By Bart Egnal
How We Discovered That Social Media Distracted Us From Our Mission
On December 31, 2016, after 3 years on Twitter, The Humphrey Group sent its last tweet. And though we will keep our LinkedIn profile, we intend to invest little time or energy into our social media presence in the coming years.
This wasn’t a snap decision; we had spent 36 months increasing our commitment to, “have a conversation” with our clients, staff and industry voices. We had sent over 1700 tweets. Our Founder, Judith Humphrey, and I both wrote about leadership communication online for publications like Fast Company, the Globe & Mail, and Canadian Business, and shared that content through our social media channels. When my book, Leading Through Language, was published a year ago, I did extensive interviews and used social media to connect with listeners around the world.
But despite all these efforts, we decided that to do really do right by Twitter would require us to invest substantial time and energy -- and doing so would take our team away from the actual work we do with clients. The result was our decision to shutter the account and continue to focus on building client relationships the old fashioned way: one conversation, one course, one coaching session at a time.
It’s clear that we aren’t the only business making this decision. This Canadian Business article (which I was interviewed for) lays out that many other companies reached the same conclusion -- or never tried at all.
I can’t say whether social media is for you or your company -- but I am happy to take a moment to share the lessons we learned through our 3-year foray into social media. One caveat: the lessons we learned may not apply to you or your business. They reflect the fact that our company focuses on business-to-business relationships, does its work in person, and has grown almost exclusively through word-of-mouth.
Lesson One: If you launch it, they won’t come.
In 2016 we delivered over 1200 days of coaching and training and worked with over 100 companies and nearly 10,000 clients around the world. Yet when we launched our Twitter account it took over a year to accumulate over 300 followers. What’s more, only a small percentage of those 300 were clients at all. Despite having the handle on our cards and our website, clients eschewed the opportunity to connect and instead continued to do business with us as they always had: face-to-face.
As Twitter neophytes we were surprised by some of the things that happened. Frequently someone would follow us -- I remember the voice of Siri doing so -- and then would unfollow us just days or hours later. We learned that these people were hoping for us to follow them back, in a “trade” of building followership. In other instances, we noticed other followers who we didn’t “like” enough would also unfollow us. They too seemed interested in a transactional relationship -- likes and retweets were the only way we would retain their fickle following.
Suffice to say, these strange relationships were not ones we were interested in pursuing, as they were not helping us to connect with people and organizations genuinely interested in leadership communication.
Lesson Two: To be heard on Twitter you must create content -- which may require you and your team to spend less time actually doing what you love.
After our first underwhelming year on Twitter we consulted with a few social media experts, and their feedback was remarkably consistent: we needed to vastly increase the amount of content we “pushed” out, and we needed to be tweeting at regular intervals. If we tweeted at 8:00, 10:30, 12:00, 2:30 and 5:30, we were told, we would reach people at the key moments of their day (time zones apparently were not a consideration).
Perhaps more relevantly they told us we should be creating lots of unique content to send to our followers. We should be producing articles, interviews with our staff, having conversations with our followers and giving people insights into the work we did. We needed to connect with “thought leaders”, engage with their content, and build community with regular dialogue.
While this all sounded like a compelling way to build our followers, there was one big problem: we would have to take some of our team away from the work they were passionate about and set them to generating this content. Our team is unified by its commitment to clients...so why would we ask them to stop doing that, just to feed the Twitter content machine? We even had to take one of our employees OFF managing our Twitter account because she was in such demand by clients!
Lesson Three: You can’t outsource Twitter and expect it to be meaningful.
When we made the decision not to dedicate our own team’s time to tweeting and creating content, the experts we’d consulted offered us an alternate solution: they could do it for us. For a fee they could create tweets, spark conversations and generally be our voice. We decided to give it a try.
Though our followers did increase, we were increasingly less excited about what our Twitter had become. Rather than a true conversation it was a series of generic platitudes about our work, retweets of sort-of-relevant articles, or reposts of older articles Judith and I had written. As a company who takes great pains to help our clients make every important communication hit home, it seemed we were not being true to our own identity.
We always advise our clients to invest time, energy and passion in their communication if they want to be success. Small surprise that we were learning the same lesson applies on social media. If you don’t put the time in yourself, don’t bother.
Lesson Four: Meaningful connections are still best forged in person.
For over 25 years we have built strong and lasting connections with our clients. These connections almost always begin with a conversation, which lead to a chance to work in person with them on their leadership communication skills. The relationships are then established through the quality of the work we do, and through how we continue to support and grow with our clients in the years that follow our courses and coaching.
We also faced a practical obstacle: confidentiality. The bulk of the work we do with clients is confidential; while they could (and did) Tweet about us, it wouldn’t be appropriate for us to do the same without their consent. And we had no interest in asking them to help us self-promote: doing so would take us away from the work we actually cared about doing.
Closing Thoughts, Closing Twitter
The last three years proved to us that our clients couldn’t care less about our Twitter account. Yet even as our experiment fizzled our business continued to thrive and expand, thanks to the hard work of our team and their commitment to delivering exceptional courses and coaching. We also came to realize that our team would rather spend our time serving and working with those clients than promoting the work we are doing.
As Cal Newport wrote in a New York Times article, “Quit Social Media, Your Career May Depend on It”, “A dedication to cultivating your social media brand is a fundamentally passive approach to professional advancement. It diverts your time and attention away from producing work that matters and toward convincing the world that you matter.”
We don’t expect this Twitter shut down to have much impact. Clients can still reach us through email, or even that archaic device, the phone. Whatever method we do initially connect, it’s likely that we’ll end up talking in person. If the last three years on social media have reinforced anything to us, it’s that the ability to actually speak to people never gets old.
In the end, there’s something comforting about that.