Social media success through cultural nuance

cultural nuance

By Rick Wion, {grow} Community Member

I had to Google it. Even after I did, I wasn’t entirely sure where in the world Macedonia really was. That required zooming out on Google Maps. Way out.

But three weeks later, I’m sitting in a cafe, mostly for the free wifi but also for a beer, in the beautiful capital city of Skopje. I had never heard of it either.

This is not a remarkable whirlwind story of harrowing or madcap adventure. This is a story of just how flat the world really is, how social media is making that flat world contract on itself just a little bit more, and the discovery that understanding cultural nuance is the key to international social media success.

Landing in Macedonia

Since I quit my real job—the one that made me Twitter famous—I’ve been suddenly freed to try all sorts of different work adventures. One of the most interesting exchanges was the Facebook message that popped up from my friend Blagica roughly three weeks ago.

Blagica and I run in the same circles. There aren’t a ton of us who have run social for brands. We tend to know each other due to our hyper-connectedness and sometimes we even talk IRL. However, to be completely honest, I don’t know if I’ve ever met Blagica in person but that’s the thing with us social media brand people—even if we’ve never actually met, we know each other. We’ve been the through same battles with legal, with marketing, with PR, with our buddies at agencies.

And we all have the strong shoulders, tired backs and basketball-size calves that come with pushing a rock uphill for years.

Blagica is pushing a few rocks right now. A new job, young kids and a move back to Chicago. She had been scheduled to keynote the All Web Macedonia conference but needed a substitute. The beauty of working for yourself is that when someone asks if you could do them a solid and maybe fly to Europe for a week out of the blue to take care of a professional obligation, you can say yes. Or in this case, da. So I did and there I went.

Social media flattens the world

Over the course of three days, I gave presentations and led panel discussions to six different groups including marketing students at the main university in Macedonia, business people at the American Chamber of Commerce and the Council for Entrepreneurial and Economic Development, the US Embassy and then at the conference itself.

I spoke to at least 400 different people and was able to chat one-on-one with at least 50. I had the pleasure of meeting executives at multinational corporations, Americans dedicated to lending their help and know-how to grow the local economy, eager local start-up kids and young professionals from NGOs who are so technically savvy and well spoken in English that they would be a hot commodity within just about any American company.

What did I learn about social media in a far off land? Things in Macedonia are so different yet completely the same.

There is an inherent belief that social media can help business. It is no more obvious or easy to accomplish in Macedonia than it is in the United States, but those PR and marketing professionals who see the potential are dedicated to bringing it to life. At every discussion, I was seeing a desire to learn and figure out how social can improve lives, businesses and economies overall.

They are seeing the rock and the hill and are leaning shoulders forward to push.

Pushing the rock forward

In many ways their rock is a bit heavier.

Social wasn’t as quick to catch on in Macedonia as in the US and other parts of Europe. TV is generally cheaper than digital. Balkans by nature are a bit more reserved and not as likely to share their feelings—much less an onslaught of selfies as us narcissistic Americans. Many vestiges of their former totalitarian governments created a general hesitancy to ask questions of authority figures … yet companies are hesitant to use social for fear that someone (anyone) could say something bad about them.

Their desire to move quickly was palpable. In a country of roughly 2 million they already have locally-grown website building tools for small businesses, super-smart interactive agencies, online coupon apps, and a successful crowdfunding platform. The desire to make their corner of the world a better place through technology and social behaviors was inspiring —but in many ways not surprising a bit.

All social is local

It would seem that every corner of the world is flush with inspiration driven by easy-to-use tools and increased social connectedness, and Macedonia certainly is no exception.

A huge lesson that I took away from visiting Macedonia is understanding that all social is local. Even more local than we realize.

There has been a lot of attention and work done in “how to localize your social media”and location-based marketing. These are great tactics, but when I say that social is local, what I really mean is that to be successful at social one must truly understand your audiences (obviously) as well as the nuance of how local behaviors and cultural norms manifest themselves in the use of social media.

For example, Macedonians aren’t as boastful as Americans. Of the few hundred folks that I talked to, Instagram is used much more than Twitter, but people tend to not take so many pictures of themselves. Therefore fewer selfies and yet Instagram is outdueling Twitter and Facebook for meaningful connections in Macedonia.

It is a nuance. But you will never really succeed at social until you truly understand the behavior of your audiences within social networks. Understanding behavioral nuance is the difference between viral success and a lame waste of time in social.

Diversity creates nuance

What Macedonia also has going for it is a diversity that felt very familiar to this American. Two decades ago this was a region at war, spurred by a bitter combination of nationalism and religion. On this trip, I met folks from every corner of the Balkans and beyond: Serbs, Croats, Macedonians, Albanians, Bulgarians, Turks, Ukrainians.

Macedonia has always been a melting pot of cultures. It all felt inspiringly different yet familiar when you add social media to the mix: Talking sports on Twitter. Posting food pics on Instagram. Keeping up with friends and relatives in a different region. These are the things that Macedonians do on their smart phones.

As I left Macedonia I felt inspired by the folks who are trying to make their part of the world better by pushing that social rock up a big hill. It was an honor to help that push —even if it was in a small way.

Pushing that rock will never be easy, but understanding cultural nuances can make the path a little smoother.

rick wionRick Wion is a Chicago-based business and marketing consultant for Manifest Social. Follow him on Twitter andLinkedIn.

Illustration of Macedonia courtesy Flickr CC and Alexsander Bondikov