TakeFive with TweetReach: Chris Penn

Chris Penn

Welcome back to TakeFive with TweetReach, our ongoing interview series with influential members of the Twitter measurement universe. This week, we’re excited to speak with Chris Penn of SHIFT, an integrated communications agency with offices around the country in Boston, NYC, and San Francisco. Chris is responsible for most of the content on SHIFT’s blog and social media outlets (find them on Twitter and Facebook). We sat down to get his take on social media marketing, and he had a whole lot of great things to say on everything from the evolution of the medium to the most important thing: company culture and how it tells in your social presence.

(What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the Google Hangout interview with Chris. To see the video recording in its entirety, visit Chris’s YouTube Channel.) 

TweetReach: We like to start everyone out with one question, because there are so many different paths into social media: let’s start with talking about how you got started using social. Can you describe your first “ah-ha” moment?

Chris Penn: I started out with social media when I was working at a financial aid company, doing Internet marketing for them. This was back in 2004, 2005, and that’s when I started doing a podcast because we were struggling to get noticed for anything- you know, we were a small, $300k/year company in an industry dominated by companies like Sallie Mae, Nellie Mae, and Nelnet- and we used to joke that our annual revenues were like their cream cheese budget for the year for meetings. So, social media was the next logical extension of all the internet marketing stuff because we need to try pretty much anything to stay competitive.

Probably the biggest “ah-ha” moment in terms of the power of this stuff was actually in 2007. I was working a lot on MySpace at the time because it was still relevant and a friend in our local podcasting group said, “My niece has gone missing; [she] disappeared from her home in Connecticut”. And the police said, “We’re pretty sure she’s left the state with some guy she met online and there’s not a whole lot we can do. . .if she’s not back in a week she’s not coming back; she’s a statistic”. So he reached out to [us] and said, “Hey, anything you guys can think of for getting the word out. . .anything would be a great help”.

Back then there was this piece of software- MySpace Friend Adder- that would spam people on MySpace. So we spammed all of her friends on her MySpace page, saying “find this person!”. Three or four hundred messages an hour shipping out to all these people, connecting them. And [we] got a tip that she had headed down to Florida with a 38-year-old boyfriend that she met on MySpace, so [we] blanketed the region of Florida where she was [and] within 48 hours of this, we found her. Within two weeks she was back home with her family– and the anecdotal report was that the police showed up with a SWAT team and the 38-year-old boyfriend was quite surprised when the front door came crashing down with a battering ram. So that was the “ah-ha” moment where it was like, this stuff can be used for more than marketing; you can do tremendous actual good in the world with it.

TweetReach: SHIFT has been at the forefront of social media marketing and is now helping clients combine their paid, earned and owned media to best effect. How have you seen this grow and change in your time at SHIFT? How have you seen social media marketing evolve over your career?

Chris Penn: Well you know it’s funny: people have gotten the basics for the most part, there’s obviously new people joining up every day, but in the time I’ve seen in my career- I helped start a conference called PodCamp back in 2006 with a friend of mine Chris Brogan- and it was funny because back then we needed the basics, like “How does this work?” “What does this button do?” kind of thing. And for the most part we’ve evolved past that to the point that we’ve stopped doing PodCamp in the Boston area because we used to call it The Welcome Wagon to Social Media. Well, with 87% market share in the United States for Facebook, they really don’t need much explanation about why Facebook should be important to you.

So certainly that’s been the evolution of my career- we’re past the basics and now, where we are, where I am personally, and where SHIFT is as an organization- is going past the basics. You combine all of these things: you know how to use Facebook, you know how to use Instagram. What do you use it for? How do you measure it? How do you make this more powerful? How do you amplify its effects? How do you take a great Facebook post and add advertising to it? Or add owned media to it? All of these things- putting them together- so that you end up with something that is greater than the parts. That’s what’s going on right now.

The other thing we’re looking at is evolving a model from marketing- where we have this very traditional view of a funnel: step one, step two, step three, step four, step five- and it doesn’t work like that. If you think about it in your own experiences, when you go to buy a house, or a car, or whatever you don’t just go out, see something, follow a linear path, and buy it. You ask friends, you read reviews online, you think about it a whole lot, and then eventually you buy it– it’s a very non-linear path. So we’re starting to evolve our thinking around the person rather than the thing. And you see this in online marketing too, right? You have Google Adwords are sort of, version one of advertising; the “what are you searching for”. Now we’re doing social advertising where it’s about the who. Who are you trying to reach? And where are they in their career?, where are they in their business needs?, and things like that. So that’s kind of the evolution of things and where we are now.

TweetReach: Your company handles crisis communications for clients. Obviously social media is notorious for being able to “ruin” a company quickly– but how can it also help a company recover?

Chris Penn: It’s the exact same process in reverse, if you think about it. Ruining trust is easy; ruining trust you just do something stupid. Building trust is taking those things and applying them in reverse. So, there are four dynamics that you use to build trust: there’s consolidation, clustering, correlation, and conservation. This comes out of research in social actions, in 1981. And what happens is, over time- for example, consolidation- [in] a group of people, their opinions begin to coalesce. They start having this groupthink, almost. Opinions cluster: some people like cheese, and some people like chicken. Over time they move together in correlation on things that are unrelated to the group. So you get a bunch of sales folks together, and the likes of their favorite sports teams can start to merge, or the likes of certain foods can start to merge. And these factors- when you start looking at how social media operates- if you provide enough interaction with your community. . .you can use it to change opinions.

For example, let’s say you’re a fast food chain and you have an employee that does something really stupid (take your pick, there’s no shortage of examples) there’s still diversity of opinion which is conservation, the fourth principle. There’s some percentage of those people who are going to be loyalists to the brand; they could lick the tacos in front of them and they’d be like “You know, I’ll still eat here”. So you identify those pockets where you still have strong influence and you work on growing them, getting more people into those pockets and using that positive opinion- that correlation and clustering- to grow back positive sentiments. You identify the people who are still in favor of you and you work on building that group out until you’ve either recovered your opinion, if it was really damaged, or in some cases– honestly social media doesn’t make as much of an impact as we like to think it does. There are some things that are just tempests in teapots.

At the end of the day, XYZ fast food restaurant has somebody doing something horrible with their food, but you know what? When you go out on a drive and there’s a restaurant on the side of the road, you’re like, all right. It’s the cheapest option, I’ll shop here anyway.

TweetReach: Do you have any secret techniques, tools, or other Jedi strategies that you can share with our readers?

Chris Penn: They’re all under NDA! I have tons of secrets, but I can’t share any of them.

But in all seriousness, probably the biggest meta-secret there is- and it’s one of those “all right, we’ve heard this enough”- which is: get good at the basics. Get good at interacting with other human beings. Read stuff outside of social media; I’m doing a lot of reading these days in psychology and sociology, behavioral psychology, things like that. Because at the end of the day it’s you, as human being, behind the keyboard or phone or tablet or whatever, and you have not changed as an organism in 50,000 years. You still have the same primordial functions, your brain has not rewired significantly even in the last 10,000 years. So you’re still the same human being. If I understand the human being then I understand how I need to present information to you- the end point- and then all these tools and all these techniques are just modifications.

Really there’s not much difference between MySpace and Facebook in terms of functionality. There’s still a human being consuming information at the other end. Yes, there’s differences in design, yes there’s different functions available to you, but you’re still a human being. The same person you were in 2007 on MySpace, in 2013 you’re on Facebook. Who knows? In two years you’ll be on Instagram only, or you’ll be using Google Glass and having your eyeballs replaced with cameras. You’ll still functionally be mostly a human being at that point, so you get good at the basics and you practice the basics and you master the basics: it’s your game.

TweetReach: Company culture is a priority at SHIFT, which you make clear on your website. How does this translate into your social media efforts? How do you think other companies should approach this?

Chris Penn: You start with your culture. Before you even touch social media. Because if you don’t have good culture, you can’t fake it. Eventually– I mean, all you need to do is go on Glassdoor.com and listen to the number of people going “Oh my god I really hate this place!”. And your company can be like “Oh we have casual Fridays!”, but your employees hate you the other 35 hours of the week. You have to fundamentally be bought in at all levels of the organization and to whatever the culture is, and it has to be tangible stuff. One of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen was- and he tells this story publicly- our two founders said a little more than a year ago, “Look,” one of the guys is like, “My next stop is Rum Island. I want to get out of here.” They were looking at selling and they said it just didn’t feel right. And so our CEO Todd said, “Let’s come up with an alternative.”

And what they came up with was selling the company to the employees in the form of a stock ownership program. It’s different than an option program because an option program allows employees to buy out stock. An ownership program is: “Here’s the company”. That’s a multimillion dollar investment in the people. That is beyond “Hey you can wear jeans to work on Friday”. That is “We are putting our money where our mouth is”, proving that this culture actually matters. And that comes from leadership. There isn’t a motivational poster out of the HR department that’s going to do that for you. When you take that and translate it to social media, it’s really easy. If your employees actually like working at your office they will post of their own volition. Sometimes they’ll even post things that you don’t ask them to. When you let people know internally that there’s a new blog post, you don’t have to coerce them to share it. They’re happy to share it, especially if they get something out of it.

Our philosophy when it comes to creating content online is- it’s the same one I’ve operated with for years- the Three L Rule: if you don’t laugh when you’re creating content, if you don’t love it (meaning you’re talking about it to your spouse or significant other or friends outside of work when there’s no apparent gain for you), or you didn’t learn something when you were putting it together, you have bad content.

Every time I try to write something or publish something for the company- because I do a majority of the social media and content creation here on behalf of the agency- I try and teach myself something. I try and learn something; I write something that I actually care about. So when we share it with the employees, they learn something or they have a laugh or they love it and they share it with their networks. And it’s very human. It’s not a business mandating to its employees “Manufacture this piece of content and distribute it and out the door!”. And I know there’s services and things that do that, but if your content’s actually good you don’t need it as much. Still helps.

TweetReach: Thank you so much for talking to us today and for sharing your wisdom with our TakeFive series!

Christopher S. Penn has been featured as a recognized authority in many books, publications such as the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, New York Times, BusinessWeek and US News & World Report, and television networks such as PBS, CNN, CNBC, Fox News, and ABC News for his leadership in new media and marketing. In 2012 and again in 2013, Forbes Magazine recognized him as one of the top 50 most influential people in social media and digital marketing.

Mr. Penn is the Vice President of Marketing Technology at SHIFT Communications, a public relations firm, as well as co-founder of the groundbreaking PodCamp New Media Community Conference, and co-host of the Marketing Over Coffee marketing podcast. He is an adjunct professor of Internet marketing and the lead subject matter expert and professor of Advanced Social Media at the University of San Francisco. He’s also the author of Marketing White Belt: Basics for the Digital Marketer.

Learn more about him at ChristopherSPenn.com.