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How to really use social media effectively: an interview with Dr. Andrew Stephen

One of the projects that Andrew Stephen has his Katz Graduate School of Business School students do in his social media class is to produce a video and make it go viral.  Perhaps you've seen a few recently, focused on the Katz brand, on Facebook or Twitter.
"Content just doesn't spread like wildfire," says Stephen. "They come to the realization that it's really hard to do. It's more than viral marketing; it's more like guerrilla or grassroots marketing and my students learn how to get people engaged." One of the goals of the assignment, he says, was to convince them how difficult it is to have content spread.
When it comes to using social media effectively, Andrew Stephen ought to know. Now 31, he arrived at Columbia University in 2005 as a doctoral candidate just as Facebook was being introduced and the term social media was first coined. He was, he notes, in the right time at the right place. After Columbia he went to the renowned INSEAD in France as a marketing instructor from 2009 through 2011 where he launched his first social media MBA class.
Today he is one of the few professors locally—or anywhere else for that matter--teaching social media in a graduate business school. "Katz is a forward-thinking business school," says the professor who has lived in Pittsburgh for a year.
We met Stephen over coffee in the Strip and talked for several hours. Although we were tempted to keep his answers within 140 characters or less, we opted to quote him in full. We did, unfortunately, have to edit and condense this for length. (Got questions after reading this? We suggest you tweet him.)
What companies are using social media effectively?
Typically the companies who are doing it well are doing it as a complement to paid advertising. Starbucks is one.
The secret sauce lies in figuring out how to use social media for more than "hey we're doing a promotion today" announcements.  Companies should try to build loyalty, gather intelligence, share information, and interact with customers.
Delta Airlines is another model company. Say your Delta flight was canceled. Tweet Delta and tell them you need help figuring out how to get on another flight and they'll get back to you in 15 minutes or so.  It's simple, clever, and very efficient. It shifts people away from face to face or phone support so it's cost effective and it adds customer value. Other airlines have copied the strategy.
As another example, Best Buy uses their social media effectively by assigning Twitter questions about a product or installation to sales people in their stores who are idle.
Wigle Whiskey is building a great brand and plenty of excitement. Anytime anyone mentions Wigle Whiskey in social media, they respond and make people feel part of a community.
Another example is chef Kevin Sousa of Salt of the Earth. He uses Twitter a lot to engage with his customers. He actively responds to tweets and posts content about food and his restaurants. People say things and he replies. It's a good example of where you can take social media—less about one-way information and more about two-way interactions and engaging with people.
What's the biggest mistake people make in social media?
Trying to do too much. They feel they've got to be on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and to have an active account for everything. You should put your flag down and get an account but not necessarily use it, at least not right away. You need to think it through.  Not every business needs to be on social media.
Companies should see it as another channel of reaching and communicating with their customers. How can it add value above and beyond what you're already doing? If it can do that, fantastic. If you can't see it directly adding value in an informal way, what's the point? In that case, why add another challenge? People should try to avoid getting caught up in the hype.
What's the best way to engage people?
You have to give people something to talk about. Spark conversations.
If you're trying to seed a conversation it helps to be very specific and contained in your topic. It's tricky, since the intuitive way is to say “what you do think about this?” in very general terms. But guiding the conversation by asking questions that are direct, focused, and specific is a better strategy.
Let's talk about that FB like button.
I have a slide in my MBA class with a like button and a big red cross through it. “Likes” can give a false sense of success and it is not clear that more likes lead to better performance. I think companies are starting to realize this, but there’s still an over-emphasis on “likes” at the expense of other metrics.
Encouraging people to hit the share button is a better approach. How many people are actually talking about your page and brand by sharing it? This is more meaningful.
I think one of the biggest mistakes people are making in social media marketing is focusing on “likes” as a key metric. If the objective is getting the word out, “shares” is more relevant.
What about all those sites now tracking and scoring influence?
Measuring individual influence in social media is tricky. The whole notion of measurement of influence at the individual level is at a really early stage. The current flavor of the month is the Klout score. This tends to look at it at an aggregate level: are you influential in general in social media? That's ok, but there's a lot more to influence than one number. It has to get more topic-specific and type of influence-specific.
Where should the person who wants to stay up to date on social media go?
For social media, mashable.com and techcrunch.com.  Also look at what companies are doing—read case studies and see what they've done. But more than anything else, getting your hands dirty by experimenting with all forms of social media yourself is the best approach.
Who do you follow on Twitter?
I pay the attention to Mashable. They're pretty influential in setting the conversation topic. Also Ad Age on Twitter. They're really good at raising awareness on important things marketers are doing.
What's the future of social media?
Facebook and Twitter are well established and not going away. Pinterest is new and notable for introducing a more visual style of sharing richer media content as opposed to text. Being more visual with photos and videos could be the way things are headed now that Facebook has acquired Instagram and given Pinterest’s rapid growth.
Everything is also becoming more mobile. A large proportion of Facebook and Twitter use is on smart phones.
For businesses, social media will become increasingly relevant as the set of viable uses for social media expands beyond advertising, communications, and promotions. We’re starting to see this in areas like customer service and branding, as well as product development and innovation. For instance, companies are using crowdsourcing to get product ideas from customers; it's all social media in some form.
Andrew and his wife, Fiona Lazar, who manages American Eagle's international e-commerce business, live in the Strip District.
Follow Andrew @andrewtstephen. And follow us at @PopCityPgh.
 Photographs copyright Brian Cohen
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