Erik Qualman: The secret of social media success

“[Social media] is living‚ it’s breathing, and it’s not technology—it’s your customers, your employees, your volunteers, your partners.”
—Erik Qualman

Erik Qualman, author and keynote speaker at this month’s ICBA Community Banking LIVE, describes social media as “word of mouth on digital steroids.” That, he says, makes it an unmissable opportunity for community banks. Here are his tips for doing it right.

By Roshan McArthur

A little over a decade ago, Erik Qualman watched his 20-something cousin using MySpace. He recalls that she was enraptured—for hours on end. At that moment, it struck him that the way we lived and did business was about to change dramatically.

Today, we’re all enraptured. MySpace may have taken a back seat to Facebook, but it’s hard to imagine a time when people from 7 to 70 didn’t update their statuses, share articles and videos, and tweet on a daily basis.

And as the way we communicate with friends, family and our professional networks has transformed, so has the marketing world. It’s the difference, says Qualman, between Mad Men and Shark Tank. Word of mouth has become more powerful than ever, with social platforms providing free brand awareness and focus groups to companies that know how to use them.

Qualman (who thanks his parents for the unknowingly superhero moniker, Equalman) knows a thing or two about branding. With an undergraduate business degree in marketing from Michigan State University and an MBA from the University of Texas in Austin, he got his start in tech when, as a young intern at Cadillac, he was asked to set up its first website. Since then he’s worked extensively in the sector for Yahoo, EarthLink and net-based brands like Travelzoo.

What struck him about social media was this: Customers were taking brands in the direction they wanted them to go, and businesses didn’t have a choice about whether to get involved. Case in point: Coca-Cola’s Facebook page, which was started in 2008 not by the company itself but by two fans.

“We as consumers,” explains Qualman, “want to be part of the brand; we want to be in on the joke. Social has allowed that to happen very fast. It’s going to happen with or without us. It’s what we’re doing. It’s living, it’s breathing, and it’s not technology—it’s your customers, your employees, your volunteers, your partners.”

Qualman’s book Socialnomics (2009) tracked the growth of social media when it was still in its infancy, looking at its impact on individuals and businesses around the world. Following its publication, the author took his ideas on the road, and he has since spoken in almost 50 countries to clients including Starbucks, Google and Facebook. His company, Equalman Studios, has produced “disruptive video content” for companies from Disney to Cartier, and his other publications include the Pulitzer-nominated What Happens in Vegas Stays on YouTube (2013), a guide to turning overexposure into opportunity.

Social media (particularly mobile-based apps) is often blamed for breeding disconnection, but the phenomenon also has a very human side—and that’s what Qualman is drawn to. For him, it’s all about relationships, engagement and connection, and those aspects are key to making the most of it within the marketplace.

Starting small
How can social media help community banks? There are three key tactical plays, Qualman says. Number one is to start small and always ask the question: What’s the social and mobile play? To illustrate this point, Qualman uses the example of a bank buying jerseys for a girls’ softball team.

“What’s the social and mobile play?” he asks. “It might be that someone at the bank has a kid on the team, and they’re very good at taking pictures or video, so the social play is that every week they’re going to put together a two-minute highlight reel of photos and video, and send it out to the entire team.”

Quick facts:
Erik Qualman

  • Company: Equalman Studios in Boston
  • Books: Socialnomics (2009), Digital Leader: 5 Simple Keys to Success and Influence (2011), the Pulitzer-nominated What Happens in Vegas Stays on YouTube (2013)
  • Partial client roster: Yahoo, EarthLink, Travelzoo, Starbucks, Google, Facebook, Disney, Cartier

As he explains, “You’re leveraging the marketing that you have on the front of the shirt, but more importantly, you’re helping the community. Then the moms and dads send that to the grandparents. The grandparents forward it on.”

It’s a way of giving back, developing trust and helping your bottom line. “Social users start to think, ‘Why am I using this big bank where I’m just a number? These guys and girls are actually helping the local community,’” Qualman says. “People want to buy local, they want to give back to the community, and social plays a big role in that.”

The second play is making sure that everyone at the bank is on the same page. “You should ask yourself ‘W.H.I.’: What’s the mission of the bank? How does it differ from the competition? If you were to go away tomorrow, what’s the loss to society?

“I consult with Fortune 500 companies and small businesses, and it’s the same across the board,” Qualman says. “When I go into those companies and ask those questions of random people, only 9 percent are on the same page. Social media is word of mouth on digital steroids. How do you expect the community to get the story right if, internally, you can’t answer those three same questions consistently?”

“You should ask yourself ‘W.H.I.’: What’s the mission of the bank? How does it differ from the competition? If you were to go away tomorrow, what’s the loss to society?”
—Erik Qualman

The third play is posting it forward. “It’s not about you,” says Qualman. “Our default is to talk about our products and services … ‘This is the channel, let me push this out there.’ That’s analogous to walking into a cocktail party where everyone’s having a good time, and going up to the people who are laughing and saying, ‘Excuse me, can I interrupt you and tell you why I’m great for five minutes?’ We understand that that’s socially unacceptable, because we’re trained as human animals in oral communication.”

As a result, pushing products and services on social doesn’t work. What does work is shining a light on others—make a habit of liking, praising and endorsing. Post about the girl in the softball game who hit a spectacular home run, applaud your employee of the month, home in on achievements. It says a lot to your customers, but it also helps you recruit better employees.

Choosing a platform
Since social media kicked off in 1997 with the now-defunct Six Degrees, there has been a proliferation of platforms: LinkedIn, MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram, WhatsApp and Snapchat. So, which should community banks be using?

Again, Qualman suggests starting small. “Don’t be on all the platforms,” he advises. “Pick the one you think is most relevant. If you don’t know, you could just ask your customers which tools they use. Most, I’m guessing, would be on Facebook. And then LinkedIn, especially for connections and partners. But people might check out the person at the bank they just met with, and the number-one search result most of the time is going to be their LinkedIn account. So, it gives you a chance to tell your story in the best way possible.”

If you feel you have to be everywhere at once, posting, sharing, chatting and tweeting, think again. “Don’t force it,” he says. “If it’s in your DNA and you enjoy it, then go ahead. It’s kind of like that cocktail party analogy. If the vice president of the bank is really good at interacting with people at parties, you probably want to send him to the party. If he loves interacting on various social media tools, that’ll be a win. If he doesn’t, it’s not going to be.”

Above all, Qualman stresses the relationship component of social. “It’s really about trying to provide a connection when time and distance are an issue,” he explains. “At the end of the day, that’s what these tools are for. They’re not for replacing face-to-face. The one thing that’s constant is we all want deep relationships, both online and offline. But offline always trumps the online relationship. Community banks have a leg up on the competition in that regard.”

Roshan McArthur is a writer in California.

comments powered by Disqus