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Social Media Insights from Obama's 'Digital Oracle', Mike Slaby [Recap]

By CO Staff @canadaone |

Social media seems to offer many opportunities, but given that your competition also have access to these same tools, how can you get your message heard above the din?

Mike Slaby, often called the 'digital oracle' for the work he did as the CTO on President Obama's highly successfully 'Obama for America' social media campaign and Minister Takhar, Goverment Services for Ontario appeared on The Direct Engagement Show on February 24, 2011 to answer this and other questions.

The show was a great success and clips of the different questions are now available online. The following recap outlines the questions that were asked, with excerpts from the speakers and video clips of their full answers.

Here is a recap of what the experts had to say.

Part I: Using Social Media in a Small Businesses

The Basics: Social Media 101

As the first question of the night, Julie King, publisher of, asked about the simple, practical things people have to look after — especially businesses — to start using social media in their organizations.

Exerpt from Mike Slaby:

"Fundamentally, social environments are about building relationships and those relationships take time and those relationships require resources to manage and to understand ... and exist on a timeframe that organizations are not familiar with."

The key to a successful social media strategy

Sean Stanleigh, editor of Your Business at the Globe & Mail, asked how a business can effectively integrate social media, which is a tall order for any organization, especially a small organization.

Excerpt from Mike Slaby:

"I think the first step here is recognizing that it's a task that requires resources. To do successfully we're talking about creating and maintaining relationships with a lot of people and relationships take time. Relationships take effort.

Excerpt from Minister Takhar:

"This is an opportunity for you to bring really good, young talent into the organization. This is a second nature to them. Maybe not to the people who've been there before, but if you bring a young person, dynamic person into the organization, they can do it quite effectively."

Small biz should first ask why they are going to use social media tools

Highlighting a question from the web, Stefan Lialias, host of The Direct Engagement Show, asked about the "1-2-3" steps you need to take to develop a social media strategy before you actually start to deploy it on tools.

Excerpt from Mike Slaby:

"The first questions are some of the things I talked about before which are why. What are we trying to do and what inside of our business is this going to help us drive? Are we trying to do better customer service? Are we trying to reach more people? Are we trying to drive sales? These kinds of questions are important so that we don't end up on some path that's interesting and taking up a lot of time, but that may or may not be connected to what we are trying to achieve as an organization."

What to Do if No One Seems to Be Listening

Sean Stanleigh asked for advice for a small business operating a tour company in Manitoba that is using social media as experts recommend, but it seems that nobody is listening.

Excerpt from Mike Slaby:

"Look, there isn't a 'hook'. You are talking about building relationships and building community. Community organizing is fundamentally about articulating a vision of reality and an aspirational vision of the future that you're going to involve people in, in a narrative.

"People connect and become part of communities as part of their identities and as a part of how they shape themselves and enter the world. So we're talking fundamentally about an emotional connection.

"The things that organizations and businesses tend to struggle with in this is that they start — and this conversation has too — we start with tactics. We start with 'how do I use Facebook, how do I use Twitter, I should be online, I need to be in search, I need to worry about search engine optimization.

"And all of those are valid questions that need intelligent, thoughtful answers. Before we get to any of those questions, the question of why are we engaging and what are we trying to do — who are we — up at the top of this stack is a set of values that drive a mission.

"A mission that is executed via a set of strategy and a strategy that gets put into practice from tactics. If we don't start with values and mission, community's never going to coalesce."

Exerpt from Minister Takhar:

"My feeling is social media is just an extra tool. The basic fundamentals of the business have not changed. So we still need to find out who our target audience is and where the target audience is going and how we're going to reach to that target audience."

A Caution About Jumping in with Discounts

Host Stefan Lialias asked the panellists if the idea of using 'hooks', such as discounts, would be more compelling than focusing on your story or narrative.

Exerpt from Mike Slaby:

"I think a discount is an interesting motivation to action. I don't know that it is something you can bind a community around. I think there is a step before the offer. Before you can make the offer you need to get people to affiliate with you and join a community and be connected to you in a way in which you can offer something and so I think it's a little bit of the cart before the horse. "

Exerpt from Minister Takhar:

"I think the fundamentals of the business don't change because of social media. Social media is just another tool to help you achieve your objectives. The question of why is important, like why are you trying to do what you are trying to do and if social media can help you reach more customers or more audience ... I think that's the way you need to go."

Plan to Address Security Risks

Julie King asked how the panellists handle security issues, from dealing with simple things like securing passwords to much bigger issues like having someone hijack the message of a senior politician.

Excerpt from Mike Slaby:

"Fundamentally good security policy is mostly about training and it's mostly about posture. Understanding what security is for and what the risks are ... people are generally the weak points in technical security. Making sure that your staff understands that there is a security risk, this is a missed starting point by especially small businesses. That there is in fact a risk, that there is in fact something that they need to consider is often the starting point — admitting that you have a problem."

Exerpt from Minister Takhar:

"In my mind there are two questions there. One is the security ... in any organization you have to put into effect a policy and procedures in place to make sure some of those concerns are addressed.

"The second point I would like to make is actually making an effective use of these social media resources. What can you do or not do with the social media tools? Like, how do you really train your staff and say 'some of these things are acceptable, some of these things may not be acceptable'. Especially in the political environment, that becomes very, very critical."

How to Handle the Risk of Losing Control of Your Message

Julie King noted that it can be a bit scary to give up your "story" and allow the community to engage and possibly take it in a direction you may not be comfortable with. She asked how to manage that as a business and also about how social media is impacting the way people view trust.

Excerpt from Mike Slaby:

"In terms of the idea of message control and the way we've sort of traditionally thought of it is pretty much dead. The reason I talk about values is that as you bring people into an organization, if they become part of a set of values and buy into a set of beliefs they are generally going to work for the benefit of the organization. They've affiliated with you for some reason and it's generally a desire to be a part of something greater than themselves.

"The idea that the story may go in the wrong way -- look, community management is always about incentivizing behaviour. It's about making examples of people sharing stories and engaging in ways that you do find beneficial and lifting those to the top ... and the community will tend to police itself around the edges.

"Depending on the communities that matter to you and the audiences you are trying to reach, you can go to where your people are. One of the things that social media and sort of the digitization of media generally offers small businesses in particular is the ability to go and reach people directly without a filter and without the expense of things like paid media, although that plays a role and can play a role and can be an important piece of this. You can go to the communities that matter to you, wherever they are."

Exerpt from Minister Takhar:

"The social media makes it more open and transparent, there is no question about it. And there are some challenges associated with it, especially in the political environment. You want to control the messages sometimes, but in this case you can't control the messages. And the message goes — not only  you can't control it, but it goes instantly and it's all over the map.

"But there are plusses and minuses for that. I think the plusses outweigh the minuses by a long shot, because you reach a bigger audience, you get to know their opinions, you can then shape your thinking, you can shape your program as you move forward."

How do you measure the R.O.I. on social media?

Sean Stanleigh asked if how social media can boost the bottom line can be measured.

Excerpt from Mike Slaby:

"The idea of ROI in an environment where you have constrained resources and where you're fundamentally trying to move an organization forward towards a goal, you need to make sure that the things you do are moving towards that goal. The language that we always used as we were thinking through how we were doing things on the campaign was 'how does this help us win?'.

"One of the great things about digital media is that there are so many things to count ... the challenge becomes attaching meaning to what you're counting and then making intelligent correlative  relationships between what you're seeing in things like attention and trust and soft metrics and connecting them intelligently to hard metrics like sales.

"The idea that you will always find a causal relationship is flawed. That you have a meaningful, tested benchmarked, well defended logic around a correlative relationship is what you're looking for in some of these things."

Exerpt from Minister Takhar:

"In the service environment, the most important information you can get back from social media is the feedback. For example, the Service Ontario centres that our government runs, we get the feedback back that the wait times are high, and then you can focus on those wait times and reduce those wait times. Actually, that creates ... the right environment  for the government to succeed."

Two Questions About Trust

1) How do you establish 'trust' with your social media community?

Stefan Lialias shared a comment from the web and also pointed to Edelman's trust barometer. He asked how you gain trust, especially on a campaign like the 'Obama for America' election campaign.

Excerpt from Mike Slaby:

"The same way you develop trust with people, you develop trust with a community. By telling them the truth, by having interesting things to say that are valuable to them and that you're a credible source of information on. I know a lot about politics, but if I start talking about fly fishing you guys should tune out, because I don't know what I'm talking about."


2) Is social media a more trusted source than traditional media?

Stefan Lialias highlighted a recent GlobalWebIndex annual report that found people placed a greater trust in social networks than things like micro blogs, radio and newspapers and asked about the strengths of connecting to a community of friends.

Excerpt from Mike Slaby:

"The ability to go directly to a community is always powerful. Not being disinter-mediated by the media is something that politicians really crave."


A member of the audience asked how to distinguish yourself and if there is room in the market for more "personalities"? Then, as a follow-up question, another audience member asked for advice on handling a case like the recent issue with Kate Middleton, where Facebook shut down all Kate Middleton accounts because there were so many and Facebook was trying to figure out who is Kate Middleton and who isn't.

Exerpt from Mike Slaby:

"Having some humility about who you are and what you have to offer is an important piece here.

"As you enter a market, what are you about? Are you about something fundamentally different that a community of people needs and wants from you?

"That differentiation, from a communications perspective, will take the place of 'can I develop a voice that expresses that differentiation'? Can I find an intelligent, engaging, compelling way to tell that story that is funny or exciting or more serious ... or whatever it is in a way that is both authentic to who I am and what I am trying to do, but also compelling in a way that's new to people."

Exerpt from Minister Takhar:

"If I am following somebody, I want to get some real value out of it. If it doesn't add any value for me, I will follow for five seconds and it will disappear."



Part II: Additional Questions Related to Social Media's Impact on Government


President Obama got directly involved in social media strategy.

Mike Slaby: How they got people to take action in the presidential campaign.

A member of the audience asked how Mike Slaby and his team mobilized people in the Obama presidential election campaign to take action and donate money.

Exerpt from Mike Slaby:

"We think of activation in an engagement ladder, rather than a marketing funnel which is an incredibly impersonal, mean thing to do to somebody. You're going to 'push' them through a funnel.

"Think of this an an engagement ladder of awareness and then repeat traffic to the website and then joining and taking some join action and then each of these has a higher level of ... a higher sort of activation potential and also a higher value to the organization. Each of those actions can be optimized and focused on the conversion rate of each of those elements for each of the different sub-groups inside the campaign."

Predictions about how social media will influence the way we are governed in the future

An audience member asked both panellists to comment on how social media can be expected to affect the way we are governed and affect other aspects of governance around the world in the future.

Exerpt from Mike Slaby:

"It becomes too easy not to tell a more complete story. There's a lot of hiding behind complexity that happens in government. 'We can't give you all the data, it's just too complicated.' Not anymore. It's just not. It's irresponsible for us not to do it in a democracy."

Exerpt from Minister Takhar:

"We have to learn to use technology to the best and most effective way ... more transparency, more openness at the government levels and at every organizational level is going to happen."

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