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This is a guest post from my pal Geoffrey White. Geoff’s a lawyer (a profession who’s mention illicits similar reactions to when you tell someone “I work in PR”), holds an MBA, and recently stood as a candidate for the Mountain Equipment Coop Board. He writes from the perspective of someone who did not have a tonne of experience with these tools prior to launching his campaign.

I’m into showcasing REAL stories about social media (from individuals and small players) so I hope you enjoy Geoff’s post.

A social media neophyte’s experience with the natural rhytmns of social media, observed unscientifically while using it to generate awareness for an electoral campaign.

Recently I stood as a candidate in the annual election for the Board of Directors of Mountain Equipment Co-op, Canada’s ‘leading retailer of outdoor goods’. Basically any member can take a run at helping drive the $265M (gross revenue) retail bus so long as s/he can win enough votes from the approximately 3,000,000 (mostly Canadian) passengers. Win enough votes and you’re in for a 3-year term of remunerated, part-time work governing what to many is a forward-thinking, sophisticated retail operation with 13 Canadian locations. It’s an organisation I would be honoured to serve given my personal interest in outdoor pursuits and professional interest in CR (corporate responsibility).

13 candidates stepped forward this year to compete for 3 available seats on the 9-member Board. Candidates are given equal space in a print/electronic circular to introduce themselves, talk about their qualifications, and engage in a little SWOT pontification, but are not given access to the membership list, and are prohibited from campaigning at retail locations. We were also given official candidate email addresses for members to submit questions. There are no debates.

With a budget, one could (assuming it’s easy or possible to identify MEC’s “base”) easily identify fora (print and online, even outdoor) which the stereotypical MEC member could be expected to read and then place campaign advertisements thereat. The economics obviously prohibit this.

How then does one go about efficiently locating those 3,000,000 potential voters in a country of 33.9M people? Enter ‘social media’ – a term that I have yet to understand, but for the purposes of this article I’ll define as: Facebook (LinkedIn for personal use), LinkedIn (Facebook for professional use), and of course, category-killer Twitter (online collective speed dating for exhibitionist information-addicts). I struggled to represent the three mathematically, but I know it’s doable.

Of course, there are other sites, e.g., Digg, but I’m just not diggin’ those. The Twit is ‘it’ (for now, anyway), as far as I’m concerned. This post, like me, spends little time on Facebook or LinkedIn, but recognizes that those two fora have a role to play in a larger communications strategy.

My ‘campaign’ consisted of the following: a Facebook fan page; my personal Twitter account; and, peripherally, my LinkedIn page. I also went for WOM (Word of Mouth) messaging (hey you, tell your friends and family) and ‘superliminal’ messaging (term borrowed from a popular adult cartoon). The thing with getting elected (or making a sale, or building awareness for your business, Twitter page, blog, whatever) is you have to ask people for support. Trite, of course, but “if you don’t ask the answer is always ‘no’.”

The Facebook page consisted of some pics of me doing outdoory things I love to do (hopefully not in the tradition of Stock Day on a jetski), and the Facebook ‘wall’ on which I would post questions from prospective voters and occasionally engage people or upate them. This served as the base of my campaign and, for lack of any real metrics (and unwilling at this point to spend money on my own website and tracking) this served as a useful indicator.

LinkedIn gives users a Tweet-synced ability to give 140-character status updates, and occassionally I would post something. I would also post items on LinkedIn groups I was a member of (if the group touched on something reasonably outdoor-related). It’s tough to say how this worked, but several strangers got in touch with me directly to express their support.

My major focus, for better or for worse, was on Twitter, and for a period of several weeks, if you were watching, you would have seen me Tweet, incessantly, some variation of the following: “Mountain Equipment Co-op members in #[city or province], have U voted yet. Vote & U could be eligible 4 a $250 gift card”. As the election wore on I tried to get creative to motivate people to vote, either by inducing them with MEC’s inducement of the chance to win a $250 gift card, or by catching people at various times of the day: weekend morning coffee; workday mid-afternoon energy slump; Friday afternoon office ADD. Some examples:

R u 1 of Mtn Equipment Co-op’s 3 million members? There r only 4 days left 2 vote in the election & enter 2 win a $250 gift card.

Start #humpday productive! Add this 2 yr 2-do list & knock it off rght away: Vote in Mntn Eqpmnt Co-op’s election

#Toronto #Ontario MEC members As U sip coffee enter 2 win a $250 gft crd & vote in the Mntn Eqpmnt Co-op election

If you use Twitter to be seen (not just to see) you obviously need to attract followers and in my case I wanted to place myself before an outdoorsy crew. This involved researching the lists of other people who were already well-connected to the world I wanted access to. As a friend of mine wrote about my use of Twitter, this is “[t]he modern version of knocking on doors”. And knock on doors I did, following hundreds of outdoor-oriented people and companies, and using a combination of time-shifting hasthtag messages targeted to each of the Canadian provinces and territories and cities in which MEC operated a store. My Tweets, though varying in approach, were ultimately to inform people about the ongoing election, and to try to lure them to the MEC election website (or my campaign page) to learn more and vote (hopefully for yours very truly). The very modest incentive of a chance to win a $250 gift certificate was also commonly included, but I’m not sure that’s sufficient bait for anyone.

To make a long story less long, what I expected to be a campaign about the business issues facing the Co-op and the skills I could bring to bear on those issue, became mostly an exercise in politicking. Answering several questions each day about whether or not I supported boycotting Israeli-made products; among other sensitive but important issues. I was quickly reminded of the PR war in Google v. China – was it the ‘commercialization of politics’ or the ‘politicization of commercial issues’? In any event, one upside of the experience is that, through relentless Tweeting and Facebooking, I had a chance to observe their natural rhythymns and maybe even learn a thing or two about how to use (and misuse) them. What follows though isn’t so much a listing of what I learned, but more a list of what I don’t know about social media – particularly Twitter. It’s offered to get you to think whether you are any different.


(1) I still don’t know what “social media” is Perhaps the best Twitter profile I’ve seen to date reads: “The only person on Twitter who doesn’t claim to be a social media guru.” (@snotforprofit) But Twitter is so interesting because it’s not really media at all (though @Jenifesto astutely observes that “if it isn’t on my Twitter, it isn’t news”). It defies all categories – it isn’t push, it isn’t really pull, either. Let me try for a definition: “Twitter is where I go to be taken to places I’m likely to want to go.” Ask yourself: Do you really know what you’re doing out there? Have you given any serious thought to how you communicate in what might appear to be a disorderly, lawless forum?

(2) I don’t know why anyone follows me, or if they actually do follow me: My Twitter ‘brand’ is a fairly predictable mix of left-leaning articles, mostly relating to health & fitness, Canadian politics and U.S. politics, inspiring quotes, environmental concerns, and press clippings on the foregoing by The Globe and Mail, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal (notice how each paper goes about its own Tweeting at a different levels of sophistication). Are people following me because they think I have or might have something interesting to Tweet or is it simply a matter of padding their numbers? I know I’ve flirted with the 2,000 friends range and to be honest, if you aren’t on one of my lists, chances are I am not going to see your Tweet. By way of media metrics, Twitter doesn’t give you much to work with but for mentions, re-Tweets, and lists. If you’re not making your mark in any of those categories, you’re not even a face in the crowd. Ask yourself: Is anyone actually following me? How do I know? Who is mentioning me or re-Tweeting me? Why? Is there anything in that for them or their audience?

(3) I don’t know why I follow anyone I have some ideas: Usually it’s a simple matter of their being mentioned, or their Tweets being re-Tweeted by someone who I follow – awareness breeding awareness. But of course, sometimes there’s a calculated aspect to Twitter (don’t act so surprised). You follow those whose attention you want – and of course, you mention them and re-Tweet them. Why someone chooses to engage you or not, in return, however, remains quite a mystery. Ask yourself: Why do you follow people, and what, if anything, are you expecting to come from that follower relationship. Do they provide you with the information you seek or the exposure you’re after?

(4) I don’t know why I am still occassionally sheepish about Twitter: You there – waiting for a train or a plane, or ordering a coffee – making sure your iPhone or Blackberry or laptop screen can’t be seen – I know you’re doing it. We’re all doing it. Why hide it? I’m no longer a Twitter apologist – it’s Adam Smith in action – self-interested utility maximing homo economicus looking after his/her own good but somehow enriching us all. I can go off at length for why Twitter is naturally so effective for communication – but there’s something, errrr, naughty about sitting in a café posting a Tweet yet not being able to lean over to the guy or girl next to you to strike up a conversation about that great tinryurled link you just re-tweeted. Oh wait, according to my definition Twitter is where you actively “go” to be taken to information – that’s probably not why people visit Starbucks, is it? Ask yourself: Are you using Twitter to actually connect with people or to avoid real connections?

One thing I do know

I know why I stop following people Here it is: Auto-message “Thanks for the follow” (include typos for extra points). The bigger you are in fame or fortune the more lenient I become. I don’t expect Bill Gates to send me a personalised message, but I don’t expect mere mortals are so pressed for time (or so self-important) that they can get away with this poor form. It’s rude, and particularly offensive, for reasons colourfully described by Mr. Wightman here. Auto-DM me anything resembling those words and…you’re cut. The other main reason I stop following people (and one which I’m sure cost me a not insignificant percentage of my Twittership) is monotony. The same old Tweets about the same old product or service or hockey team or business scheme. Consistency in terms of ‘brand’ and messaging have their place, but so do variety and moderation. I tried to keep my normal Tweeting up, and would often remind my followers that my incessancy was in fact time-limited, but I’m quite sure I lost a few people along the way. Ask yourself: Why are people following me? What, if anything, do I have to offer them beyond the content of my own Tweets? Am I engaged in a give-and-take with key followers to their benefit?


With insight into the prospect (1/5 odds) that my attempt this year was what the kids are calling a #fail, I’ll close with 140 characters of what I think I might know about Twitter (and ‘social media’, more generally): (1) It isn’t the size of yr list, it’s how U use it & who’s on it (2) U have 2 give 2 receive (3) just bc U tweet it doesn’t mean it’s seen.

Geoffrey White, MBA, BCL (Oxon) is a lawyer and aspiring social media expert.

Thanks to Jackson for his kind invitation to write.
If you like what you see or if you don’t, then please tell Jackson.

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