When I started my career on the web years ago, more years than I care to admit at this point, I dealt with the criticism from people about websites firsthand. “Websites are just a fad. People aren’t going to use them. Why would anyone read about us on our website; that’s what our newsletter/catalog is for. Hello, have you heard of phone books? No one is going to get our phone number from our website. We don’t even give our employees’ access to the Internet, it’s a waste of time.”
Does any of that sound familiar?
I had the discussions and was able to help people see their website was a valuable communications tool. This thinking became the norm. I moved into a point in my career where I felt comfortable that I’d never have to hear those arguments again. People invested in their websites and built their communications/marketing strategies around them making the website a focal point. You knew that if people wanted to learn about your organization, they were going to start by visiting your website. I no longer had to have the conversation justifying the mere existence of a website. All was right with the world.
Along came the social web
I tell some of the stories now about people in senior management at different organizations I’ve worked with saying that the website was a waste of time and I never fail to get a laugh. People understand how short-sighted that opinion was. They now understand that there was a monumental change happening in the way people got information. Everyone looks back now and it all seems so obvious.
A few years ago, people started doing a little something called blogging. What’s blogging? So it’s just some person in their mom’s basement, right? So what, people leave them comments, big deal. What do you mean when you say community? So forth and so on.
But it didn’t stop with blogging. Along came an entire social world built on the web. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, just to name some of the largest communities. The discussions started again.
“Social media is a fad. No one is going to use social media to learn about our company. What’s a tweet? They’re just talking about what they had for lunch. We block our employees from even using social media, it’s a waste of time.”
Does any of that sound familiar?
Ok, social web got it. But utilities aren’t using them yet, right?
You’ve probably heard about the millions in sales that Dell has generated through twitter, the goodwill Comcast was able to gain through customer service agents on twitter, or even the success of the Old Spice Guy YouTube channel. There’s a ton of stories like them. But there probably aren’t any utilities using the social web to engage their customers and expand their communications, right?
Well, let’s just take a quick look at one of my favorite member companies, Atmos Energy. You’ll see why as we walk through this. I visit their homepage looking for information. There’s all the usual great information including a nice toll free number. That’s great but what’s this sitting right smack in the middle of the page. Why it’s a familiar set of social web icons.
Let’s start with their Facebook fan page. I’m greeted with messages about about their company, their people, and their work in the community. I can see conversations between Atmos Energy and that community. Questions, thanks, even complaints or requests for help. There are pictures, video and wall posts that tell Atmos Energy’s story.
Welcome to communication on the social web.
Taking a break to make a point
Here’s the deal. Years ago, you needed the media if you were an organization that wanted to spread your word. You bought the space for the message, crafted the message and distributed the message. People like me that did that for a living will tell you the yellow page ad space was expensive; the company newsletter took weeks to produce so the “news” section really should have been called “old news;” and that expensive shiny brochure was only as good as the mail list that went along with it.
Then along came websites. There’s still a cost, don’t get me wrong but many things changed. You didn’t have to buy ad space. You could communicate with your audience directly, and more importantly, quickly. You didn’t have to wait a week or two for your newsletter to print. You didn’t even have to wait a day for the story to appear in your newspaper. You could publish as rapidly as you needed. And the fear of that tiny mistake missed in blue line that would live forever that would wake you from a sound sleep was gone. You could correct it on the web. Whole new audiences found you on the web. Those people you were missing in your targeted mailings.
Here is what you are missing about the social web. The Atmos Energy Facebook fan page has about a thousand fans. Those are people that are willing to engage with Atmos Energy. Willing to hear their message and have a dialogue back. Those are potential storytellers to spread your message.
That’s the change from the web to the social web. People now share their stories with their social network. Studies are showing that instead of going to a search engine, people are starting to send a quick note to their social networks asking for information. This is what scares Google and why Facebook now sees more traffic than any website, including Google, on Earth.
And it’s not the kids either. In a study by the Pew Internet Research Center, they stated, “Between April 2009 and May 2010, Internet users ages 50-64 who said they use a social networking site like MySpace, Facebook or LinkedIn grew 88% and those ages 65 and older grew 100% in their adoption of the sites, compared with a growth rate of 13% for those ages 18-29.”
That same study goes on to say that, “Social networking use among internet users ages 50 and older has nearly doubled — from 22% to 42% over the past year. Half (47%) of Internet users ages 50-64 and one-in-four (26%) users ages 65 and older now use social networking sites.”
As broad band expands and mobile devices become more popular (think your phone, tablet, iPod Touch, etc.) these numbers are only going to grow.
Back to Atmos Energy
The Atmos Energy twitter account has followers made up of media, partner organizations and customers (I’m assuming here that some of the individuals are their customers but I don’t have access to their customer information to verify this.) The YouTube community has videos that range from “corporate glossy” to “low-budget” that have been viewed more than 5,000 times.
All of those communities have messaging tailored to the channel and the community around it. Atmos Energy invested real time in building these communities and they will continue to grow over time. Don’t get too caught up in numbers. The numbers aren’t important except that they allow you to keep an eye on trending and growth. The important part is the connection Atmos Energy is establishing with it’s audience.
As you can see, Atmos Energy is fully engaged on the social web. They know what they’re doing and are doing it well.