What I learned about social media from Baratunde Thurston and The Onion

Last week, I attended a talk with Baratunde Thurston, Digital Director at The Onion (@TheOnion), as part of The Year of Social Media (@UIUCsocialmedia) event series at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana. The talk, Foursquare Rallies, Voter Protection, Open Joke Book and Other Awesome Things To Do With Social Media, was witty, fun, and full of insightful and poignant information that I summarized into four takeaways.


Everything I needed to know about social media I learned from being @the_swine_flu.

Baratunde puts an unexpected twist on social media while teaching us what can be achieved by experimenting with social media tools. His experiment with @the_swine_flu stresses the importance of playing with how different platforms can work, complement, and interact with one another. It also shows what can happen when we push the boundaries of expected use. For example, we learn that Twitter alone isn’t always enough, but adding in Facebook (or another platform) can help to enhance participation and the experience. Experiment with what’s possible.

To learn more about @the_swine_flu watch Baratunde’s Ignite NYC presentation

Content form can help to enable the successful execution of specific social tools and encourage participant action. The Onion’s content and headline techniques lend well to digital execution. Their content consistently takes the form of one-liners and short info bits that are easy to share through Twitter RT’s, Facebook, and other digital means. Prior to Twitter, their readers were already familiar with sharing content through email. The result of new technologies, consistent content, and behavioral norms for The Onion has been frequent viral success and referral traffic.

The Onion uses a mix of platforms to meet their objectives including basic content distribution, real-time coverage, and participation. Remember to always define your objectives and then align your platforms to support them. With the rapid pace of technology we need to stake our claim to new tools and set up a foundation, but wait before making a full commitment.  We need to assess platform value, audience adoption and use, and strategic alignment. We also need to think critically about where we want to be online and what message the use of those platforms sends.

Relationships are even more important than content. Relationship building is a practice that helps to remind people that you exist. The Internet means that we are now competing for information and the attention of those who are interested in it. Real respect for the value of relationships and making a commitment to cultivating those relationships is powerful. This means taking the time to provide value and opportunities for your audience to engage with you both online and in person. Take advantage of, or create, face-to-face event opportunities to further develop the relationship.

Learn more about Baratunde Thurston and follow him on Twitter @baratunde
Learn more about The Year of Social Media and follow updates on Twitter @UIUCsocialmedia

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