Friday, 24 August 2012

10 Social Media Rules I Learned From My Dogs

My wife and I are proud parents of the two most wonderful creatures on earth. Both of them came to us from A Better Chance Animal Rescue shelter in Pincher Creek during the summer of 2008 and have been with us through for very challenging but transformational years for us both. Deedee is an eight-year-old Bichon Frise/Poodle cross and Mochi is a Pomeranian/American Eskimo cross of the same age. While we've only had them for four years, these two ridiculous little love balls are so firmly entrenched themselves into my life that I can scarcely remember what life was like without them around.

As a writer, much of my output over the past few years has been crafted with little Mochi curled up catlike in my lap, with Deedee occasionally pestering me with a toy when she decides I've clearly been sitting on my ass for long enough and it's time I moved my body. While I have nothing against cats or cat people per se (and many of my best writer friends are feline devotees), I've always been of the opinion that dogs are a wise choice of companion for anyone in any creative vocation that involves a lot of sitting and typing. As a writer, it would be very easy to become completely sedentary, and dogs are probably the single best safeguard (with the possible exception of human children) against this problem.

My beloved social media consultants
Over the past couple of years I've become heavily involved in a variety of social media tools and strategies. While my pre-PR self was largely ambivalent to social media, I've since embraced it with full aplomb and found that it suits my eclectic interests, my taste for pithy, compact messaging and my borderline ADD personality. As I've become more and more enmeshed with the SM tools I use, I've come to view my blog, my Twitter feed and my Facebook page as pets of a sort, pets that need to be fed, taken for regular walks, taught new tricks, disciplined on occasion and otherwise given attention. And as a dog parent, such commitments are old hat.

While I most definitely would not advocate discrimination against non-dog owners in any capacity, I do suspect that if I were hiring a social media coordinator and I had two otherwise equally qualified candidates, I might be inclined to go with the candidate with a dog at home. (And if they both have dogs, I'd have to figure out some other way of deciding.) I would certainly be interested in hearing from the cat owners who read this blog - I know who you are - on any similar parallels to life with miniature panthers prowling the house. I can only speak to life with dogs, but the parallels between canine companionship and a thriving social media existence are undeniable.

1) It's a bona-fide commitment.

I should preface this point by saying that I in no way equate abandoned blogs with abandoned dogs. Abandoned blogs, of which there are many, merely clutter up cyberspace, whereas abandoned dogs, of which there are also far too many, are condemned to a horrible and terrifying existence that no sophisticated being should have to endure. Nevertheless, the type of commitment that's required in maintaining a successful blog or an otherwise substantial social media presence is akin to that of having a dog in your life. That dog needs to be fed, given stimulation and otherwise attended to. And while a neglected Twitter feed or blog may not poop on your rug as a statement, it's still a visible stain on your online presence.

2) Consistent daily routines work best.

Anyone with a dog in their life knows the importance of daily routines. Dogs are creatures of habit and are generally happiest when they know when to expect their walks and when to expect their meals. If you've got this in place, you can leave them alone for much of the day feeling confident that they won't get stressed and destructive. The same goes for social media. The best way to get it working for you is to be consistent in your timing and quantity of postings so that your publics follow your rhythms. Once you start skipping out on your morning Tweets and Facebook posts and things fall out of sync, you lose your two-way communication - just as skipping out on walks disrupting patterns is a great way to have bratty hounds on your hands.

3) Consistent messaging is the key.

The key to teaching dogs new tricks, as any dog owner knows, is consistency. Use the same key word and the same gesture over and over again and chances are they'll finally get the hang of it - and before long it'll be ingrained in their muscle memory. At eight years of age (firmly in middle age), Deeded is still learning new tricks, constantly challenging us to up the ante. The same rule applies to digital PR. If you want to get messages across, be it the importance of transparency on the part of construction unions or the exciting new routes offered at your local airport, consistency is key. Keep plugging away at those key words and your publics will catch on.

4) At the same time, don't be too repetitive.

If you're churning out exactly the same message ad nauseam, your audience will eventually tune out. Likewise, if you walk your dogs on exactly the same route every day and only do the same three tricks with them ever, you'll have under-stimulated and probably frustrated dogs. Keep that consistent messaging but take different approaches - an online promotion, a survey, photos and video, et cetera. This is the SM equivalent of spicing things up with your canine friends and taking an occasional trip to a beach or a set of trails you rarely visit.  

5) Don't micromanage your networks.

When dogs mingle in off-leash areas or at stay-n-play facilities, the animals invariably go through a process of sizing one another up and figuring out a pecking order. Sometimes this results in small spats between dogs, and as a dog parent it's sometimes hard not to intervene and 'tell off' a dog that's exhibiting dominant behaviour. Nevertheless, this is a natural process for dogs, which have inherited the hierarchical instincts of their lupine ancestors, and something that's best left to the dogs themselves to deal with. Such is also the way with social media publics. While you provide the structure, the only way to have truly free-flowing two-way communication is to let your people sniff each others' butts and find their natural place in the mix.

6) But do lay down the law when necessary.

Anyone who has watched The Dog Whisperer with Cesar Milan knows about the importance of asserting leadership with your dog and making sure you remain the Alpha. The same applies to your social media publics. When discussions get out of hand, shut it down, invite the person in question to communicate with you offline or otherwise do what you have to do to diffuse the situation and restore order to your communication networks.

7) Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries!

Dog owners know all about that fine line between giving your four-legged friend the tender loving care and attention they deserve and letting them completely dominate your life. Likewise, any social media manager who values their sanity needs to fit downtime into their life. Dogs, if permitted to do so, will very happily leap onto the kitchen table and eat directly off your plate - and once you let them do that they'll get positively tetchy when you deny them that privilege. As for social media, some positions do indeed require that you be 'on-call' when off-duty (especially anything involving crisis communication), but even in positions like that (especially in position like that), offline time is a must in order to avoid burnout.

8) Take sensible precautions and be vigilant.

Being a responsible dog owner means following municipal bylaws and taking sensible precautions like neutering/spaying and de-worming your animals, making sure they see a vet on a regular basis and otherwise ensuring the safety of your dog - and the rest of the public. In social media terms, this means ensuring you have the necessary firewalls and antivirus software in place, that staff usage policies (whatever they be) are clearly communicated and that rules are being followed. A lack of online safeguards has the potential to do great harm to your organization, just as an unhealthy and uncontrolled dog will cause great harm not only to itself but also to other dogs and potentially humans. While excessive vigilance is counterproductive, normal precautions should keep your social media activities - and life with Fido - running smoothly.

9) Have fun and be engaged.

Dogs, above all, are fun and highly entertaining animals with completely addictive personalities. While many dog behaviour experts advise against thinking of your dog as a miniature human, they do nonetheless possess wonderfully complex personalities which make them absolutely marvellous and enriching company - provided you really, truly engage with them. Likewise, the social media world is a beguiling and often amusing petri dish of human interaction. As the social media voice of a company or organization, conveying an appealing brand identity means engaging with people in a friendly and human manner. A push-only approach characterized by automaton-type posts is a waste of effort. Spirited exchanges with your publics is not only good for your company and your brand but will also make your job a whole lot more fun.

10) Old dogs do learn new tricks.
The old girl's still got game!

As I mentioned earlier in this post, Deedee, age eight, is still learning new tricks. In fact she seems to be a late bloomer in this department, like a 50-year-old human who gets fired up to return to grad school or return to a long-neglected musical instrument with a vengeance. Likewise, older audiences should not be discounted as social media publics. Recent research in the US showed that a full half of adults aged 65 and up are now online and one out of three online seniors regularly uses social networking sites. While social media coordinators still tend to view their assumed public as under 50, this is increasingly not the case - and messaging should not be exclusively aimed at younger demographics. Likewise, don't assume that your 10-year-old pooch isn't up to learning to do a figure eight or speak on command. It happens.


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