Q&A: Un-Marketing’s Scott Stratton on social media, engagement, online conversation and fixing your business before tweeting about it

Scott Stratton is an entrepreneur on the razors edge of online, authentic marketing and engagement through social media. The president of Un-Marketing, he spent the better part of the last decade teaching businesses how to stop cramming messages down the throats of their customers and start entering conversations. One of Forbes’ top 5 social media influencers in the world, he has tweeted more than 94,000 times, has more than 135,000 followers in Twitter, and is the author of two books, Unmarketing, and The Book of Business Awesome. Nowadays Scott spends his time educating businesses and entrepreneurs with speaking engagements, and he recently gave the keynote speech at the Star Business Club’s inaugural event. But before he did Scott sat down with Business Club Editor Tom Henheffer to discuss his passion for conversation online, the growth of engagement, and why companies need to remember that social media is not an answer to all their problems.

It’s one thing to run a successful social media campaign, but tweeting 90,000 times, where does that passion about engagement and conversation come from?

Unmarketing, the company I started 12 years ago, was all about stopping marketing and starting to engage. It was about being social before we even called it “social media” online. We just called it forums, chats, dialing up on ICQ. It was a collection of like-minded people discussing each other’s interests. We didn’t need a name for it.

Well it wasn’t profitable yet

No, and there was no business angle to it. Even when Twitter came out in 2008, social media didn’t exist as a term. Whoever was on it wanted to be on it, it wasn’t about business.

I wanted to talk to other business owners, I wanted my own water cooler and a sounding board.The best thing entrepreneurs can have is someone they trust, someone who can give you an honest opinion. That was twitter to me.

Your success really came down to authenticity

Yeah, I never went there to build a business. It just so happened people I talked to were also potential clients, and it fit well with the whole relationship marketing idea — building a platform instead of a shotgun.

Is there a type of business that this platform building and engagement just won’t work for?

Engagement doesn’t work for a lot of companies, but it’s not the companies it doesn’t work for, it’s people. There’s a lot of people out there, especially at an executive level, who don’t want to engage. They don’t see the point, and that’s okay.

And you still think that’s true? It seems like engaging with your marketplace would have to be a net benefit.

It’s a waste of time to make it mandatory for people who don’t believe in it. Social media is a terrible direct selling tool. It actually rivals spam for conversion rates. If you’re just trying to engage to convert sales, it’ll never have the return to justify the time.

Now for those of us that believe communities are important, that building business is about building relationships, we don’t have to look at the ROI. We know, the more people that know and trust us, the more business we’ll get.

I can’t understand a law firm that spends $20,000 putting their logo on mugs but won’t hop onto social. I don’t know the last time I needed a lawyer and looked in my kitchen cupboard.

A lot of business owners find it hard to start engaging with people online. They’re not sure of how to break the ice and either join or start a conversation. How do you take those first steps on Twitter?

It’s literally like an in-person event, except there’s no such thing as interrupting on Twitter. There’s no green light, and I always talk to people whose biggest regret is not joining the conversation sooner.

I always start looking for keywords or phrases relating to interests that I have. When I got on there my whole job was just to connect with people, other people that like poker, music I like, kids, dogs, because those are my interests.

I didn’t start pushing my own content until I had tweeted 10,000 times. (If I did) it would be like going to a networking event and saying, “how’s it going? I’m Jeff. By the way there’s a different event somewhere else.” That would be gross.

People do do that though.

All the time, and you don’t want to be that guy. The rules are the same (in person as they are online). Don’t talk about yourself the whole time, don’t try to sell at the event, and don’t do it drunk. Three simple rules that can keep you successful.

Companies are hesitant to use social media because they don’t want to lose control of the message, but you say they never had control of it in the first place. Can you elaborate on that?

The classical view is push messaging — craft it, get it ready, and then we’re going to throw whatever we want you to think out there. But the real communication is what people do once they get that message. The conversation has always has been there, but now it’s on the surface and in public. It’s a big change; PR is no longer about the Press Release, it’s about People Reacting and Responding.

You don’t define your brand. Your audience defines your brand. You can try to influence it, do all the logo and brochure revisions you want, and it doesn’t make a lick of difference. The brand is always changing, it’s organic and you can never control it, it’s always up to your marketplace.

So how can you be part of that consciousness?

NIKE and Apple, they’re products are the most talked about in social, but they don’t say a word. Brands don’t have to be social to be successful in social, because it’s just a virtual representation of the conversation in our world. If your product or service sucks it’s going to suck harder in social media, there’s no way around that. Social doesn’t change anything, it only amplifies, and no number of members in your twitter army is going to help if your frisbee doesn’t fly.

We’ve made social media too important I think. We’ve forgotten to focus on the basics — improving our product lines, improving our service.

This more holistic approach is where you’re going with The Book of Business Awesome.

Incredible businesses are incredible at the core, not just on the surface. Now companies are hiring people to do social for them, and they’re great, but their customer service phone line still stinks. That’s dropping brand the ball, and it happens all the time, especially with utilities and airlines. They’re great on twitter and bad on the phone.

How do you change that culture?

I had someone put their hand up and say “we’re getting a lot of complaints on Twitter about our product, how do we fix that on Twitter.”

I said, it’s not a Twitter problem, it’s a product problem.

If you believe in engagement, that means engagement — not just social media. It’s listening, getting feedback. That might come through the social channel, but are you active with customers? Are you emailing and asking what should we stop doing, what should we start doing and what should we continue doing?

And you need to engage with employees too, the franchise owner or cashier who’s at the front line. It’s so ridiculous. Your front line is the least paid, the least appreciated and the most engaged with your customers on a daily basis. That’s not cohesive.

This stuff is so intuitive, why’s there so much resistance to it?

Luckily for me I have a business because common sense is not so common. Social media isn’t difficult. Marketing, on a basic level, isn’t difficult. But we make it sound difficult so we can protect budgets, jobs and ourselves.

In reality, you can just shut the hell up for a second and ask your customers and employees a few questions. That’ll keep you busy for 6 months instead of wasting your time on something like a viral video campaign.