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Feeding the Tree: Growing Your Social Presence the Honest Way

By Todd Bemis in Design on October 9th, 2012

I recently had the privilege of attending a unique Atlanta conference focused on topics surrounding startup nonprofits, Plywood Presents. The speakers were as varied as the facial hair worn by the attendees. And yes… there was a certain prominence given to social media, that sensible, efficient darling of nonprofits everywhere.

The most simplistic and important presentation on this topic was delivered, not by some famous social media maven or fast talking analyst, but by an Atlanta photographer. Zach Arias, a local guy who talked about his dark days shooting for apartment finder magazines, the woes of being a low-level assistant, his painful divorce…  his 48,000 followers on Twitter… Err, what?!  48,000 followers… How did that happen?

He discussed, at length, a different, clear view of Twitter, and social media in general, that changes the way individuals and organizations attract followers. The crux of his methodology is this: Life’s not all sunshine and roses; be honest. People value honesty. Give them the chance to believe.

The standard model for increasing the value of a Twitter following, or any social audience, has been to simply increase the number of eyeballs you can control. And then hit those eyeballs with content at a frequency high enough to keep them from looking to your competitors.

It’s Us vs. Them (you against your competition) all vying for the same eyeballs, all trying to make the most noise; screaming so loud your audience can’t hear the other offers around them. This does not create a value in your audience. It makes them deaf. They will eventually catch on to your mantra of noise making, and tune out.


Doesn’t this seem to be a representation of cancer?

In Arias’ model, we see your social media presence as a sapling. It gets fed through its roots with honest content. Honest content is more valued by your audience. It is also more “social.” To grow your social sapling, feed honest content into it. Your sapling will grow. It will grow and spread to have branches, as well-fed trees do. These branches are diagrammatic of your audience self-selecting which areas of your content they are inclined to follow. Personal, professional, humorous, ranting, specific or broad… You may have a large branch of your content that is professional in nature. Things you find exciting in the realm of your expertise. Another branch may be more personal in nature – things happening in your life at home. Each branch will have inherent sub-branches, professional content that is specific to design, say. And then, within that design subset, there may be content related to typography.

Every branch, stem and eventually, twig represents a specific type of content you put into your tree. It’s all in one place. Your followers will find the topics that they care about, and will value that honest content.


So, what about the competition? In Arias’ model, a follower can appreciate more than one tree. They may look at your oak, and get drawn into your acerbic wit that cuts through bad websites. Then, turning around, they may also appreciate the fine branches of a maple nearby. The point is that all these social trees can exist in one larger, harmonious forest of honest content. In practice, I have discovered that this is how I use social media. I follow distinct individuals for very specific topics. These authors may cover a wide range of subjects over the course of any given week, and I may only pay attention to one. Mike Montiero for random design strategy, Luke Wroblewski for usability tactics, but I like Zeldman’s personal life entries. And yes, LordVoldemort7 for a good sarcastic snarf-laugh once in a while.

I appreciate all of these trees. I like them for different reasons. I like different aspects of them. Their content is honest. It’s not all picnics and primroses. And it doesn’t come across as noise.

Your social content can’t be all things to every person. It can be one thing to one kind of person, and a totally different thing to another. Mix it up, don’t try to “market” one aspect of yourself, or your firm with every single post. In fact, don’t market at all.

So, where does all this honest content that followers care about come from?

Arias had a very interesting solution to content strategy and creation. He simply asked his followers what they wanted to hear about. He built a basic Tumblr page with “ask me anything about photography” as the core function. Arias would post an honest answer to one question every day. An archive of responses exists on the Tumblr page, but also in his line of posts in social media.

Given that his followers are a massively diverse group, you will find that the questions run a broad spectrum, from professional-level photography lighting queries, to evident interest in his ability to talk to strangers. Sure, the gist of most questions are, in fact, about photography, but what makes the interactions so intriguing (even to those of us not seeking photographic advice) is Arias’ personal answers. When he answers a question about a very specific piece of equipment, he uses his personal story to add context and reality to the response. He shares the details, good and bad, about his own life so effortlessly the effect is like talking to a friend. And, friends are the people you’re most likely to listen to, most likely to look forward to hearing from. An advertiser’s dream!

This has got to be worth a try. Set up a Q&A page on your site (or Tumblr). Seek questions from your current social following. Answer a question a day, and answer it honestly. And, hopefully, watch your following grow in size, and most importantly, in engagement.

Be social, be honest, turn your social presence into a tree. Let’s get gardening!