When Jonathan Wichmann's boss at worldwide shipping company Maersk Line told him that the company was approaching a point of being ready to dive into social media a little more than a year ago, the two agreed that it would face some difficulties that companies that mainly communicate with the public might not.
"You can't fake it," Wichmann says.
Wichmann was a consultant for the company at the time. After joining Maersk full-time, Wichmann stepped up to handle everything virtually single-handedly.
In the year since that initial meeting, the company has accrued 650,000 Facebook fans and won awards for the social media campaign of the year and best community presence at the European Digital Awards. Maersk pulled that off in such a short time with what Wichmann calls an "insourcing" approach.
For years, executives at Maersk weren't exactly champing at the bit to get involved with anything social media related.
"It's a really conservative industry," Wichmann says. "For that reason alone, it's not the first thing they think about."
Even three years ago, the company just wasn't ready for social media, he says. It took an evolution of its mindset—having a new CEO come on board a few years ago helped—to get people thinking that the company's core values of care and uprightness could be linked to a certain openness in a field marked by a kind of secrecy.
It helped that Maersk started its social media efforts on a rather small scale. Wichmann's one-man approach to social media enabled it to grow organically; it wasn't developed from the top down and then quashed when it didn't meet arbitrary milestones. In the year it's been operating social media, Maersk has spent about $60,000 on management tools, advertising, and some infrastructure work.
"There's a lot of trust involved," he says. "I've been allowed to open channels."
Having a single, consistent voice has made Maersk's content compelling enough that it's nearly "past the tipping point" for what one person can handle, Wichmann says. The company is active on 10 social networks.
If and when Maersk does hire a new social media manager, Wichmann says that person should develop his or her own voice to supplement his, not try to replicate the voice he's created.
"I've never pre-planned any post," Wichmann says. "I take it day by day. That's not crazy if you're one person."
Wichmann's goal in social media isn't to immediately boost the bottom line. Given that his is a business-to-business company, most of the fans he communicates with via social media don't buy directly from Maersk, anyway. But the relationships he builds will pay off, he says.
"It's more about storytelling," Wichmann offers.
Maersk's approach on at least one social network is fairly obvious. On LinkedIn, Wichmann has created a group called "The Shipping Circle," which serves as a hub of industry expertise, discussion, and debate. It cements the company as the clearinghouse for shipping knowledge.
On Twitter, Wichmann listed a panel of employees to help post news under the @MaerskLine profile. Tweeters include a captain, company directors, and other employees.
Wichmann's approach to other networks is a bit less predictable, however. Maersk has made a huge splash on Instragram, for instance, with what's become known as #maersk spotting: The company encourages users to post photos of Maersk containers when they see them on the street or on a ship. People have taken so many photos that Maersk has created a collage that hangs in the CEO's office.
Wichmann also wasn't afraid to post negative and positive stories about the company.
In June, Wichmann posted a Q&A on Facebook after one of the company's ships, the Norwich, accidentally ran into a whale and came into port in Rotterdam with the whale on the bow.
"We would probably not have been proactive about sharing such a story in the past," Wichmann wrote in an article about the post. "But in today's world it is better to just come out and talk about what has happened instead of trying to suppress the issue."
The Facebook post linking to the Q&A, which explained what happened and what Maersk does to protect ocean life, netted nearly 1,400 "likes" and about 240 comments, most of which said the incident was unfortunate, but clearly an accident. He also created an album on Pinterest featuring beautiful photographs of whales under the heading, "In memory of the Maersk Norwich Whale."
Wichmann says he knows Instagram photos and Facebook Q&A's don't immediately boost sales, but they do plant seeds.
"It's more about getting in early," he says. "You cannot isolate a business, pick out one customer, and say that came from this-and-that. Today, people are influenced by a multitude of things. We're working on so many levels at the same time."
Wichmann just finished a report that aims to quantify the value of social media for Maersk, he says. There's no measurement silver bullet, he argues.
"For every company, it will be different, because the biggest value comes from the culture," he says. "Pick out those few, key points you can measure in the next five years."
For example, employee branding is something big for Maersk. One way to measure that, Wichmann offers, is to ask all new hires how much social media influenced them to seek a job at Maersk. Measure that every quarter or so, he says, and examine it from there.
|Three more tips from Wichmann
1. Improvise. Wichmann hasn't planned a single post in the year Maersk has been on social media. "You just sit down at the keyboard or use your mobile phone when there is something to say, and then you do it as well as you can," he says. "Conversely, if you plan to send out a certain story next Wednesday at 12:00, it then turns into a marketing exercise. Then you lose the moment. And then you (or the agency) also spend too much time on it."
2. It has to be simple. "Don't convince yourself that everything you have to say-or your company has to say-is exciting," he says. "The users decide whether to spend time reading your post, or not, in a split second, based on a combination of what is said in the first few words and whether they usually find the company's information relevant."
3. Tell stories and more stories. Corporate, or brand journalism, is on the rise for a reason. "It's about ditching the marketing plans and taking on people who can unearth and tell stories in a lively and credible way. And this includes both good and bad news," Wichmann says. Tell the stories that reflect your company's reality. "It is therefore also imperative that the company really is 'good' and has nothing to hide. Otherwise this wouldn't be the smartest approach," he adds.
Matt Wilson is a staff writer for Ragan.com.