First, lets define some things. The term “social media” is a new term describing mainly old stuff, with some new things in there also . Most of what we think of as social media is bi-directional on-line communication, where the content is created by and for the end users. It’s generally not very polished or controlled. It all goes back to the dial-up bulletin boards available in the 80s and 90s. Those evolved into usenet, news groups, nntp, which actually still exist, although they are dwindling. It was like a communal on-line email in some ways. Messages were threaded, but how you saw it depended heavily on what viewer you used. Usenet became archived by a group called Deja News, which was eventually bought out by Google to become part of Google Groups. Usenet developed a zealously devoted following of purists who resented the intrusion of Google, among a lot of other things. In the end, these purists are the ones who are killing usenet. If you want to get a feel for what these purists are all about, read here. Misplaced sentimentalism.
At one time the SolidWorks newsgroup, comp.cad.solidworks was absolutely the #1 place to go for relevant discussion on SolidWorks, and some other CAD packages that didn’t have their own news group. The group was started in 1996 by Greg Jankowski, and still exists today as a refuge for various spammers. I think it is the existence of this newsgroup that is at least partially responsible for SolidWorks runaway success in its market, and for its level of devoted and educated users. SolidWorks had nothing to do with the group, and in fact most of the time when a SW employee tried to participate, they were rudely run out of town on a rail. Comp.cad.solidworks was certainly the wild, wild west of usenet, where the etiquette was more “bring your thick skin” than the overly polite and non-confrontational ettiquette that seems to rule social media today. The SolidWorks newsgroup heyday was probably in the early 2000’s, where it might see a couple hundred posts per day. It was a text group, so you could not post images. Comp.cad.solidworks started its decline around 2005, and by 2007 most serious contributors had abandoned it in favor of either Eng-tips or the SolidWorks forums, both of which are very successful today.
Other social media outlets from that time period were AOL chat rooms, which were huge, but not used so much for CAD purposes. Instant messengers proliferated around 2000, along with Hotmail, which as an on-line mail service became a bit of a phenomenon of its own.
Also in the late 90s were several web initiatives specifically driven by SolidWorks, meant to use web technologies to help your CAD design. It was clear that the real initiative here was to tap into the hype and hysteria, without worrying so much about relevance. Just to say that the “web” in those days was exactly the same hair-on-fire craze that social media is today. If you’re not old enough to remember it or weren’t business-aware at that time, look it up. Its well documented on line. Former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan used the term “irrational exuberance” in the same time period to warn that parts of the economy were overvalued. The same term applies to use of the internet at that time, and of course applies to the over-application of the web to absolutely everything, including CAD software. Of course all of this irrational overvaluation led in part to the Dotcom bubble crash around 2000, where we learned that you cannot push a market that aggressively, growth has to be natural, not forced.
So that brings us to today. Add Twitter and Facebook to the mix. We’ll skip most of the rest like MySpace, YouTube, and all the ancillary stuff like del.icio.us, digg, disqus, and countless other services, large and small. Actually, I’m gonna skip Facebook too, because similar concepts apply.
Twitter is truly a hair-on-fire rage. I personally don’t like Twitter for personal stuff. To me it’s worse than useless, its a really bad idea to have a bunch of people know what I’m doing right now. Plus, I don’t think in sound-bite sized snippets. 140 characters is inadequate for most of what I would have to say (obviously, we’re gonna run to 1500 words for this blog post).
Here is what I think has happened with Twitter:
If Twitter were left to private individuals, it would be just another moderately successful social media service, where exhibitionists would yell into the blank ether what kind of coffee they are drinking. Moderately successful yes, but also inane and banal. But that’s not what happened, or not all that happened. These people are still on Twitter being inane and banal, but another group of attention seekers found Twitter: marketers. Marketers realize that Twitter is the spammer’s dream. But Twitter is an opt-in system, and people generally do not opt-in to spam.
For the time being I’m going to drop the discussion about the philosophical value of marketing, and just deal with how you can use Twitter from a professional marketing point of view. Some people claim that you can use it for technical discussions, but I don’t see that. Discussions are hard to follow on Twitter, and you can’t get very technical in 140 characters. You can find out that someone has a problem, and then move to another format for real help, like Skype, GoToMeeting, even email or a good old fashioned phone call.
I was in a session this past week on social media run by Joe Pulizzi, and for the first time, I heard some common sense ideas about Twitter. Twitter should not be used by typical marketing types in the typical marketing ways. Twitter should not be used by marketing types who think that saying what kind of coffee they drink is what Twitter is for. The only way you are going to have any sort of impact on anything using Twitter is by saying things that your target audience finds interesting. Face it, no matter how cool you are, nobody cares what kind of coffee you are drinking, or what you ordered on your sandwich. Really. Nobody cares. If you write that stuff, it’s a waste of my time to read it, and I will just unfollow you. If you want my attention, say something meaningful – give me something that helps me. If you are a CAD marketer, you gotta talk CAD or link to CAD talk. Most CAD marketers don’t have the first idea about how to say something interesting to CAD users, but they usually can find information that CAD users will like. Here’s a facetious example of what happens when somebody just doesn’t get it, and tries to make Twitter into a CAD-relevant tool.
Ironically, I found some of this stuff on a blog I consider to be one of the worst offenders in content-less buzzword propagation.
Anyway, in this session with Mr. Pulizzi, it was pointed out that if you puke in a bucket this weekend, that’s not something you necessarily want your customers to know about. It does a lot for your image, just that it’s the wrong kind of image that people get. I took that as a nice way to say that you should be very careful about mixing your professional Twitter account with personal stuff, or the inane, banal stuff that passes for tweet-worthy content with some people. So don’t tell me what coffee you’re drinking, if you puked in a bucket, or what you got on your sandwich. Instead, give me a link to a great article on how to get help right inside my SolidWorks window, or where I can find a blog written by a SolidWorks expert on the SW interface. That’s stuff I will pay attention to, and I’ll recommend you to other people I know.
So, there are precious few SolidWorks users or bloggers for that matter who actually follow this recommendation. Some of the resellers might. If you’re an atheist, or love Bon Jovi, or your dog dies, these are all tragic things, really, but honestly, they don’t have any place on your Twitter account if you are trying to build customers or a professional reputation.
If you need to talk about stuff like that, I highly recommend having two accounts, one personal and one professional, and locking your personal account so that not just anyone can read it. Twitter, contrary to what a lot of people seem to believe, is part of real life, and you only need to use your real life judgment to know that these common sense things about how you interact with people are true.