It’s been interesting over the last few years to watch how the term “social media” has evolved and even more interesting to see how businesses and individuals alike use it to spread information and content. These days, when I am talking with potential clients the term always draws more attention than any other in reference to an overall digital marketing strategy. And oftentimes, once the topic of social gets moving, business owners want to know, “How are you going to use social media to take us viral” or “What can you do to help our product or service go viral in social?”

The fact this question is asked so often tells me we have a long way to go in educating folks what social media is truly all about. Going viral shouldn’t be a goal – in fact, it shouldn’t even be considered in most cases. Let me illustrate using my experience as an Airman First Class working as a photojournalist in United States Air Force, 1994 (pre-internet and definitely pre-social-media.)

Everything I Know About Social Media I Learned In The Air Force

I showed up to March AFB, Calif. (now a reserve base) in late April 1994, assigned as a staff writer on the weekly base newspaper, The Beacon. Being fresh out of tech school, I was wired up and fired up to change the world as I knew it. I wanted to break big stories that’d make dramatic waves from the barracks to base housing and beyond. Sleuthing is what I was born to do and telling the story in a way to cause a stir was my goal. I was 20 years old – I wanted my name and reputation to go “viral.”

A Viral Plan FAIL!

My first attempt at making a big splash was to right the wrongs I perceived in dress code on base. In a nutshell, men who lived on base were not permitted to wear earrings whether they were on duty or not. I noticed quite a few “hipsters” breaking this rule and no one seemed to care. It bothered me.

I siezed on an opportunity and exposed the injustice the next Friday with a top center front page photo of a guy sporting double decker 2” hoop earrings on both sides sitting on the front lawn of the command building gumming a hot dog the previous weekend. The caption under the photo was something like “Hooping it up on Sunday.” I was just sure this would get attention and expose these rowdy and raucous law breakers! Surely people cared about these matters. I even had a 10,000 word followup editorial ready for the next week talking about the traditions of the military, holding proper military bearing and how attention to every detail was the key to keeping people alive!

I was wrong – hardly anyone reacted as I expected. Nobody cared and no rules were changed. I got no positive attention and no accolades. The picture had no effect. In fact, the only two people to respond were the guy in the picture – who asked me for extra copies to send to his mother – and the Vice Commander who called me and my superviser into his office and then proceeded to rip my boss a new rear-end right in front of me. I can still hear him yelling through his nostril holes, “Why does your pink cheeked kid writer think it’s ok to litter the front page of our professional publication with a picture of an off duty motor pool driver eating tubed meat products on my lawn?”

This wasn’t the reception I was expecting. I thought I’d be heralded as a media force on base and tipsters would be blowing up my phone all week with advice on what to expose next. Instead, I ended up bringing harm to my name as a photojournalist and getting my boss in trouble.

A Social Epiphany

It was soon after that a more seasoned member of the public affairs office, a Staff Sergeant named Jay took me aside to teach me a thing or two. Jay had been around 12 years and made similar mistakes. He taught me that a better way to gain readers for our newspaper (and to get noticed myself) was to find positive and unique stories about people on the base that were of interest to others. He urged me to be creative in even the most mundane of activities that I was sent to report on – and always focus on the individual first, before anything else.

The key was to think about the person in the photo or story, and how we might add something positive to their life, and the life of the reader. The ultimate reward was to bring on a smile or even create an “aha!” moment in someone’s day. It wasn’t about me or the story, rather it was about them!

I soon after began attending quite a few softball games on base and wrote about them for our sports section. I had always enjoyed sports photography and got pretty good at it. After a few weeks of the season I noticed that a lot of the players were really over-doing it with ankle, shin, wrist and elbow pads. Some of the guys looked more like linebackers than infielders. It was needed though, because softball fields under the hot Southern California sun tend to feel like concrete when you slide on them. Nevertheless, I thought the extreme padding was pretty funny so I wrote about safety and highlighted the various ways the guys on the field were protecting themselves from the dreaded “raspberry.”

I took tons of pictures of leg wraps, arm protectors and elbow pads, but showed very few faces. We turned it into a game, “guess who this is.” It was a funny article that invited readers to engage and highlighted an important topic, “safety.” The article was a hit! I got lots of attention and compliments and players would see me at the games and come up to show off their latest protective gear and ask me to publish their pic the next week. In addition to that, the folks on base who cared for the fields began to pay more attention to them, watering them down more and dragging the fields before games in an attempt to soften them up. It was a “win-win” all the way around.

Winning With Social

The key to winning in the newspaper game in 1994 was the same as winning with social media today. It has very little to do with “taking something viral” and more to do with “making someone laugh or have an ‘aha’ moment.” The end goal is engagement and engagement starts with people – individual people.

I’ve adapted a quote that I learned in college that fits well here :
“I will not use my fans to build my social brand, rather, I will use my social brand to build my fans.”

Focus On People As Individuals

People love to see themselves highlighted in positive ways. They also like to to get inspired by other people who are doing cool things or creating something interesting.
– Do you have a customer who drives a rare muscle car he restored frame off all on his own?I bet he likes to show it off!
– Maybe another client has two sons who are serving overseas. Do they have a need that your business can meet?
– What about the customer who is an aspiring writer or artist? How can you help her?

Can you see how the above three examples would also benefit your business as you build up individuals? (I’m getting fired up just thinking about the possibilities here! <||>)

Speaking of your brand, learn to highlight not only your customers in your social media campaigns, but your associates too.
– Is one of your salespeople also a champion bowling ball juggler?
– Maybe your shop manager is involved in a local Big Brothers/Big Sisters chapter.
– Is one of your mechanics an amateur inventor?

Stories like these are all around you and can bring good press not only to the individual, but to your community and your brand in the process. Your fans and followers will eat this stuff up!

The formula is pretty simple – and pretty darn rewarding too. It’s all about THEM, and not always YOU. So next time someone asks “how do I go viral with social?” – You can tell them, “By focusing on building people up : one earring wearing, elbow padded individual at a

Meet Allyn Hane

Allyn Hane is a blogger first, and a blogger always. In 1993, serving as a photojournalist in the US Air Force, he became editor of a weekly base newspaper ::: there he learned the power of social interaction and its direct correlation to interesting and useful content... pre-internet.