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Vol. LXI, No. 18
September 4, 2009
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2.7 Seconds to Grab Ya
Social Media Expert Offers Communication Tips

You’ve heard of Avogadro’s number and the Hubble constant, but nothing lashes more cruelly at the soul of a communicator than what might be termed Shankman’s interval—the 2.7 seconds, on average, that we can afford to give any one of the typical day’s 16,000 bids for our attention.

Welcome to the world of social media, where you better be interesting, honest, original and easy to find—all within the blink of an eye—or be irrelevant.

Our tour guide for this world is Peter Shankman, a public relations expert whose fast-paced, glib and entertaining presentation “Get Into Their Heads—It’s Not Web 2.0, It’s Not Web 3.0, It’s Just Life,” was sponsored by NHLBI in Natcher auditorium on July 21.

“Social media has been seen as the solver of all problems, but really what it does is allow you to screw up before a much larger audience in a much shorter time period,” he quipped.

“Social media is just a new set of tools,” he explained. “It’s how you use them that determines how effective you are. The tools themselves are not the solution.”

So often nowadays, the boss asks, “Make this viral [so popular that everyone has to click on it], which is impossible,” he said. The real challenge is to produce quality, to put your reputation on the line.

Social media boils down to customer service, he said. And in a world inured to poor service, even a small step in the direction of social grace is a victory.

He offered four common-sense rules that communicators can use to grow their message or brand.

“Transparency,” said Shankman, “has to rule supreme.” If your web site, Facebook page or Twitter presence reek faintly of falsehood, you’re going to be found out quickly. “Some dateless 15-year-old kid sitting home alone in front of the computer on a Saturday night” is going to bust you.

The second rule is relevance. “You’ve got to find out where your audience is,” he said, and the easiest way to do that is to ask. “You need to find out how your audience likes to receive its information.”

Rule three is brevity. “The generation that grew up on MTV has an attention span of about 3 minutes,” said Shankman. Media research has shown that the average American copes with more than 16,000 bids for his/her attention daily, and within 3 seconds, we either tune in or tune out.

“You better know how to write,” he urged. “You’ve got to master the art of storytelling in just a paragraph or two…Brevity will save the world.”

Unable to resist asides, which he attributed to his own ADHD, Shankman noted that voice mail is taboo—no one likes or uses it, so better to email or text, and even at that, “be compelling.

“The fourth rule is what I call ‘top of mind,’” he said. By taking the time to reach out and contact people—to wish happy birthday, for instance, to people on your Facebook network—you remain on their minds in sort of a warm, neural way. “Social media lets you make that connection with people,” Shankman said. Such connections “make people want to come back to you.”

“You better know how to write. You’ve got to master the art of storytelling in just a paragraph or two…Brevity will save the world.”

Reaching out on a personal level is at the heart of social media. “It’s a conversation, not a broadcast."

Shankman thinks the world is moving toward “a one-network society,” and that sites like Facebook, which offer a “two-dimensional” version of individuals, will evolve to full 3-D. Already, a new tool known as a Mingle Stick is becoming popular in Europe, he said. The device, resembling a thumb drive, contains one’s personal electronic profile, and when it senses a like-profiled stick bearer, begins to emit a signal, kind of a cyber version of Marco Polo. Warm up to someone, and the exchange of contact info is as swift as a clinked glass.

Relevance is the grail of this new world—we all seek people who know something, who we can trust, and who could enrich, perhaps even literally, our lives. Shankman called to mind Venn diagrams, areas of overlapping interest. A Mingle Stick could do this sorting automatically.

In his metaphor, “In the giant social media lava lamp, we’re all oil bubbles, rising and falling.”

Shankman believes that, with social media, for the first time ever, “information will flow from inside the network out, not the other way around.” In other words, I will trust you not because the New York Times, or your media strategist, says you’re a good guy, but because Fred, who has already earned my trust and been invited to my network, tells me so.

Getting other people to spread your gospel is the way to succeed in the world of social media, he argued. NIHRecord Icon

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