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Building Relationships: The Possibilities are Virtually Endless

Posted At: March 23, 2009 3:35 PM
by Mary Allison Milford

My eyes were like saucers and my heart was beating above its average pace. All I needed was my username and password and I could join a club, a social media network, a new world. While I now understand that this world of social media is not exactly new or exclusive, two months ago I had a revelation. I had no idea that the standard fliers, press releases and PSA’s that I had spent the past two years learning about and implementing were no longer the only way to reach an audience. I needed to Tweet, ReTweet and update, update, update.

First, I needed to take a step back. I learned that the foundation of PR is building relationships. To me this meant firm handshakes, persistence and consistency with key publics. I never envisioned virtual avatars and ReTweets as the basis of public relations much less a component. The clash between lecture hall and this sudden virtual discovery made me skeptical.

Today public relations professionals have an overwhelming number of mediums available to create relationships with key publics. This vast number can create an equally overwhelming task of choosing what mediums to use to best target an audience.

A recent study was conducted by the Social Computing Laboratory at HP Labs and focused on the type of relationships created in Twitter. It found that the number of reciprocal relationships formed through Twitter was quite small. The concept of “friends,” or a person whom the user directed at least two posts to, became critical in examining the authentic virtual relationships.

“The number of people you follow on Twitter is not the whole truth,” Benedikt Koehler, the creator of Twitter Friends said. “It’s more interesting [to see] who you are talking to whether you are following them or not. It [is] not a connection-based network but a performance-based network.”

These findings indicated that relationships, virtual or not, are most effective when they are reciprocal.

The study further states, “Based on our previous finding about the role of attention in eliciting productivity within a social network, we conjecture that the users who receive attention from many people will post more often than users who receive little attention. Therefore we expect that users with more followers and friends will be more active at posting than those with a small number of followers and friends,” (as cited by Huberman, et al., 2008).

Just like in the real world, the more friends a Twitter user has, the more confidence they gain and their interaction with others increases. This is key for public relations practitioners to understand to be successful in social media networks. Companies and organizations cannot simply be “out there” in this virtual world, they must interact with its regular users.

Another popular social media tool used in PR is Second Life. Second Life (SL) opened its virtual doors in 2003 and quickly became a hotspot for the tech savvy to escape reality, shop, play and interact virtually. After hundreds of islands had been created, people discovered that business could be done in SL — even public relations. Top name brands began to advertise in SL and create promotional events like virtual concerts and festivals. In October 2006, Reuters news organization opened a Thomson Reuters island in SL and employed journalists devoted solely to covering the news, specifically business and economic. Now, two years later, the Reuters island is mostly vacant, as are the CNET and Wired islands.

According to Mark Glaser’s blog Mediashift, some journalists are simply tired of SL, as so many people tried it and then bailed because of its steep learning curve and high technological requirements. But the journalists that have been more enmeshed within the world have been rewarded with plenty of cultural and sociological (and yes, business) stories.

Others complained that the buzz about the popularity of Second Life was far greater than its reality, which led to a bust. According to a Wired magazine article, the number of avatars created by distinct individuals was closer to 4 million. Of those, only about 1 million had logged on in the previous 30 days (the standard measure of Internet traffic), and barely a third of that total had bothered to drop by in the previous week. Most of those who did were from Europe or Asia, leaving a little more than 100,000 Americans per week to be targeted by U.S. marketers.

CNN became one of the successful news sources in Second Life. According to Glaser’s blog, rather than send in a reporter as a correspondent in-world, CNN relies on SL residents to report their own news as citizen journalists for its iReport site. CNN’s senior producer Lila King said, “SL has been more than just a story-generating tool for CNN’s iReport team; it’s also helped them learn to nurture an online community. We’ve started to see a new benefit of being in Second Life: it gives us a place to polish our skills in community building. Newsrooms everywhere, ours included, are trying to learn how to foster meaningful, two-way conversations with their audiences. When we hold our virtual news meetings every Tuesday afternoon with the Second Life iReport community, that’s exactly what we’re doing: listening and interacting in real-time, offering feedback and courting new ideas along the way.”

After gaining entry and researching this virtual world, I learned that while social media networks are certainly not exclusive, they are definitely not all-inclusive. The most important thing to understand before promoting a company or organization is its target audience. CNN understood its audience and was able to provide a useful resource and create strong reciprocal relationships. Some audiences do not require virtual meetings or have the learning curve to tackle the online world. Using communication mediums that are too technological and intimidating can fracture relationships rather than build them. Some publics prefer traditional methods. So for now I will continue to perfect my firm, yet friendly handshake, while keeping my updates to a 140-word minimum.

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