Boring Brands Can Crush Social Media…And 5 Other Things You Can Learn From 3M

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(This post originally appeared on Forbes)

What exactly is #lifewith3M? It’s more than you think.

Yes, #lifewith3M is a Twitter hashtag. And 3M – the company that makes Ace bandages, Scotchgard, and Post-it notes, as well as industrial products you’ve never heard of – is succeeding on Twitter. Take a look at its main Twitter account and you’ll see what I mean. The company has 121,000 followers! How is that even possible? This is not Beyonce or Lady Gaga.3M is not political. There are no professional NBA employees employed by the company. It’s just a huge yet kind of boring (sorry, 3M) consumer and industrial products company. And yet 121,000 people follow it. “We are leveraging Twitter to help our customers become more familiar with the science and technology behind our products,” said Amy Lamparske, 3M’s Global Social Media Leader. “We’ve noticed that the more a customer knows about 3M, the more brand loyalty and intent to purchase that creates.” 3M is educating its community about science, not just its products.

How many people are following your unexciting company on Twitter? Not as many as that, I’m sure. And certainly not as many as there could be. So what’s 3M’s secret? It’s more than one thing.

It’s a myth that “boring” brands cannot have followers. It doesn’t matter what your company does. If you have products that means you have customers. And suppliers. And employees who contribute to the making of those products. Which means you have an audience. This is your community. And you can educate them. These are companies are that actually care about what you’re doing because you’re either selling important things to them or buying things from them. And even if you’ve only been around for a few years you’ve got expertise that you can share. Of course, the community is smaller than those following Taylor Swift. But it’s a community nonetheless and, like 3M demonstrates, Twitter can be an enormous tool for keeping close to them.

You have to invest in people. 3M has about ten people that work as part of their social media team. That’s a very, very small percentage of the 90,000 who are employed by the company. But my estimates, when considering salaries, benefits and other resources, are that those ten people likely require about $500,000 to $1 million a year in resources. They are creating content, posting photos and videos, tweeting news and articles, integrating with other social media outlets and writing blogs. These are the people responsible for 3M’s successful visit to South by Southwest last month, where they demonstrated cool new products to attendees and advertised their activities on Twitter. To succeed on Twitter you have to invest in Twitter. The service is free. The work is not.

More content is better than quality content. If you’re going to succeed on Twitter like 3M you have to give up some control – something easier said than done when it comes to the typical business owner. According to Lamparske, a lot of social media is change management so “…you must be open minded, willing to change and ready to test new things. In the digital space, it’s critical not to take a top down approach. 3M gets content out quickly.” Sitting on it or having it bottleneck on your desk because you’re afraid of someone tweeting out something wrong or making a mistake is the opposite of good social media. Mistakes will happen. But timeliness and fresh content will outweigh these. You have to trust your team.

Senior management has to buy into social media. One reason why 3M has been so successful is that senior management, which includes the company’s Chief Marketing Officer and Senior VP of Sales and Marketing have been 100% supportive of the company’s its efforts on Twitter. The tone comes from the top. Either senior management believes or everyone is just wasting their time. Notice how I’m not even mentioning metrics in this list? Of course, metrics are important but you’ll find that it’s very tough to really understand the impact of 121,000 or even 1,000 followers without having a broader belief that a strong social media presence provides an intangible, unmeasurable benefit for every company, no matter the size, in 2015. “There are a number of important metrics and KPIs we track (reach, frequency and engagement coupled with conversation volume, sentiment breakdown and share of voice),” Lamparske told me. “But at the end of the day the most important factor is the degree to which we are adding value to our online stakeholders and growing familiarity and loyalty for our business.”

It’s OK to have multiple accounts. 3M has historically grappled with this, as do so many other businesses. But the conclusion is that if a brand is strong enough on its own then it should have its own Twitter presence. That’s why Post-it(14,000 followers) has its own Twitter feed. Same goes for 3M’s DIY (2,000 followers) and 3M Health Information (4,000 followers). Some companies think that one Twitter account is enough but not everyone is interested in everything you sell. 3M has many, many products but only a few Twitter accounts – for the most part they’re focusing on the overall brand. But if you’ve got enough of a following for one product that you sell then it’s common (and good) practice to for it to have its own Twitter account.

There’s a secret ingredient to getting more followers. And that ingredient is asking questions. Sending out news, creating videos, linking to activities, participating at South By Southwest – this is all great stuff. But what 3M’s social team has found that the more questions they ask on Twitter the more engagement they receive from their followers and the more new followers they attract. A simple question like “what does science mean to you” generated more than 200 retweets and 500 favorites. Twitter is all about conversation. Ask. Respond. Engage. That’s what the platform is designed for.

Sure, I follow comedian Jim Gaffigan on Twitter because he’s hilarious. But when I look at the others that I follow I find scores of technologists, technology-companies, clients and partners in my industry. I never realized that until now. And many of them follow me. My company’s boring. But someone out there may find something I have to share of interest. The people and companies I follow are educating me. And I hope I’m doing the same. What about your boring company?

 

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