‘Don’t be a social media robot, be human’

When Tara Hunt was preparing to be a new mother, she looked to bolster her courage by reaching out to touch someone — using a 14.4 kbps baud modem.

It was 1992 when Hunt was first compelled to delve into the UseNet forums and Internet Relay Chat rooms of the World Wide Web and find a community of women experiencing the same life changes that she was. She succeeded in making that human connection.

Then, a light bulb turned on above her head.

“I instantly realized this Internet thing was a game changer,” she says.

The Saskatoon native went on to become a social media entrepreneur, author, and public speaker. Also named by Fast Company Magazine as one of the most influential women in technology in 2009, she shared some tips on social media success with a crowd at the Advertising Week conference in Toronto.

There are companies that don’t participate in social media at all, yet are fairly well regarded as brands, Hunt observes. There are also companies that do try to engage in social media, but receive negative reactions from consumers in that space.

“It’s because most business values don’t align with community values,” she explains. “I’d argue they don’t align with human values.”

It’s no surprise than that fewer that in one in five people say they believe in what ads tell them, and that only 38 per cent of people trust business “to do the right thing.”

Yet, nine out of 10 people expect to be able to engage with a brand, so there is opportunity to bring consumers into the conversation and turn around that negative image.

Companies associated with basic human values such as freedom, beauty, truth and love are the most successful at maintain a positive image, says Hunt. Google is the second-most talked about brand in online communities, after Starbucks, and the conversation about it is very positive.

“Companies that espouse human values are the darlings of our online communities,” she says.

Google stands for truth, Apple stands for beauty, Craigslist Inc. stands for freedom, and retailer Zappos associates their brand with love, Hunt adds. Craigslist is wildly successful — employing just 30 people, yet attracting more daily visitors than either eBay or Amazon.com. Craig himself is known for handling customer service calls.

Hunt wasn’t alone in calling for a more human approach to social media technologies. Keynote speaker Robert F. Kennedy Jr. told ITBusiness.ca that social media can be a tool to fight back against “crony capitalism” and achieve a true free market.

“What you want to achieve through social networking is really a change in the laws that send rational ideas into the marketplace,” he says. “It’s about democracy and designing a set of laws that makes capitalism work for the public.”

Building a nation-wide network and opening up access to infrastructure has brought free information and cheap telecommunications to Americans, Kennedy says. Companies need to recognize that the Internet is everybody’s domain, not to be controlled by a corporate agenda.

If there’s a currency that can have impact in social media, it’s built on reciprocity, Hunt says. The community naturally gives away information and ideas with the expectation that they’ll be treated in kind.

Social communities also value agility, compassion, authenticity and prefer stories to statistics, Hunt says. But generosity is the most important.

“Generosity abounds in online communities,” she says. “When I was young and I got online to those message boards, I wasn’t afraid anymore.”

No one taking part in the communities is getting paid or winning accolades to participate, Hunt points out. Maybe businesses shouldn’t expect to gain anything either.

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