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'Just be useful': Experts offer advice for making social media work

Jay Baer delivers the keynote address at the FargoConnect conference Wednesday at the Fargodome. Baer, an author an expert on social media marketing, stressed that for sales messages to be effective today they have to be helpful. Dave Olson / The Forum

Fargo - Jay Baer’s hourlong keynote talk was witty, informative and engaging. But his message to marketers aiming to capitalize on the power of social media was summed up in a few words:

“Stop trying to be amazing and start being useful. Just be useful,” Baer told the more than 500 people who gathered Wednesday for the FargoConnect conference at the Fargodome.

The event explored the intersection of modern communication and technology, particularly where social media is concerned.

Baer, an author and expert on mixing marketing and social media, provided real-world examples of companies and individuals that put the “be helpful” ethos into action and were rewarded for it.

He talked of a taxi driver who researches fun things to see and do in the city he serves and then puts the information on a bright yellow flier he circulates free all over town.

Or the hotel chain whose employees monitor Twitter on the chance they’ll discover people hungry for travel and shopping tips.

The workers respond with helpful suggestions, even when there’s nothing in it for the hotel.

Baer said it takes courage for companies to put time and effort into something that doesn’t create immediate benefits, but he said for those that do, the rewards are substantial – eventually.

“It’s about embracing eventually,” he said. “Be OK with eventually.”

He said companies will also be rewarded in today’s social media world if they practice what he calls “radical transparency.”

That is particularly important when an organization is confronted with criticism, Baer said.

Duff Watson, another speaker at Wednesday’s conference, provided a case in point.

Watson, a resident of the Twin Cities and a frequent flier with Southwest Airlines, recently booked a Southwest flight from Denver to Minneapolis.

What happened when he got to the departure gate “is really not news,” Watson stressed to his Fargo audience, but the situation was sensational enough to make him a media darling, at least for a few weeks.

As an “A-list” traveler, Watson is granted preferential boarding with the airline, but the attendant at the gate told him the same wasn’t true for his two children and Watson was told his kids would have to board later with other non-A-list passengers.

A disagreement ensued and Watson tweeted about how rude he found the attendant to be.

After the family boarded the airplane, a voice came over the public address stating they had to leave the plane at once.

Watson then encountered the same attendant he had disagreed with, who told him his tweet was considered threating and he would have to delete it if he wanted to rejoin the flight.

He did so and the family flew home.

When word got out about the incident, Watson found himself the focus of news stories and he was invited to talk shows.

Watson, who said he likely won’t be using the airline again, said if there is a lesson in his story for companies, it is that it would be wise for them to create a work culture where employees are aware of social media and its implications, reducing the chance individuals will make decisions for the organization in potentially embarrassing ways.