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What a Little Birdie Can Tell You

Now that the U.S. economy is booming again, spending and debt are under control and global conflicts have all flickered out, there’s plenty of time for the leader of the Free World to sit down and figure out this social media thing on his iPhone 4.

And so, Barack Obama announced in July that he will start doing his own tweeting and then promptly hosted a national Q&A session via Twitter. We can only hope that he’ll be a lot better at it than Anthony Weiner was.

Anyway, for those of us who live somewhere between Earth, the Twitterverse and blogosphere, the news of the first-ever tweeting commander-in-chief -- whose presidential momentum in 2008 flowed through the channels of social media -- was a truly significant event.

Although I work in a demographically top-heavy industry that’s been understandably slow to embrace free online tools like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Youtube, I’m convinced that you don’t have to know the title of a single Justin Beiber song to be able to recognize that even trucking is entering an organized, intricately woven social B2B-branding age.

Just ask Canadian fleets like Challenger and Yanke and independent owner-ops like Al Goodhall who have active Twitter accounts or Facebook pages.

A GenXer myself, I’m not exactly a child of social media. When I was in journalism school in my early 20s, we used molasses-paced dial-up and Google wasn’t a verb; cell phones the size of your forearm were for talking, not texting; and Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg was still a moneyless, girlfriendless high-school geek.

Yeah, yeah, I know … when you were kids there were no computers and Internet. Sure, for some of you guys “calling” meant door knocking and you had to walk 22.5 miles with Moccasin snowboots through a Nipissing ice storm to the schoolhouse. I get it. Life used to be harder.

I’m just saying that when all this social messaging started, it didn’t come naturally to me either. Many aspects of it -- for one, the inherent narcissism -- kind of turned me off. After all, the world won’t spin off its axis if it isn’t promptly notified on Facebook that you “just got home and are thinking of taking a nap.” Thanks for the info.

So, what is social media good for, then? And in which forms can you as fleet managers take advantage?

A few months ago, I was invited by the Ontario Trucking Association (OTA) to be part of a webinar that focused on that very question. As editor (Warning: narcissism alert) of the industry’s leading trucking news site, todaystrucking.com, I had already been dabbling casually in social media and multimedia, such as blogs and videos.

The three pillars for social media in business: To acquire
and share knowledge; Free and limitless self-promotion;
two-way interaction for revenue-generation.

Trained originally as a print reporter, but maturing in the job market during the wild adolescence of the mass media Internet, I’m today somewhat of a hybrid media user/producer -- equal parts cynical and curiously enthusiastic.

The turning point for me, though, was Twitter.

You’ve all heard of it, but like me a couple of years ago, you might still be asking, “what the heck is it?” Fair enough. Like the name suggests, think of it like a flock of birds perched on a branch -- the type and total number is entirely up to you -- chirping to one another. You’re a “tweeting” bird in that conversation.

Basically, it allows you, personally, or through a brand name -- @todaystrucking, for example -- to send notes or share info in short, quickly digestible 140-character bursts with like-minded or interested “followers.” Those followers in turn might “retweet” your messages or “mention” you to their own followers, constantly exposing you to new contacts via the multiplier effect.

Blogs -- where pajama-clad “citizen journalists” could create their own news sourcing and opinion pages -- had already spun mainstream print and broadcast media on its head. Twitter was the next, instantaneously viral, commoditized phase.

With subjects now able to create their own narrative in real-time, some journalists were understandably fearful. Though, I admit it absolutely fascinated me.

Facebook certainly has its strengths as a virtual community builder and synergizer of all other media (as I’ll discuss later on), but as a purely diverse news/information aggregator and self -­ promotion tool, I prefer the simplicity and immediacy of Twitter.

In less than 24 months, we’ve attracted about 1,600 “followers” to our account. Because we use Twitter mainly as a news bulletin delivery system, where we “tweet” out a description of todaystrucking.com (TT.com) stories and link back to our homepage, we’ve driven up our monthly “unique visitor” traffic on our TT.com webpage by as much as 6,000 individuals (about 25 percent) since we signed up.


Making Contacts

As many businesses are starting to realize, relying on social media as a stand-alone marketing channel won’t do much for you. But used to accent your overall processes, it’s highly effective.

Business-wise, social media is evolving into a multifaceted tool, but for beginners sites like Twitter and the more corporate-minded LinkedIn essentially serve three main external purposes:

1. To acquire and share knowledge and monitor the mood of a particular business community. I can’t tell you how many of my articles have been inspired by ideas from these forums and people I’ve made contact with who have turned into valuable sources.

2. Free and limitless self-promotion and brand exposure. Many of you splash your company nameplates and logos on the sides of your trailers. I presume this is done to stake your slice of marketing share on the highway. So, why not brand yourself the same way on the information highway?

3. Enabling two-way interaction for revenue-generating business. Some of you travel several times a year to attend networking events and conferences. Surely it can’t hurt to make yourself known to hundreds of like-minded companies and professionals from all over the world without leaving your office.

JAN Kelley Marketing’s Peter Petch, with whom I shared the panel at the OTA webinar, says smart users “sell” business-to-business offerings by spreading positive mentions and endorsements.

“Your sales team is no longer the only information conduit,” he says.

By “tapping” into professional social ecosystems, a business can with the click of a mouse expand its reach like never before. (Twitter’s reach, for example, is said to be double its 50-million-plus active user base).

Send notes or share info in short, quickly digestible bursts
with like-minded or interested 'followers' in your industry.

Users learn about customers’ changing needs or appetite for new products simply by monitoring conversations and testing reactions to the market in a particular sector, says Petch.

As well, social tools are great problem solvers. Many a time, I’ve thrown out “how-to” questions to the Twitterverse and received prompt, informative responses.

Let’s say you’re a four-truck fleet owner tripling as a driver, mechanic and IT guy: “Following” the right people on Twitter or “Liking” a related Facebook page could lead you to a solution for that software problem long before you get an answer from the 1-800 customer service rep in India.

It should go without saying (though, I’ll say it anyway) that you’ll need to be vigilant and selective. A fruit-bearing social network doesn’t grow all on its own; and left unmaintained, it could get overrun with weeds.

Also, be prepared to be overloaded with pitches from companies you’ve never heard of. As MSM Transportation’s Mike McCarron said in a recent Today’s Trucking column about his foray into social networking: “be wary about someone who won’t pick up the phone to introduce himself personally.”

It’s a fair point. But I really believe that the opportunities -- both quantifiable and the intangible -- far outweigh the nuisances.

Internal Affairs

We constantly hear consultants evangelize about the importance of company culture, whatever that actually means. However you define that, I do know that it involves buy-in from staff as well as ongoing dialogue concerning how they communicate with each other and the outside world. And with such a large percentage of your workforce out on the road or based in other terminals, is there a better way to routinely express and reinforce these messages than through the Internet?

A Facebook page, for example, can be an information depot for staff -- company updates and notices, industry news (linked from todaystrucking.com, of course) etc. The beauty of Facebook, unlike a standard corporate webpage, is that it’s interactive, allowing staff (or customers and clients if you wish) to contribute to the fabric that goes into building that tight-knit culture so many companies struggle to establish.

Try creating sub-forums within your page so people can share ideas or, dare I say, express grievances. One for long-haul drivers and another for cross-country dispatchers, perhaps? How about a similar forum for drivers’ wives to stay connected while their husbands are out hauling freight for you?

Facebook is also where you can post pictures and host Youtube videos from company events.

If you think of your company as one big family, this is a virtual, cost-effective tool to bring that family together.

With capacity tightening and driver demographics being what they are, social media is another mechanism to market your business to potential new recruits. In an industry that struggles mightily to attract young people, it shows a certain level of sophistication that next-gen drivers are on the lookout for. As well, it provides an enhanced level of connectivity between drivers and their families and friends while they’re away from home.

Not that I would want to dissuade anyone from running a recruitment ad in a trade publication but a creative promotional video about your company uploaded to Youtube will probably get a more effective response from young people still in the process of making career choices than a classified ad in the Toronto Star.

This goes double for foreign drivers. Some companies involved in overseas recruiting spend thousands on international marketing to get professional drivers to Canada. A short Youtube video can bring down some of those costs and do an effective job selling your company and its offerings to potential recruits in the U.K. or other lands.

Plus, if there’s one current that runs through every story I’ve ever done on foreign recruiting, it’s about the importance of linking immigrant drivers with their cultural communities in their new country.

Not feeling at home is the number-one reason foreign drivers quit the company that spent thousands getting them here, so it’s in carriers’ best interests to make them comfortable and provide as much familiarity as they can. Social media can help do that.

Increase Awareness

Obviously, this magazine is an open supporter of the trucking industry, but ultimately you folks are your own best advocates.

We’ve all been appalled by anti-truck articles by a mainstream media that is at best ignorant of our industry and at worst, openly hostile. Well, you don’t have to sit back and let the CBC control the narrative anymore.

I know you don’t always have time to write a letter to the editor in defence of your profession, but Twitter and Facebook give you an opportunity to have a say instantly. Counter biased articles about “polluting” or “dangerous” trucks with your own environmental or safety facts and expose the media outlet’s readers to alternative viewpoints.

In the end, that’s what trucking PR is all about -- humanizing our industry and winning the hearts and minds of the ­public (i.e. your customers’ customers).

Social media is also a great way to make the popular press and public aware about milestones, charities or initiatives at your company or keep them apprised of special projects that might affect them. I’ve seen a few carriers do this when they’re involved in a large heavy-haul convoy.

Additionally, use your available resources, like the info in this magazine or from an association, to give truckers a voice among the Web chatterers. Remember when fuel surcharges were a struggle to pass on? Constant news about skyrocketing oil prices and rising inflation made your challenges difficult for shippers to ignore; and after a while surcharges became pretty standard.

With little effort, each of you can affect how people see trucking.

‘Friend’ Someone
To some of you all of this can be strange and overwhelming. I know that the personal intrusions can be uncomfortable and the information overload can be noisy to the point of turning into background static.

You’re not alone.

But don’t let age or your lack of experience deter you. Playing along can be as easy as you want it to be.

If you don’t know where to start, my biggest piece of advice is to ask someone around you. Feel free to ask me if you want to, but especially talk to each other about your early experiences -- what you think works or doesn’t work.

If they’ll give you the time of day, be sure to ask your kids. (Mine are under 13 so they still talk to me). Even if they just give you a tutorial on the basics, they know more about this stuff than anyone.

And who knows? If we old guys take over Facebook, it’s only a matter of time before the kids think it’s uncool and we’ll have it all to ourselves.

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Great article!! Love that trucking and transportation are really beginning to embrace social media!