A couple weeks back I published a column titled "Does your social-media strategy involve wasting time on idiots like me?" It turns out that when I pose a question in a headline, you, dear readers, are more than happy to answer it.
First, a quick flashback: In that column I wrote about a recent exchange I happened to have on Twitter with @IHOP, the International House of Pancakes restaurant chain. It was a wry back-and-forth in which I sort of acted like we were having a lovers' spat. @IHOP played along, to an extent, which was both mildly amusing and, for me, thought-provoking -- because I wondered about the ROI of a big brand interacting in social media with a goofball like me. (You can read the full, brief exchange here if you missed it the first time.)
First of all, a bunch of readers, including Drew Neisser, CEO of New York agency Renegade -- he's @DrewNeisser on Twitter -- thought maybe @IHOP engaged with me on Twitter because of who I am. As Neisser tweeted, "just guessing here but I suspect @IHOP knew u were a writer and treated u accordingly. #influencer." While I'm always flattered #when #people #talk #about #me #in #hashtags, the truth is that when @IHOP surprised me by writing back to my first tweet, I took a look at the account's history and saw that @IHOP frequently interacts with regular people -- i.e., everyday pancake eaters who are not part of the media-industrial complex.
@IHOP confirmed as much in a tweet back to Neisser, saying, "we make time to chat with all our fans! :)"
As Fred Ackourey of Simi Valley, Calif., wrote in a comment left on the web version of the column, "I think the voyeur effect of social media is more about branding than the actual one-to-one interaction. ... Like it or not social media has a longer shelf life than many are aware (think #-tags and search). Quality interactions not only leave a lasting impression on the participants, they also shape the opinions of the observers."
Good point. In fact, I saw plenty of pro-@IHOP feedback from observers of our back-and-forth, like this tweet from Casey Golden of McLean, Va. -- @SmallActGuy on Twitter: "Love the friendly, funny convo between @IHOP & @simondumenco in this post" (and then he linked to my column). And "Hilarious back and forth between @IHOP and @simondumenco. IHOP #cmgr ftw!" -- #cmgr standing for community manager, and ftw being for the win -- from @SPEAKEASYCM (per its Twitter bio: "A New Community Manager Group presented by Percolate, speakeasycm.com").
Caroline Hornby (@CarolineHornby), marketing director at Terrapinn in New York, tweeted "@IHOP & @simondumenco I love this. Maybe a little 'wasting time on idiots' but shows brands can have personality too." And Ryan James of San Francisco, in a comment posted at AdAge.com, wrote, "As one who manages social media for my company, interactions like that make my day. So much more entertaining than the typical Q&A involving questions already answered on our FAQ!"
Over at RetailWire.com, which aggregated my column under the headline, "Are Retailers Wasting Social Media Efforts On Idiots?," Peter Fader, professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, left a comment calling my column "a fun read" -- thanks, Peter! -- "and, more importantly, a valid caricature of the nature of most brand/retail related social-media activity. Most of it is, indeed, a waste of time from a purely commercial standpoint -- but no different than a casual conversation that routinely occurs in a brick-and-mortar store. The point is that retailers need to be willing to mix it up with chatty customers whenever/wherever they show up, but they shouldn't draw deep meaning from most of those activities (any more than they would attempt to record and leverage the in-store conversation). ... So let the conversation flow, and don't over-invest in it. And don't try to attach any kind of ROI metrics to it."
Well said, professor.
Finally, as Paul Reilly of Toronto wrote in a comment on AdAge.com, "It's all about playing the odds, isn't it? The odds [are] that this person craving engagement has a potential following. Playing along placates him and is of no value unless it has reach -- either the interchange or the story of the interchange. Alternately, ignoring him has no cost unless he has a following and the energy and facts for a big splashy story."
I'd just add that even someone seemingly lacking reach -- i.e., a person with very few followers on Twitter -- might have one influential follower who could retweet up a storm. Or, as happens pretty often these days for no obvious reason, an unknown (person, tweet, meme, whatever) just suddenly and unexpectedly becomes widely known.
That, my fellow citizens of the Twitterverse -- fellow idiots and smart people and everyone in between -- is the very nature of social media. Playing the odds, indeed.
On that note, I'll leave you with the wise words of @IHOP, which last week tweeted (apropos of nothing), "Never steal a friend's bacon. #BreakfastCode." Words to live by, those.
Of course, this could be read as @IHOP implying that it's perfectly OK to steal an enemy's bacon. Is the International House of Pancakes tacitly endorsing punitive bacon theft? How do you feel about that? Comment, tweet, blog and generally talk amongst yourselves, because this is important, people.
Just kidding. I think.
Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. Follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.