Saturday, September 17, 2016

Social Media, Self Storage, and “The HELPS Complex”

by Steven S. Vrooman

This is an article I wrote in preparation for a keynote I will be giving at the Texas Self Storage Association. It was just published in the Self Storage News Magazine, and you can read it in a PDF viewer here,  but we reprinted it here (with permission of the Texas Self Storage Association) on the blog for easier reading on mobile.

Even if you are not interested in self storage, the social media example at the heart of this article will be helpful to anyone looking for what not to do in commerical social media for small business.

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The Information Age really isn’t about information. 

This was my argument when I spoke about Twitter at TEDxSanAntonio. Humans are actually pretty bad at information, research has shown. Relationships, on the other hand, we’re good at. At least in a general sense. This is why social media grew out of the static Internet 1.0. We crave relationships and would rather listen to the new band our friend discovered than the one the Spotify algorithm recommends. 

Good business is also built on relationships. Growing those relationships to grow a business via social media? That’s key. 

But social media is a big door. Very big. And the lock sticks. When I speak at your annual conference in October, I won’t be your battering ram, but I think if I lend you my shoulder, we can get this thing open. 

I’ve been researching the intersections of people and their technology for more than two decades now. And, although things have changed a lot in that time, I still remember the first thing I saw, in the basement of a college computer lab, when I first heard someone call something “the Internet.” It was people, huddled in front of glowing green screens, using text to chat with people far away. 

As the joke goes, we have computers in our pockets more powerful than what put us on the moon, with libraries at our fingertips, and we use them to share videos of our cats.
That’s who we are. We are creatures of connection. 

And yet . . . 

We don’t seem to use our social media all that, well, SOCIALLY, do we, at least when it comes to our businesses? 

There’s a particular pattern to the way small businesses tend to create social media pages in what feels like opposition to these facts of human life. Let’s call it “The HELPS Complex”: 

EXIST and have a
PHONE number and a

This HELPS Complex is exceptionally common for small businesses, where the time to do social media may simply be a scarce commodity. So we let opportunity lie fallow, adding basic information we might get from the old-fashioned yellow pages. 

And when we do have a minute, what do we post? Self storage is an industry where inventory is literally set in concrete. New goods do not reliably arrive on Tuesdays to provide fodder for an underwhelming, but at least timely, post. 

Is your business’s Facebook page is a prime HELPS example? What does that look like to visitors? 

I performed a small study to find out. I directed a few people to a HELPS Complex Facebook page of a self storage business in Texas and asked them to message me their thoughts. Twenty people responded, including an entrepreneur, an artist, a pastor, an administrative assistant, a teacher, a nurse, a lawyer, a programmer, a stay-at-home parent, a person between jobs, and a smattering of other professionals, including two who are in the process of moving to other states. Are these people likely customers? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But surely our social media outreach should do at least a bit of what advertising tries to do: reach out to those who are not yet customers. 

The most common response to the page was concern about how little content there was. This took two forms. Quite a few were skeptical and thought I was pranking them: “I don't know why anyone would look at the page. In fact, I'm trying to figure out where the joke is hidden in your request to review it.” People thought it was a fake Facebook page (“I don’t understand”) or the business was closed: “I would assume this business was no longer open (Where is the cover photo? Where are pics of employees?)” Others simply equated the lack of continued posts with a “kinda lame” lack of care for customers: 

“Doesn't give me a terribly favorable impression of the company.....” 

“Unimpressed. There was nothing that grabbed my attention.” 

“No personality. Nothing that draws me in.” 

“They don't have any activity in the recent past, no comments, and no reviews. I would wonder whether or not they are a legitimate business.” 

“No creativity. No effort. Equals no credibility and no effort on my part, either (as the customer).” 

For some, this edged over into a sense that the business was rude or hostile, and they responded with their own set of negative emotions, that what was missing, for one person, “angered me.” 

Imagine that this is the dominant first impression of your business! Like the old shampoo ad said, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. 

What a self storage facility sells is peace of mind. My stuff will be safe there. It won’t get too hot. No one will steal my collections. Nothing bad will happen to me if I come to get things while I’m by myself. If I’m approached by someone there I will know whether or not they really do work for the place. 

How am I to know whether I can trust a self-storage facility that provides so few of the details that are important to me? Your social media presence is your business’s testimonial to how well it handles the little things. This is why a HELPS page makes people angry.

Not only does a HELPS social media presence fail a bit spectacularly at generating positive attention, it also seems to provoke exceedingly negative attention. 

For one person, a stereotype of an incompetent rube came to mind: “I would think that some uneducated shady self storage business owner doesn't know how to use Facebook, but followed the advice of the tow truck driver who tows the cars that are abandoned on his property. "That Facebook thing will help advertise your place! You should set up a Facebook!" And that's what he's done. I imagine him checking the site a lot to see his numbers never go up but he doesn't understand, gives up, and now never checks it and has forgotten he made it at all.” Now we have someone filling in the information gaps with caricatures drawn out of that anger and frustration. 

Would you have imagined, before you started in on this article, that such a simple Facebook page could have generated this kind of response? 

Quite a few turned to seedy assumptions straight out of paperback thrillers and cable crime shows: 

“Sketch! Post at least once a month for folks not to think you are a scam or drug facility!” 

“5x5 is big enough to store a few bodies, a shrine, a cache of weapons, or 5 cubic feet of water.” 

And some suggested things were going on that I had to look up a definition for: “Are you guessing people are dry labbing? Not me!” (Even after I looked up “dry labbing,” I still wasn’t certain how it related to self storage. But it’s not a good thing. And apparently someone is afraid it is being done at one of your facilities). 

The apex of all of this is the horror movie scenario: “My first thought was get your supplies to kidnap/dismember your victim and have a place to store the body. Did I miss something?” 

I’m not sure this person missed something, but clearly the business did. The responses have ranged from frustration to anger to stereotyping to suspicion to this idea straight out of Silence of the Lambs. I’m sure you didn’t expect to read about drugs and murder when you picked up this publication today. You may be surprised and scandalized. Well, better to see it here than in the reviews of your business on Facebook or as a reply to a tweet! Social media can be uncomfortably direct. It can even be rude. Only by knowing the scope of that challenge can we develop a reasonable strategy for engaging that world. 

There was not a single positive response to the HELPS-style page. The responses I did get, ranging from extremely unimpressed to downright paranoid, have got to make us all feel like maybe not having a page at all would be better. 


But I think there is a better answer. The HELPS site did not make my respondents think these things. Their negativity and stereotypes were so quick to come that we can easily conclude they are fairly common, if generally unspoken, out there in the world. Even without a Facebook page, people might things these things while driving by. Social media provides an opportunity to actively fight against those perceptions, to build those relationships. 

As I was developing these ideas with my social media consulting team, my first thought was to call this thing I observed the “HELPS Syndrome.” But a team member suggested that a syndrome generally means that something is incurable, maybe genetic. Instead, the HELPS phenomena is more accurately seen as a “Complex,” a collection of problems, all of which can be addressed with the right kind of detail-oriented customized treatment. 

When I address the Texas Self Storage Association annual conference this October, my goal is to help you unlock your own customized treatment. We need to turn skeptics into friends. We need to build strategies going forward that help customers feel good about contracting for self storage, not just as something sketchy that they “have to” do. To help you accomplish that, I will do a few things in my presentation. 

First, I will report on a more in-depth analysis of the social media presence of the self storage industry in Texas. Let’s see what’s working and what’s not. I will be casting a wide net and will likely be looking at your business’s social media while I’m at it. 

Second, I will try to point the way forward toward better engagement and better customer impression management. But, I’m not going to give TSSA the same old social media spiel, a pattern of suggestions that was clearly developed for industries with entirely different business models and community footprints than self storage. I can see, in many of the Texas self storage Twitter and Facebook accounts, the remains of this kind of generic training. I see the way that effort tends to stop after a couple weeks or months on your sites. I don’t blame you. It doesn’t work. We can do better. 

I’m looking forward to it. 

Ready to get started?

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