Chuck Hester is about to hit the road, and that means he's on LinkedIn.com. Hester, who runs corporate communica-tions at Durham, N.C.-based e-mail service provider iContact, is setting up breakfast or dinner meetings in each of the cities he'll soon visit. The guests will be some of the more than 6,000 business contacts he's collected on LinkedIn. These won't be typical press briefings. A dozen or more media, analysts and other influencers will attend. There will be no agenda, no press kit and no PowerPoint presentation. Most of the media will pay their own tabs.
Hester's agenda isn't to push iContact, but rather to enable a conversation. If guests learn something interesting from meeting each other, Chuck Hester gets the credit. If they write something about iContact, so much the better.
And write they do. Hester's informal gatherings have produced coverage in some of the top media outlets in the U.S. They've also positioned Hester as a valuable resource—a connector—with some of the top journalists in the country. You can't buy respect like that.
Chuck Hester is one of an emerging breed of marketers who are rewriting the rules of media relations with social networks. LinkedIn, which recently topped 20 million members, enables him to maintain a vastly larger number of relationships than would have been possible in the days of phone calls and mailing lists. “I'm known as the Kevin Bacon of Raleigh,” he smiles. “If I don't know a person, I probably know someone who does.” His success at finding jobs and business contacts for friends through LinkedIn has further elevated his profile.
Hester and others have discovered the power of social networks to bring new efficiencies to relationship management. A few years ago, people disseminated information to their contacts through a one-way process of dialing the phone and sending e-mail. Today, they edit a profile, upload a photo or post an invitation to their social network, and everyone they know is immediately in the loop. Then they use the network to touch base frequently with contacts via information captured in that member's profile.
Smart marketers are using this power to transform their profession. They're tapping in to their contact lists to enable discussions between people who might otherwise never have met. They're introducing media contacts and business partners to each other and, in the process, demonstrating that they're connected, relevant and valuable. And they're doing it at very little cost.
Social networks can raise marketers' visibility and prestige. Marketing has always been about managing human relationships, and today's online tools make that task far more efficient than it has ever been. In the old days, marketers delivered messages. Today, they can enable discussions. Which role do you think has more value? M