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Digging in the Dirt for Social Media Gold

Back in the mid-2000s, no one knew what effect social media would have on the world. Sure, it was a new way to have a conversation. But it seemed wild, untamed and new. Its future still is murky. However, in the past five years, the communications team at Battelle has learned lots of social media lessons, and two are pronounced: It can create greater integration between marketing and public relations, and it has the power to subvert the traditional relationship between PR people and the media.

It was in 2010 that the social media wave washed over the world and changed the communications landscape. Sure, early adopters got their first iPhones in 2007 and were on Twitter and Facebook (and MySpace). But businesses really began to latch on about seven years ago. And it’s not revealing any corporate secrets to note that Battelle is filled with scientists and engineers who thoroughly investigate everything—so it was sometime in 2012 when it became clear at our HQ on King Avenue that social media was more than a silly thing that kids did on their computers and phones.

In the beginning, we were simply feeling our way around in the dark. The first clear use of the new media was to share good news. Because our media relations team is charged with monitoring media mentions of Battelle, it became (and remains) part of that team’s function to share positive Battelle news stories with people following us on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. But there was a problem—we had few followers and connections, and it was an uphill struggle to gain a following.

Golf legend Ben Hogan said, “The secret is in the dirt,” and that applies to social media. There is no easy way to automate it or assign it to someone who doesn’t care. The only successful way to do it is through active participation. Every day for years, we’ve made a dedicated effort to maintain a credible social media presence. At first, we shared things of general scientific interest from other pages we followed and stayed current by commenting on world events that made sense through the Battelle lens. We subscribed to the 80-20 rule: Eight out of 10 posts were generally interesting and two were specifically “Battelle marketing” messages. We haven’t paid to boost a post or purchased new followers. We have done it inch by inch, gaining a base of followers the hard way, each earned because that person opted in for a good reason.

Today, we regard the 35,000(ish) people associated with our social media sites as the exact (and growing) audience we want and view them as a subscriber base—just like a magazine editor would view a readership. We have varying personalities and content for each site, though messages often carry across several platforms. And the stories we tell go straight from us to people who are interested in Battelle, without going through the filter of a journalist and editor (though we may interest journalists because of what we post). These days, we’re posting 90 percent Battelle content—and we make sure it’s interesting and relevant.

And this is the subversion I spoke of. How many times has someone in your group, or a client, said, “We need a press release on this”? You know what they’re talking about is not press release worthy, and neither are office holiday parties or charitable bowling events. But on our social media channels, this is great content. Social media helps us put a real face on our business. We can’t easily explain chemical and biological research to the masses—but pictures of a volunteer group from Battelle planting trees along the Olentangy River? Facebook gold.

We still depend mightily on earned media to present our stories and lend their credibility and legitimacy to the subject matter. We always will. Our ongoing clinical study with Ohio State University called NeuroLife needed worldwide coverage by outlets such as the Washington Post and CBS to reach a huge audience. But our “little” stories don’t get short shrift anymore.

Which brings me to my other alluded point—marketing/PR integration leading to quality content. Our technical staff attends many conferences each year, to present, show a poster, network from a booth and more. They’re fantastic opportunities to sell Battelle and make new connections but in years past, they weren’t amplified much beyond the walls of a convention center. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had much luck pitching a reporter on the merits of such scintillating subject matter as Battelle scientists attending a health analytics show in San Diego.

There were times in the past when we didn’t know who was going where. Now, on a weekly basis, our PR team works hand-in-hand with our marketing colleagues to determine who’s going to what show, what they are selling, how does it align with our strategy and how we leverage it. We want pictures and videos of our booth, keynotes, presentations, customers, friends. We want to reach the audiences of our peers and leverage the money we’ve already spent attending the conference.

Here’s a perfect example. Earlier this year, some of the staff at Battelle attended a food safety conference. Among the various reasons for going was networking our product called EMAlert to combat food fraud (who knew that nefarious people put sawdust in cheese?).

While there, our team met the keynote speaker at a networking event, and he later stopped by our booth and snapped a selfie with us. Oh yeah, he happened to be the head of food safety for Walmart. We followed his Twitter account and he noticed. He tweeted the pic of himself in our booth, and suddenly, we were in front of the 1,500 people who follow him, which is precisely the audience we want for that product.

This type of precision was hard to execute in the past. Now, we’re doing it with frequency, and it’s helping us to build a sales pipeline as well as prove the worth of the communication team in real numbers, not apocryphal stories. Our next task is to continue to make brand ambassadors of our staff. The more they meet new people in the real world, the further our team can expand our reach in the digital world. We’ve made huge strides in just five years. It only seems like 50.

Author: T.R. Massey, Senior Media Relations Specialist and Social Media Team Leader, Battelle

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