Social media: Amber Mac's new rules of engagement

Canada's top social-media expert on how to build a brand and get over your fear of the web.

Years before ‘social media’ was a business catchphrase, Amber MacArthur (a.k.a. Amber Mac) was on the scene. During the dot-com boom, she developed content, web strategies and online communities for companies like Microsoft and Razorfish. Over the past decade, she’s built a profile as one of the online world’s foremost journalists, covering tech and social media for CBC, TechTV and Toronto’s Citytv, and hosting the show Girls Go Geek on Xbox LIVE, net@night on the network, and commandN, one of the web’s most popular podcasts. In 2007, she and her brother Jeff founded MGIMedia, a digital-media consulting business, whose clients have included Rogers, Zoocasa and motivational speaking titan Tony Robbins. Her first book, Power Friending: Demystifying Social Media to Grow Your Business, is a simple and accessible guide for businesses and marketers developing social-media strategies. She spoke with Canadian Business staff writer Jordan Timm.

Canadian Business: There seem to be a lot of self-styled socialmedia marketing experts out there all of a sudden. Are there many quacks among them?

Amber Mac: I think there are. There are so many people claiming to be social-media experts or gurus, and I think [if you’re hiring one] you should be a little bit skeptical. People think, ‘OK, I’ve mastered Facebook and I’ve mastered Twitter, I’m going to start consulting on the social-media side.’ But they really don’t have the experience and the track record of success. I caution businesses to do their research when hiring people, and to make sure they have case studies and a list of their clients, and testimonials and all those things, because otherwise you’re going to get somebody who sits at home in their pyjamas and hangs out on Twitter.

CB: What should a business be looking for if it wants help moving into social media?

AM: I’m not a big fan of using an agency or consultant who will do all of the work for you. The best way to get up to speed with what’s happening in social media is to work with that person for a couple months to develop a strategic plan — what you’re going to do, what kind of schedule you need in place — and make use of their experience and their advice. But eventually you should run your own social-media initiative. There are lots of big agencies managing social media for companies, and that’s not always very authentic. To have the most authentic voice in social media, you want to have someone inside the company who is the face of your organization online.

CB: What traits should you look for in filling that social-media ambassador role?

AM: You need to choose somebody who really believes in your brand. They can always learn the technology, but they can’t necessarily learn that passion. If you go to someone in your company who’s there because they want a job, but they don’t really care about the culture or what you’re putting out there, then that’s not the right person. Someone who’s social, too, and who likes interacting with people, because a lot of what you’re doing is obviously very social. And I would say the third thing is discipline. Like going to the gym, it takes a lot of discipline. If we only go to the gym once a month, we’re not going to see results. It’s the same with social media. We can’t just jump online one day a month or one day a week and expect to have value there. You won’t connect with anyone. There’s like 600 tweets a second on Twitter. They’re going to forget about you pretty quickly.

CB: Are you still encountering skepticism from the business world about social media’s value?

AM: What I get more than anything is fear. Companies are afraid of opening themselves up online, afraid and intimidated by the technology itself. They’re afraid of the potential for criticism, that all of a sudden there will be this channel where people can say whatever they want about their brand. There’s also fear that people within their companies will waste time if they’re using these tools.

CB: Canada’s often criticized for lagging other markets in our embrace of e-commerce and digital advertising. Are we lagging in the social-media space too?

AM: Yes, I think that’s really true. Companies here have been slow to adopt digital media. Most of the case studies I use in my book are American. It’s not that I’m turning my nose up at Canada — the reality is that we’ve been a little slow to use these tools and experiment with them. There are exceptions, like Nissan’s Cube competition last year, but they’re few and far between. There are amazing numbers of people using social media in this country, but businesses are behind. In the U.S., they’re very aggressive. They want to use all these tools, even if they don’t understand how any of them work. Even Foursquare or other emerging ones, they want to be able to say, ‘OK, that’s in our arsenal. We’re using it.’

CB: Who is doing it well in this country?

AM: ING is doing well reaching out to people on Twitter and other digital platforms. Nothing they’ve done so far makes a great case study, but they’re one to watch. And some of the other banks are doing pretty well. RBC has a student podcast they’ve done to try to teach young people about managing their money. What I’ve seen in Canada, more than anything, it’s not the big companies that are flocking to social media, it’s the small, independently owned businesses: coffee shops, restaurants, dry cleaners. There’s a restaurant down the street [in Toronto] called the Ceili Cottage; it’s a great place, and their owner is a world-famous oyster shucker. He’s on Twitter, he’s on Facebook, he’s posting updates about what’s happening at the Cottage, and, as someone in the neighbourhood, I follow along. In Canada, we’ve seen more of that small-scale leveraging.

CB: One question businesses always have about investing resources in social media is on measuring return on that investment. Has anybody really figured out a metric?

AM: It’s hard for anybody to quantify, but I would argue the same is true of the advertising world. If you run an ad on TV, you’re guessing how many people that’s influencing. With online, you can track. You can get concrete demographic information, and that’s information about the audience that’s interacting directly with whatever campaign you have out there. That’s really valuable data that we haven’t been able to collect through the traditional marketing world.

CB: We’ve long been told that the new reality of the career world is that we have to build our own personal brands. This is something you’ve been doing for a long time.

AM: I don’t come from a rich or networked family, so I knew the onus was on me to create my own brand. When the Internet started to become popular, I thought, ‘This is amazing, all these tools I can use to point someone to my resume, or the work I’ve done.’ I realized at a young age it would give me an edge. Even today, I’m a huge advocate that everyone should have their own web page, even if it’s just one page listing their experience, and try to own their own little space online.

CB: In the book, you talk about Margaret Atwood, who’s become an unlikely social-media success story. How has she managed to make this stuff work for her?

AM: The funny thing about her, she really doesn’t understand how all the back-end technology works. She’s just very business savvy, and she understands that all of these tools are important to her career and to the future of selling books, or whatever else she might be doing out there. She understands the power of the medium, and she’s made an effort to get involved with her audience. She’s 70 now, and it’s amazing how much she’s doing, and how she’s connected with people. And she’s figured it out on her own.

CB: She’s taken control of her personal brand.

AM: Exactly. I always use her as an example. People think they’re too old to learn this stuff? I don’t think so.