I was recently asked to present to a business breakfast group on social media and I commenced the presentation with "I went to a BBQ..."

Have you ever tried to explain Social Media to your Grand Parents, or anyone over the age of 50 for that matter? It's not as difficult as it might sound, once you put some thought into it and get past the confusion of 'but who's a Twit?'. I presented to a group of business owners recently - the topic (at the group's request) was Social Media, but more specifically 'what is social media all about and what should my business be doing?'.

To help understand the basics, I started by looking at the Sunday BBQ. Firstly, you go along because you'll know some people there (friends, family) and you're interested in what they have been up to. While you are there, you will probably meet other people too (friends of friends). You'll all get along and share stories and talk about the local sports team. You get the idea! This is what we used to do before we sat on Facebook all day, remember?

Social media (in theory) is similar to this, but online. So you become friends with people you know. Sometimes you become friends with people they know. You keep up to date with what your friends have been up to - their latest holiday or their new baby. Sometimes you search for things you are interested in to see if anyone else is interested in the same stuff. Sometimes you look for things to buy, and really like it when someone else you know has something to say about it too.

Going back to the BBQ, I actually was at a BBQ recently. I got to talking to a family member about how we needed our fence replaced - they said 'come over and meet Tony' who happened to be in business with his friend building fences. Turns out Tony's friend was also named Tony! Anyways they came and quoted the job, and offered me a great price based on them knowing our family. Is this kind of thing sounding familiar? It's called networking - we've all been there.

The nice people at the breakfast meeting were listening intently, but keen to hear how this relates to their business. Online social media in mind is similar to the BBQ - you gravitate towards people who have similar interests, you follow things that interest you, and you place high value on the opinions of people you know. If you are in business, and you go to a BBQ and someone happens to want what you are selling, then you are in a good position because your friends will recommend you.

Now for the downsides, of which I believe there are two obvious ones.

Take the story above with Tony the fencing guy. Say we are at a BBQ having a good time and then Tony walks in and announced to everyone in a loud voice that he builds fences, and that we should buy a fence off him. Given that most (if not all) the people at the BBQ don't need or want a fence, we would probably just ignore Tony. But what if he then started walking around the BBQ interrupting everyone handing out flyers?

There is a line which can quite easily be crossed, where in Tony's case we could just say 'who was that guy? I don't want a fence. Don't invite him next time'. How many times have we seen advertisements in Social Media, mixed into our conversations trying to get us to buy all sorts of things. For most of it, we have become immune, and just tune out. And in some cases, we are actively avoiding a brand because we are sick of them advertising fences to us when we don't want one.

The other downside lies in this next (fictional) BBQ story. Say Tony was actually a nice guy, who ran a great business building fences, and was at the BBQ minding his own business. Then someone at the BBQ starts badmouthing tradies (probably after a few beers). Tony is a tradie so he steps in, at which point the argument heats up. Other people at the BBQ overhear what they are discussing and start to join in. Before you know it, no one likes Tony anymore because he's a tradie - and people are even boo-ing and throwing snags at him.

This would never happen in real life would it? Not at the BBQs I’ve been to. But it does happen online. People don't tend to go around saying how great you are (in the first story, I got introduced to him because I was actually looking to have my fence replaced) but are quite keen to jump on a bandwagon, joining discussions to share bad experiences. I think this phenomenon is exaggerated online because people don't have the same inhibitions - eg. if you throw a snag at someone at a party, they're likely to bop you one! If you badmouth them online - what's the worst that will happen?

I guess the point to remember when considering a strategy to position your business using Social Media is that it is a lot like a BBQ - be yourself, make your presence known, don't get in peoples way or try to sell them things they don't want - as it will often do more harm than good AND be very careful with the way you engage people if you don't want them throwing sausages at you. Yes, social media is a great way to access a large number of people, and connect with them in a way that wasn’t possible before - but it doesn’t mean you can barge in and forget how things used to be done over a snag in bread.

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