Social Media Lessons from Mr. James

Let me tell you a story about social media and my late grandfather.

James McKie died in 1990 at the age of 94. His closest brush with a computer was a Commodore 64 demonstrated by a grandchild at a family reunion. He couldn’t even type, though claiming to kept him out of combat in World War I, which is a story for another time. But he understood an underlying benefit of what we now call social media—creating an open and ongoing dialogue with each willing audience member that enriches everyone participating in the conversation.

Mr. James, as he was called, ran a country store for over 50 years in downtown Pickens, Mississippi. Just north of Jackson, it was a hill country village of perhaps a thousand souls on Saturday afternoons when everyone came to town. No traffic lights, though there were two stores so customers had choice. His product mix was broad and eclectic: roofing nails and castor oil, cigarettes and mule shoes, dog food and shotgun shells. Sort of like a backcountry Wal-Mart catering to variegated needs.

Now, if Mr. James didn’t know you when you came in the store, he did before you left. Most folks chose to participate in his chatter, consisting of funny stories seasoned with product information and local happenings. After a few visits, he knew about your spouse and their likes, your kids and their shoe sizes, plus your occupation and anything you needed for that. Before long, he knew all about your people (“extended family” for you non-Southerners) and their stories too.

All this interaction and shared experience provided opportunities for customer insight and relationship building. His life was connected with the experiences of his customers, from the trials of the Great Depression to having a son gone overseas to war. Mr. James heard his customers’ needs, identified gaps in his merchandise assortment, observed trends, and knew individuals. If he made a billing error, he heard about it in real time. Customers were rewarded with knowledge of incoming items along with goods ordered specifically for them. Plus, doesn’t everyone feel a little special when they feel like they know a company’s ownership?

Certainly it was friendly, but it was just as certainly business. It was social without the media. Or more accurately, the media was one-to-one communication unplugged from technology, unvarnished human interaction not filtered by a channel’s limitations, and providing real mutual benefits.

We use technology now to reach larger audiences and accomplish what we call brand engagement and other fancy terms. In 2011, the medium for starting and maintaining the conversation is sophisticated, but the end goal is no different from what it was in 1940. My late grandfather would steer clear of the current technology, but he would understand and recognize the goal as he called you by name and started in on another story.

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