How to Build Social Media Audiences

by Natalie Canavor

How can you build the right following using various social media? The question is important because like it or not, as communicators, we’re expected to lead the way in our organizations’ use of social media. Natalie asked a few “early adopters” to share their best advice. All are intensive users of social media, and also teach others how to employ it.

We’re Not in Mass-Media Land Anymore
Jerry Allocca is CEO of CORE Interactive, which helps companies, universities and associations build an effective Internet presence and use social media well. Often, avoiding mistakes is the first imperative, he says.

What kind of mistakes? “No. 1 is not having a plan, but diving right in and figuring it out as you go.” While the new media should be an extension of what an organization is already doing to market itself, it takes a totally different mind-set, he observes.

“Marketing is evolving, and trying to mass-broadcast to millions of people through Twitter, for example, is totally ineffective,” Allocca says. “It’s not about blasting a message to reach everyone on 13 channels of television anymore—the landscape is changing. Online communities and social media sites are really about one-on-one conversations. So you have to start conversations.”

How? Just as you would at a networking event, he says. Ask a question that evokes a response—a curiosity-driven question. Talk about interesting things relevant to your audience and re-tweet other people’s good posts. Come with a how-can-I-help-you attitude: “This is a give-before-you-get medium,” Allocca says.

Look for conversations, preferably about a shared purpose—or even better, a passion. Or look for conversations that will interest your prospects. “Do a search using keywords and phrases,” Allocca recommends. “For example, my universe is the Internet and marketing. I love talking about the Internet and want to see what people are saying.”

See which people engage your interest. Connect with and follow them. “Hopefully they’ll follow you back,” says Allocca. Consciously provide value according to your industry, and look for themes behind your product or service. If your product is a chair, for example, it could be seen as being about comfort, and there’ll be an audience interested in that theme.

And you can best promote yourself by being yourself—“Nothing is more transparent online than phoniness. You must have personality and authenticity,” Allocca says.

It’s Always About Branding
Arthur Germain is “principal and chief brand teller” of the Communications Strategy Group, an agency that focuses on branding clients through storytelling. In counseling clients on how to leverage social media as part of their marketing mix, he notices that “people start at the wrong end—how do I use the screwdriver to take out the screw? They jump on the tool rather than what they’re trying to accomplish.”

Germain advises his social-media-wannabe clients to conduct a marketing audit first and define their objectives: to connect with customers or employees? Improve customer service? Ask, how would you like social media to help you and become part of your marketing mix? What resources are available to you to monitor the online conversations and develop sharable information?

“Then think about where the people you want to reach are participating and what you can share. What great content do you have for this community—content that is noncommercial and high value?” Germain recommends a simple online survey to determine which media are worth your time: Ask the people you want to reach which networks they are active in.

Consider practicalities in cataloging your content: In what form is it available? Can it be searched? Can it be easily shared? “The key to viral communication is that there has to be a method for sharing. The content can’t be locked, and it can’t be too big, like PowerPoint presentations or a huge PDF,” advises Germain. (Although PowerPoint presentations can be shared via, he notes). If it’s online and linkable, it’s sharable.

Germain notes that a good way to find others in your industry on Twitter is to check out who’s active on a subject by looking up hashtags (see Conversely, hashtags can help you gain followers; Germain uses them when he comments as a webinar participant, for example.

Learn what works from listening. “Notice who’s popular on Twitter—it’s not the ‘here’s-where-I-am’ people, but those who offer value. They may tweet about a neat product they saw, or a show they attended, or an article they found interesting, and give you a link.

“Try to identify information gaps for a community. Fill those needs, and you will quickly and naturally gain followers and standing,” says Germain.

His direct advice to the hesitant: “You’ve got lots to say, you just haven’t thought it through yet.” He, too, suggests working to a theme: Figure out your best content, chunk it down into little pieces and feed it out, and eventually move on to another theme.

Foster Your Personal Credibility
Adrian Miller is president of Adrian Miller Sales Training and operates Adrian’s Network, a virtual business networking community. The core message for small businesses in her view: The Internet offers access to the same playground used by very large companies. She, too, advocates acting on objectives, “Do you want to use social media to generate attendance at your events? Use it as a credibility tool, or for communication? Determine this.”

With Twitter, spend those limited number of characters very carefully, Miller advises. “People will want to read your posts only if your writing is meaningful, so link to relevant news or groundbreaking web sites and combine that with a little bit of business, and you’ll start to be recognized as a real information source. Build your credibility until someone calls and says, ‘Maybe we should do business.’”

With media like Facebook and LinkedIn, she suggests exploiting the profile potential: “The more information you can add to flesh out your profile, pointing at your expertise and intelligence, the more you can get recognized as an expert at what you do and can be a provider of knowledge and an information resource.” Post articles you’ve written, link these platforms to your blog, make a concerted effort to update your status with items that indicate your professional activities.

It’s important to control how you present yourself to your audience and your market, and to monitor what’s posted about you by others. Don’t forget photographs—Miller regularly conducts a search of Google Images to avoid professional embarrassment.

The bottom line: Like traditional media, social media demands planning, strategizing, research, and—let’s not forget—the best writing you can produce: solid, well-chosen content, optimally presented and thoroughly proofread.

Sloppy thinking and communication techniques are not the ticket in a universe where there is so much information and so many ideas to choose from.


Natalie Canavor is a business writer and workshop presenter who teaches writing-for-results. She has been a journalist, national magazine editor and communication department director, and is a two-term past president of IABC/Long Island.