If we were to go by its moniker, “Social Media” should present itself as a communication channel rooted in human interaction – people from around the world using accessible publishing tools to share news, ideas and information with each other. It is definitely social, but could it be more human – particularly when it comes to organizations or brands?

We know that individuals are behind the posts, tweets and comments but it seems that organizations may have lost sight of the fact that actual people are connecting with their content. In order to free up their trust in a brand, audiences might like to know a little bit more about the people behind the icons and logos they subscribe to, follow or like.

People Buy From People

Organizations are ecosystems built around people, so “humanizing” them might seem like an oxymoronic exercise. But is it? Lauren Vargas from Radian 6 wrote a great post about humanizing the organization from a B2B perspective – but the principles apply to any online or offline relationship – people buy from people:

“The essence of social media is about breaking down barriers, forging relationships and encouraging a dialog and not a monologue between the organization and the community. As defined by the dictionary, a relationship is “an emotional or other connection between people.” Not between a person and a company avatar. Not between a person and an automated response. People to people.”

Part of the issue for some brands is transparency – if they are communicating to their audience through an agency and not from inside their four walls, it’s more difficult to make that human connection. Yes, some organizations are up front about the fact that a PR firm or agency acts as the conduit between them and their audience, but trying to build a relationship around that is another matter altogether. Imagine the profile…

We’d like you to meet Jane Doe, a key member of our team. Jane is an intern at the PR agency we’ve hired to communicate with you on our behalf. The brand message is ours…but the words are all her own. In her spare time she likes to go for long walks, read historical fiction and watch costume dramas. Thanks for connecting with us.

Tough sell.

A Peek Behind the Logo

But what about organizations that are leveraging employee participation to communicate with their audiences through social media? Here are a few tactics to consider implementing to humanize your brand:

  • Instead of an icon or logo, use a team photo for your Facebook page or corporate twitter account to show that real people are behind the brand.
  • Include the names of employees representing the brand in any account profiles, about us pages, etc.
  • Include a page on your blog with author profiles and photos – offer a behind the scenes look at their role within the organization.
  • Have a monthly “Meet our Team” post on your blog or Facebook page. This could include a text entry with an attached image or a video post that offers some insight into the personality of the organization.
  • Build stories around individual employees’ favourite products, why they love them, how they use them, etc.
  • Encourage team members to communicate on behalf of the brand through their own twitter accounts – which would include their photo, their role within the organization and a link back to the company website.
  • Get out of the office – have a plan that bridges digital communication with face-to-face audience interaction. This could include employees speaking at industry functions, hosting seminars or educational events, employee volunteerism within your community, regular pr/service visits into the marketplace, etc.

What other tactics could you implement to humanize your brand?

Understand Your Audiences

A word of caution before pulling the curtain back on your organization – take some time to really understand the needs of your internal and external audiences. Before setting out to humanize your organization through social media:

  1. Communicate social media goals and guidelines with employees – particularly if they will be representing your brand through personal accounts of off- hours.
  2. Understand the information needs of your audience and balance the frequency of culture posts – personal stories are great for building relationships but it’s important to be mindful of the fact that too much content related to the organization may not be of interest to your stakeholders.

What types of things are you doing to humanize your organization? Have you experienced any benefits for your brand? What are some of the challenges with connecting a human face to your business or non-profit?

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About Mark Smiciklas

Mark Smiciklas

Mark Smiciklas is a Digital Strategist, author and President of Intersection Consulting; a Vancouver based digital marketing agency that teaches organizations how to leverage the dynamics of the web to achieve business goals. Mark is also the managing editor at Solopreneur.ca and is an established marketing and social media practitioner recognized for his visual thinking and practical strategic approach. You can connect with him on Google+.

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Comments Policy

Comments on Social Media Explorer are open to anyone. However, I will remove any comment that is disrespectful and not in the spirit of intelligent discourse. You are welcome to leave links to content relevant to the conversation, but I reserve the right to remove it if I don't see the relevancy. Be nice, have fun. Fair?

  • Anonymous

    Mark,
    One reason that the logo remains popular is also one with roots in good business as well. Social media, Web 2.0 or whatever other moniker we want to give the space is hot right now. Every company is looking to hire someone to manage their accounts in the space. If you have someone who becomes the face or voice of the company and is extremely good at his/her job, you have to worry about talent poaching. Now while it may sound paranoid and big bother-ish, think about what it would mean if your top person who has built up the community suddenly leaves and there is a drop off. Are your social connections with the brand or with the person leaving?

    Vince makes a similar point with Sanchez. I also like the fact that I have two accounts that I am active on. One for the company and a personal one where I discuss many things and don’t post that thoughts are my own, just that I am a PR manager at the company. The personal one is more active than the corporate one, despite the 1000+ interactions with customers.

    Keeping a privacy of sorts behind the logo also allows employees to disconnect from the brand on weekends and vacations. To me listing personal Twitter handles opens up the door for direct outreach in inopportune times.

    • http://twitter.com/intersection1 Mark Smiciklas

      Thanks for the comment Jeff – Really good points.

      Upon further reflection I agree that personal Twitter handles as a primary communication channel may not be the best way to go – but I know that there are scores of personal accounts that state their organizational affiliation, so connections are being made regardless – a guideline/policy here would be in order.

      The personal brand phenomenon is interesting – organizational platforms have nurtured the development of social media rock stars that have gone out on their own, so you’re point here is very valid. A good recent example of an company remedying this is Forrester – they have consolidated all their bloggers under a corporate roof – still offering employees an opportunity to voice their ideas but under the Forrester brand umbrella.

      Building on your comment about the logo and its roots is good business. I feel relationships form a critical part of the foundation of a solid organization – This has always been the case with B2B and is now emerging in B2C. Social media is transforming the relationship dynamic. Before web 2.0 consumers didn’t really factor in the mix because messages were broadcast one-way…consumers connected with brands more through story telling through advertising.

      Times have definitely changed with 2-way communication/brand dialogue and I see an opportunity for organizations to connect via humanization. Now, I agree, it may not be through one person managing the program – this doesn’t make sense for many reasons in addition to your risk example…it’s impossible to scale, it’s an organizational activity, etc.

      I feel a balance can be struck – opening up the organizational curtain a little bit to reveal the personalities behind the brand while maintaining some brand consistency through education and guidance.

  • Vince DeGeorge

    I've been thinking about this a lot lately. Do you feel like this could be a double-edged sword for a company? People leave companies for various reasons – some good, some bad. What happens to those relationships that have been formed on behalf of the company? This has obviously been a big subject lately with the firing of Rick Sanchez on CNN. How does a company handle this transition?

    Hopefully it happens under positive circumstances, but if not, couldn't that relationship made through the humanization of the people behind things tarnish the brand as it once helped it?

    • http://katetheprofessional.wordpress.com Kate M Davids

      Great point, and one you don't often hear. I first came across this idea the book Twitterville. The author spent a great deal of time on the subject but didn't really go into the “what happens if you have to fire the employee” scenario.

      I think the best way to handle the scenario is to do a combination of the two tactics: having a branded/company account as well as encouraging the employee participation. I like Mark's meet the team blog post idea. In this way it is very similar to a news organization having star reporters. Dealing with loosing or firing a star reporter has been done time and time again, so there are plenty of case studies to learn from if it happens to your company. Meanwhile the regular employee evangelists are seen as just that, regular employees. They can be instructed to pass on valid sales leads or to look for company info from the branded account, still getting the human contact but not opening the company up to the more horrendous repercussions because the contacts are shared.

    • http://insightsandingenuity.com Heather Rast

      Vince, I read an interesting piece recently by Rohit Bhargava diving into this topic, and he reviewed 3 approaches for companies to consider in terms of how closely to enmesh the brand (in social venues) with those persons who use the tools and drive/perpetuate the social content. Good stuff to consider in context here. http://www.rohitbhargava.com/2010/09/how-to-replace-a-social-media-super-star.html

      • Vince DeGeorge

        Thank you for that link – it is good stuff. I think we're about to reach a tipping point with this as social media adoption has increased. It's also an issue that crosses boundaries between the PR/Marketing department and HR. I think companies may need a Digital Communications Department eventually – with people hired specifically for this. They'll be PR/Marketing, HR and IT all rolled into one. So far each department believes social media to be THEIR piece to run in one way or another.

    • http://twitter.com/intersection1 Mark Smiciklas

      Excellent question Vince.

      Yes, there is a risk of equity built through humanization to erode pretty quickly should an employer/employee relationship go sideways. However, with free scalable publishing tools at the ready, employees can lash out at an organization as a result of a HR situation at any moment, regardless of whether they represent the brand or not.

      Sharing the power of social media communication with employees may not work for many brands for a variety of reasons i.e. culture, privacy issues, perceived competitive advantage, etc. I agree that organizations need to approach this type of initiative cautiously – just handing over the keys without a strategy is never a good idea :)

      Ultimately it comes down to the people – Do you have the type of employees you can trust to represent your brand? Have they been trained and presented with guidelines? Do they really understand the responsibility? If the answer is no, it's probably a good idea to keep the wall up.

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  • Mark W Schaefer

    Really excellent advice Mark. This theme has also been a topic on my blog as well as my classes. A best practice I demonstrate in my class lecture is Coca-Cola (no affiliation but a guy can dream, right?). On their facebook page, they have profiles of the people behind the updates. I love that. Makes a big brand seem human.

    Thanks for the practical tips!

    @markwschaefer

    • http://twitter.com/intersection1 Mark Smiciklas

      Thanks Mark – The Coke example sounds cool. I will definitely pop by their Facebook page to check it out.

  • http://www.webtechuniverse.com Steve Austin

    Hi Mark,
    What you have mentioned in this article is really great. it is true now a days, over 90% of the companies are using the social media as a main marketing strategy…..

    • http://twitter.com/intersection1 Mark Smiciklas

      Thanks Steve – glad you enjoyed the post.

      As far as companies using social media marketing – I don't know the stats, but 90% seems a bit high to me. I would say that most are not using social media as their “main” strategy…and that's not a bad thing – I think that social media should be an element of an overall plan and not simply treated as a stand alone solution.

      • http://www.webtechuniverse.com Steve Austin

        Yes i go with you Mark

  • http://twitter.com/erictschmidt Eric Schmidt

    Humanizing is fine, but small business owners will step forward slowly and for good reason. For us it's not about keeping things from our customers, it's about keeping things away from our competitors. Our service business is constantly scoped out and fake-called by our competition so they can try to find the “secret recipie” as to why we are leading in our local community. For this reason, we don't do our website or social media the way most people would expect. I learned that the hard way. Since our target market hasn't fully adopted social media yet (40+) as a consistant communication vehicle, I have a small window to figure things out based on the local data I've gathered the past two years as the generation using it now comes into our market. But, yeah, it's still dog eat dog out there …

    • http://twitter.com/intersection1 Mark Smiciklas

      Thanks for the comment Eric. You bring up an interesting point about social media use with your audience – the concept of social media humanization is likely less relevant for organizations whose customers are not actively using those channels to communicate.

      Based on the fact that you are “leading in your local community” suggests your company has done a good job building relationships…or humanizing offline so to speak – it's a great reminder not to forget about the importance of face-to-face communication.

  • Rainbowguide99

    The Amazing Widget can really do the tricks for super-fast monkey making opportunities http://budurl.com/AmazingWidget

    • Jeff Larche

      Thank you, Mr. Rainbowguide99 spammer. Or should I say “spamer,” since, like most blog comment spams, yours is misspelled. Who let you in here anyway? ;-)

      Addressing everyone else:

      It's ironic, don't you think, that a post on the humanization of social media would become a party that is crashed by a spam bot?

  • http://www.wickedinnovations.com/ Jeorge Peter

    Nice message, we sometimes forget to be a lot more informed and be personal of the people on our social media list.

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  • http://www.seldomseenkid.co.uk geetarchurchy

    I really love the approach that Shaketastic, a small UK milkshake bar, take to interacting with their Twitter and Facebook communities: http://www.facebook.com/shaketastic

    You instantly connect with them because the profiles are run by people within the company who love what they do.

    It's the perfect combination of cool product, cool people and correct interaction.

    • http://twitter.com/intersection1 Mark Smiciklas

      Thanks for the comment and great example – good things can happen when organizations leverage employee social media participation .

  • http://twitter.com/MonicaBongart Monica

    This was excellent! It's very hard to help people see past the technology that makes social media available and focus on the behaviors that makes it so successful. Thanks for this contribution!

    • http://twitter.com/intersection1 Mark Smiciklas

      Monica, you're most welcome – glad you enjoyed the post and thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment. I like your point about the tools simply being a conduit – and that it's the people behind them that bring social media to life.

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  • Vargaslmv

    Great actionable items to help humanize a brand or organization. Thank you for giving my post a shout out. I think it is key we understand that social media is not exclusively online…we have to meet these communities where they live online AND offline.

    Lauren Vargas
    Sr. Community Manager at Radian6
    @VargasL

    • http://twitter.com/intersection1 Mark Smiciklas

      Thanks for dropping by Lauren. Great point about bridging online/offline – I think that face to face interaction with your audience really helps “complete” connections nurtured online.

  • http://ericadewolf.wordpress.com/ Erica DeWolf

    This is a great post and I couldn't agree more! Companies acquire a new twitter account or facebook account or any account and they turn it into a machine. A little personal touch can go a long way in humanizing content- and making potential customers feel a lot better about the company they are doing business with. Thanks!

  • http://www.derrickesmond.info Derrick Esmond

    I find this to be true in the mlm /Network Marketing Industry also people want to be big brands and not bring out who they are as people “the real you”. I loved this

    Thanks
    Derrick Esmond

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