most of it, with algorithms, data and some common sense logic influencing the suggestions and results. The average user probably doesn’t think about any of this stuff, but there’s some sophisticated science involved.

Elevation – For digital marketing professionals, the advent of social media has brought with it a favorable shift in the personal brand building landscape. Speaking from my own experience, social media has opened the door for speaking and panel opportunities in the past year at multiple conferences around the country. Used correctly, social media can really help elevate your career and professional reputation.

Then again, re-read the Seconds paragraph and remind yourself of how fast you can damage it with a careless tweet.

With or Without You – Simply put, if you’re not creating a presence in the social networks, especially Twitter and LinkedIn, you’re missing out on a lot of opportunity. Professional and career opportunities surface daily on these platforms, and if you don’t have a presence, they’ll pass you by. If you’re not taking advantage of them, your colleagues and competitors are.

Sometimes You Can’t Make it On Your Own – When it comes to social media, you’re not supposed to make it on your own. And if you’re trying to, you’re missing the point. You should be connecting with people you cross paths with in the digital world, both online and off. There’s no harm in making some new contacts and branching out a little. These platforms have helped me make valuable connections in Boston, around the country and across the globe at multiple companies and in various industries where I’d otherwise have no exposure or access.

Unknown Caller – That’s not to say you should accept every random LinkedIn request that comes your way. While most people have no problem with following or being followed by randoms on Twitter, it’s another thing to be expected to accept a LinkedIn request from a total stranger or someone you’ve met only in passing. A LinkedIn connection implies endorsement – and I’m not willing to vouch for someone I’ve never met in person, unless they really bring some serious value to the table online. And even then, I’m unlikely to do it unless there’s really something in it for me in the offline world.

Even Better than the Real Thing – To hear some social media and digital marketing “gurus” tell it, you’d think virtual goods, LBS check-ins, game layers and augmented reality were not only the next best thing, but that they’re even better than the real thing. But you can’t lose sight of the fact that whatever your business is, you’ve (hopefully) got a valuable, real-world product or service that needs selling. And if you don’t, isn’t now a good time to take that $6 billion offer from Google before somebody figures it out?

Either way, the question you need to ask is simple: Will these digital bells and whistles actually help you move the needle, build your database, or accomplish your marketing goals? The good news: If you ever need a reality check, there are just as many naysayers (don’t get me started on LBS/check-ins) as evangelists for most of these trends. So read up…there’s plenty of information and opinions out there.

Miracle Drug – It seems marketers are looking for a secret sauce when it comes to social media success. The truth is, there’s no miracle drug that will grow your social presence. What will work? Building an actively engaged audience takes time and patience, as well as a solid strategy, not to mention some trial and error along the way. But perhaps most importantly, you have to be dialed in to emerging trends and ready to be flexible, as the rules of engagement are constantly changing with little or no warning. Given how new social media is, there’s plenty of unknown to deal with, and we’re all learning as we go.

I know I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.

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Why a Social Media Junkie Gave Up Facebook for Lent

A few months ago, I read a Facebook status update that said, “Twitter makes me like the people I don’t know more, and Facebook makes me like the people I do know less.” (Editor’s note: I have no idea how LinkedIn makes me feel. That’s probably another blog post by itself.)

It’s an interesting take on social media, and relationships, both online and offline. And I couldn’t agree more. While I’ve found Facebook to be less enriching by the day, I continue to glean new information and insights from the people I follow on Twitter. And I’m a very social person by nature, one who’d likely be better suited to live in the Midwest where people are just naturally friendlier from birth than we are here in the Northeast.

When I first casually joked to a friend that I’d “quit Facebook for Lent”, it was a sarcastic/ironic statement from a non-religious digital marketing cafeteria Catholic, but the more I thought about it, it wasn’t much of stretch to actually forsake my own personal activity on the social network. I rarely share anything on Facebook anyway, but I certainly spend plenty of time checking it to find out what my Facebook Friends (contrast this with the smaller group of people I actually associate with on a regular basis) are up to. Almost without exception, I am regularly underwhelmed with the stereotypical updates we’ve all learned to lament (or just click to “hide” them outright) when discussing the service’s merits, or lack thereof.

(No, I don’t care that your kids aren’t taking to potty-training, I’m not jealous that you’re in Cozumel – OK, yes I was, but I’m over it – and while you may think you have the best boyfriend in the world, I’ve got 24 other Facebook friends who think their boyfriend is the best in the world.) What the hell happened to the last 10 minutes of my life? I can’t get those back can I? Ok, cool, I’ll be back in 45 minutes to check again.

About two weeks into going dark on my personal Facebook, I’m not sure if I’ll ever go back. I don’t think I miss Facebook much. In fact, if I didn’t do digital marketing for a living, I’d probably quit cold turkey like my brother did when he realized that he found the service as addictive as nicotine.

I’ll give it some more thought when Lent is over, and ultimately, I expect I will maintain a Facebook presence just so I understand how it continues to operate, but I’m guessing I’ll find little motivation to log on. I don’t even miss the blue and white “F” icon on my iPhone, and while I’ve gotten a few emails from Facebook wondering where I’ve been, and a few friend invites from people with whom I attended high school but don’t remember ever interacting with as a teenager, those missives which once led me to drop everything and log on now ring insignificant. Even for a casual Facebooker, letting go has been liberating. If anyone I actually know really needs to get a hold of me, I’m pretty easy to find anyway.

That said, I won’t be giving up on Twitter anytime soon. I already know the people I am associated with on Facebook, and frankly, given what Facebook expects you to share – photos, your personal taste in entertainment, etc – most of us aren’t going to be comfortable with strangers “following ” us on Facebook.

And while there’s almost a certain stigma to having too many Facebook friends – “How can you have 988 friends? I don’t even know that many people in real life?” – Twitter by its nature encourages you to collect random/unknown followers, and the more you can amass, the more credible you become (although, as I’ve said before, Klout carry negligible real-world relevance) in the online world. And it doesn’t matter if you’ve never met most of them in person; people (oh yeah, and bots) follow you on Twitter because you bring something to the table. Maybe they want to network with you offline, maybe they want to learn from you, or maybe they just want to hear what you’re up to, but whatever the motivation, I’d guess they absorb a lot more real-world information by following you on Twitter than they’d ever get from being your friend on Facebook.

And hell, despite the fact that the Celtics have 3.7 million fans on Facebook (as of March, 2011), the responses we get to our posts are mostly nonsense, noise, and the trading of “Lakers Suck/Celtics suck” barbs. I’m not sure I need any social media monitoring tools to tell me that while people may be absorbing our messages – typically 33% of our audience is counted as an “impression” for an average Celtics status update – they aren’t typically interacting with us in any meaningful way.

Last week, I spoke to a college class about digital marketing, and asked them a few questions. Despite the fact that all but one admitted to checking Facebook throughout the day, they all seemed to be pretty confident that they could give up Facebook for a day. Most said they could do it for a month. But only one seemed confident that they could give it up for a year. “It’s how I communicate with my friends and family,” said one student. Almost all nodded their heads in agreement.

When I suggested that they could still text or call each other, it seemed to them that I was asking them to withdraw cash from tellers at actual banks rather than use the ATM. The idea just seemed crazy.

Maybe college kids post more meaningful things to their walls than my peer group does, but I’m having a hard time believing that’s the case. Perhaps I need to do some research after Lent. You know, if I ever go back to Facebook, that is.

So, could you quit Facebook?

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Social Media Insiders Summit Brings the Goods

It seems like everywhere you turn there’s a new digital marketing or social media conference popping up, and it’s hard to tell what you’re getting into when choose to participate in one until it actually starts and you’re in a large room with a bunch of strangers and vendors talking shop.

I just returned from the Media Post Social Media Insiders Summit (check hashtag #MPSMIS on Twitter for complete coverage) and was pleasantly surprised by the quality and depth of content, the format for the event, and sharp and personable people I met over the course of the last three days in Key Biscayne, Florida.

The tropical setting didn’t hurt — especially considering the blizzard back home in Boston that I dodged — and I found this to be the most enjoyable conference I’ve ever attended. Resort quality amenities at the Ritz Carlton made things comfortable, but most importantly, the discussions, panels and roundtables were on topic, and well thought out.

I had the pleasure of leading a roundtable discussion entitled, “Seriously, Do Consumers Like Being Targeted?”, where we talked about everything from what Google knows about you to email segmenting and everything in between. At times it veered off topic, but I erred on the side of letting the conversation flow and keeping everyone involved, and I think everyone who participated walked away smarter for it.

Even the lunchtime sponsor presentations, which at most conferences are brutal sales pitches traded for a dry meal, were far more geared toward providing information, value and analysis than they were aimed at pimping out their services. And the food was top drawer to boot.

Representing a pretty unique and well-known brand myself, I had prepared to be accosted by vendors and sales guys at every turn. And sure, I exchanged a bunch of business cards, picked up plenty of Twitter followers and LinkedIn connections, but there was far more of a networking vibe than I might have expected. Maybe the onslaught is yet to come, but I feel like I made some very valuable connections with some of the smartest people working in the social media space today.

No conference is ever perfectly executed. The #MPSMIS hashtag wasn’t well publicized (although it did catch on by the end of Day 1), and there were no breaks between presentations and panels, which left you with no choice but to walk out mid-presentation for a bathroom break or just some fresh air. A few presenters need to work on their Power Point skills (littering slides with small text doesn’t work in big room) but that’s a minor complaint.

Over three days, topics like data privacy, Facebook advertising, social commerce, user generated content, Twitter analytics, location-based services/check-ins, “engagement” (by far the most overused bailout buzzword of the conference), Mommy Bloggers and niche social networks were all covered in-depth. I tweeted out over 50 notes, quotes, stats and observations and could have easily doubled that if I wasn’t worried about overwhelming people’s timelines.

All in all, it was a solid experience and perhaps the best conference I’ve been to date. I hope to return to next year’s Social Media Insiders Summit.