Have you ever belonged to a book club? Gathered in the break room at work to talk about last night’s episode of Lost or American Idol? Gone to a movie with friends and discussed it over drinks afterward?

If you have, congratulations, you’re a part of something called participant culture. It’s not a new thing — the impulse to enhance entertainment with social commentary, or to enhance bonds between friends and neighbors with shared enjoyment of entertainment, has existed throughout history and across cultures. New technologies just introduce new ways for people to follow their social instinct to share things they like with their friends and families.

Back when William Shakespeare’s plays were the talk of the town in Elizabethan London, people of all social classes would go to the theater to show off their outfits, be seen in the best seats they could afford (or stand on the ground if they couldn’t), chat with their friends, and even yell comments and criticism at the actors. The plays themselves often included jokes and commentary about people in the audience, both ad-libbed by the actors and written in by Shakespeare himself — and of course the audience would call right back to let everyone know how they felt about those jabs. Talk about a social media experience! Just imagine what the Bard could have done with a smartphone and a Twitter feed.

Plenty of other cultures have historically incorporated social life with the arts, as well. Competitive poetry recitals, group storytelling, and call-and-response singing are all age-old forms of social media. When TV and movies started to overtake reading as forms of entertainment, some cultural critics fretted that these media would be unhealthy because they represent a more “passive” form of consumption. They needn’t have worried; the development of new media has, if anything, demonstrated that people can make absolutely anything interactive and social instead of passive and one-way. Even TV commercials, often described in the ultimate in passive media, are now interactive, as viewers create parodies on YouTube, send text-message responses to earn discounts and rewards, and, in the case of a recent StateFarm Insurance ad campaign, even vote on Facebook to determine which ad will be aired on TV. The powerful impulse to participate in culture means that no cultural product is completely passive; everything can be remixed, re-interpreted, shared and spun and commented on.

What the new wave of social media means is that not only can anyone take part in this tradition — anyone can be the person to start the conversation. By encouraging your readers, visitors, and customers to participate, you’re validating strong cultural instincts that they already have, inviting them to share in a ritual of friendship with you. Remember that every time you compose a tweet, facebook status, or blog post, your goal is to encourage engagement, response and sharing. You’re not just talking at people, you’re inviting them to interact with you.

Try ending a blog post with a question, asking readers for their input. Instead of just posting a photo that you like on facebook, include an invitation for fans to add their favorite photos to your wall. Post “video responses” on Youtube, and call for responses to your own videos, too. By creating a conversation, you’re letting people have a personal, friendly relationship with you, encouraging them to tell their friends about you and what you do. If a visitor feels like they’re really involved in an interaction, it gives them a story about themselves to tell: “this is the cool thing I said to this blogger, and here’s how she responded” rather than “oh, I read this blog post last week,” which is a story that doesn’t really involve them and is therefore less interesting to tell.

Think about your favorite experiences of participating in culture. For instance, when I was thirteen or so, I wrote a letter to my favorite author asking for her advice on becoming a writer myself. She wrote me back a lovely letter encouraging me to keep practicing every day and to read a wide variety of books, and thanking me very nicely for my compliments on her work. A dozen years later, I still remember that interaction and how it made me feel, like I was really somebody in the eyes of a person I greatly admired. Has a cultural interaction ever made you feel like that?

Well, that’s what you’re shooting for in your interactions with your audience. Whenever you have the opportunity, think of how you can let them know that you see them as real people, not just numbers on a hit counter or words on a screen. Let them know that their interaction is an important part of what you do. That’s not just some recent trend or buzzword; it’s been a major force in world cultures since the first group of people sat down around a campfire to tell stories. Participant culture is what gives your words or images the power to transform into something bigger.

So your business website has a clear, intuitive layout, professional-looking pictures, an interface that works with all major browsers (yes, including mobile) and all the relevant information that your customers need. Great! So you’re all set, right?

Well, not quite.

Don’t worry; having a user-friendly, informative website is always a high priority. But to take your web presence over the top — to go from welcoming new customers to creating long-term customer loyalty — the missing ingredient is personality. Sharing a little bit of what makes you unique is how you’ll create a deeper relationship with customers and make them want to keep coming back, and tell all their friends and family about you, too.

The tricky part is knowing just how much personality to show. You are running a business, after all, not a personal blog. Adding a picture or two of you and your colleagues having fun while making your product or setting up shop is a great touch. If family members are involved, show them off! Pets? Sure, why not? Make your pet a charming mascot by showing how they “help” with the business — as long as everything’s sanitary, of course.

If you feel like getting a little fancy with things, let’s talk theme. Something you’re passionate about, like your hometown, sense of humor, or personal style can become an integral part of your brand, from names to packaging to, or course, the context and feel of your website. For instance, one small business I worked with had a theme of Southern nostalgia. I helped the business owner to create product names and descriptions that evoked that theme. Another client suggested a penguin for a logo because he happened to like penguins. The team I was working with created a penguin mascot to help explain the client’s high-tech products throughout the website and social media, even naming products after penguin species like “Emperor “and “Rockhopper” to really keep it integrated.

Often the need to be professional makes us afraid to show off our individuality. But in the world of small business, your uniqueness can be a major selling point! So go ahead and let your personality shine through. Customers will appreciate the chance to get to know you as a real person, not just a brand.

 

Can you believe 2016 is almost over? I barely can. This has been such a big year for my career, but there’s still so much that I want to do! And most of my friends in the small-business community are in the same boat — just starting to branch out and wondering how to reach the next level.

Time's Square ball

So why not get a jump start on 2012 with a great deal on a basic content package to make your web presence stand out from the crowd? You’ve spent long enough thinking “I really should get a better website,” or “one of these days I’ll start using social media for marketing.” In 2012, you can have it all — great branded multimedia content, social engagement, even improved search engine results! All that without having to make a major commitment or time or money. The introductory package comes with no strings attached; if you love what I do for your business, I’d love to work with you again, but if all you need is the basics, that’s great, too.

For $150 you get:

  • A one- to two-hour consultation held at your choice of meeting place, during which I will advise you on the best content strategy for your business and ask questions to make sure I’m representing the true spirit of your brand.
  • A simple WordPress website if you don’t already have a site, *OR* a  basic copy/content update for your existing site
  • Setup of social networking profiles

If you haven’t tried online marketing at all yet and aren’t sure if it’s for you — or if you’ve wanted to and just haven’t had the cash — this is the perfect time to give it a try. But I can’t offer this ridiculously low price forever, so act fast!

You’ve spent enough New Years resolving to stop biting your fingernails or get six-pack abs. This year, resolve to adapt to the 21st century and take the future of your business into your own hands. Don’t wait! Email sfitch.writer@gmail.com to sign up right away.

My client sighed into the phone as he described a fellow author who had developed serious public interest in his new project seemingly overnight. “It seems like just yesterday he was just posting random brainstorming questions on Google+ and his blog, without even mentioning that he was going to turn it into a book… and as soon as he decided that he wanted to write a book, he had people pledging hundreds of dollars on Kickstarter to help him write it. How does that work?”

I mentioned that the author in question had been following documented social media best practices since long before this project got started, actively engaging with readers and fellow writers, spotlighting other peoples’ content as well as his own, acting as a facilitator for interesting conversations, and above all, constantly asking readers to share their own thoughts and experiences. His posts always come off as starting a discussion, not delivering a lecture. And as I explained this to my rather exasperated client, it occurred to me that my own advice might have been part of the problem.

You have to be an expert… just not THAT kind of expert.

See, when I’m talking about the importance of blogging for business, expertise is a concept that comes up a lot. People want to hire you, or buy your product, if they see you as an expert on what you do, and writing a successful, sophisticated blog on the subject (or getting someone like me to write one for you) is a great way to establish that sense of expertise. You know, “look at this guy, he looks like he knows what he’s talking about.”

The thing is, our culture has a lot of associations tied up with the word expert. An expert isn’t just someone who happens to know a lot about her favorite subject; she’s a kind of authority figure, with all that that entails. Being an expert means that you get to boss other people around, and, on the flipside, that you don’t let anybody boss you around. Maintaining authority means not showing weakness, right? And asking for help is showing weakness… and asking for input is basically asking for help… so if the whole point of having a blog is to prove that you’re a Big Damn Expert, the whole thing is totally ruined if you ever admit that you don’t know anything. Game over.

Except that in the warm, fuzzy world of social media (and for that matter, in the rest of the world outside of TV infotainment shows and certain highly contentious university departments), expertise doesn’t exactly work that way. You can be an expert and still be curious about what other people think, or even admit that there are whole sub-fields that you don’t really get. One of my favorite social media bloggers, Mitch Joel, did a great post about how he isn’t very good at Twitter. Think about the best teachers you had in school — were they the ones who thought they knew everything, or the ones who were obviously willing to learn new things from their students? You could spot the difference when you were in high school, right? Your customers are at least as sophisticated now as you were then.

(further reading: Another favorite of mine, Havi Brooks, has a great post about reconciling the desire to be an expert with the fact that you are, probably, also a human.)

Learning to let go.

Engaging on social media requires you to give up just a little bit of control. That can mean giving up the floor and inviting people to tell you things you’ve never thought about before, including things that might contradict your basic business model. And that’s okay. No, really, it is. Showing that you’re okay with that is vital to showing that you’re comfortable with the medium you’re using — it’s the equivalent of standing up at a podium and looking like you belong there, instead of awkwardly rifling through your notes and speaking too close to the microphone.

It might help to look at social media as a language — and blogging, forums, facebook, twitter, etc as dialects of that language — and to acknowledge that the question form is the key to that language. Look how many social media posts are framed as questions; it’s like Jeopardy out here. Why? Because interaction is what you’re looking for, and questions invite interaction. They signal to people that you want them to talk to you. In social media land, asking a question doesn’t mean “I don’t know this,” it means “I want to talk with you about this.” Which you totally do, right?

What if I ask and nobody answers?

That’s a scary one. If nobody’s commenting on your blog, you might not want to risk posting an open-ended brainstorming session, asking people for input, and receiving… you know, that annoying little chirping cricket sound. There’s having faith that the audience will find you, and then there’s just asking for embarrassment. So don’t do that.

Instead, start where your audience already is. Chances are, there’s somewhere online — whether it’s a Facebook group, a Twitter chat, or a forum — where people who are interested in your subject matter are already talking. Get to know the people there, and start asking questions and looking for input. Once you’ve gotten to know a few people, you can shift the discussion over to your own space, like a blog post.

For this to work, it’s important to know your audience, and how they relate to online spaces. For instance, I know that my fellow social media and blogging people like to hang out on Twitter. On the other hand, when I used to be a semi-professional Middle Eastern dancer, I always looked for other dancers on the more obscure, bohemian-targeted social network tribe.net. Once you’ve found a community, it’s just a small step towards starting a discussion.

What are you waiting for?

Have fun with it. Ask questions — even controversial ones. Request that your readers tell you their stories. Learn things. Share what you know.

Yes, it’s business — and yes, it’s definitely work. But if you relax a little and get past the initial fear, it can also be a lot of fun.

 

 

Hey, this is neat. Somebody — “somebody” in this case meaning an executive at a very shiny-looking social media firm — made a video just so I could have a handy link to share with all the various people in my life who are a little fuzzy on exactly what it is that I do for a living.

Mom, Dad, here it is:

 

Now, aside from making my next family reunion less awkward, this video is really good because it answers a lot of questions that first-time clients tend to have about how social media will benefit their business, in a way that works for both hardnosed number-cruncher types (I love you guys, really) and those of us who have a more abstract or visual way of looking at things. I can imagine a pitch meeting where I come in with my tablet (in my imagination I have a tablet) and show the prospective client a video like this… and then we work together to script a video that would do the same thing for her business, whether it’s custom software or silk hair accessories.

Craig in the video says that his firm, Maximize Social Media, works with medium-sized companies, so it’s not surprising that one thing he doesn’t talk about is the particular array of benefits that social media marketing has for small businesses — both those who are intentionally small and those who want to grow bigger. The fact is, most of the clients I’ve worked with, and those I really want to work with, aren’t going to ask themselves “should I pursue a TV ad campaign, or try this new social media marketing instead?” They’re often too small, too specialized, or too just-getting-started to participate in traditional advertising. For these businesses, social media marketing doesn’t represent an alternative to an old way of doing things — it’s an opportunity arising where none has existed before.

shhhh.

This blog isn’t dead, it just hasn’t woken up yet. If you’re here, it means you stumbled upon it by accident, and should be very, very quiet. Please forgive the total lack of design or content or organization or absolutely anything else. More is coming soon, I promise!

What will my blog do when it wakes up?

Well, first, it will have to have a nice cup of tea. And then it will talk a lot about social content, which is basically the art of saying things to people, only in smart and interesting ways that bring in more people to come listen to you and share your things with everybody else. And also about small businesses (my favorite things in the world), and about creating a unique voice for your brand, and sometimes probably about food, because I really can’t resist one more place to talk about what I made for dinner.

I hope that you’ll come back and visit my blog after it’s had time to get itself presentable.

In the meantime, if you want to stay in touch, please do follow me on Twitter and check out my work with the multimedia firm The Creative Media People.