As a little girl, my family adopted an abandoned cat that we named Hungry. I can remember being frustrated at first that Hungry liked my dad better than he liked me, and the simple explanation that my dad gave me for this. My dad fed Hungry every morning and every evening. He told me that if I fed Hungry, I could teach him to like me more. I can still recite the lesson plan for my cat: "Kate is food. Food is good. Kate is good."
Cats are interesting creatures with very particular personalities. Unlike dogs, which are inveterate pack animals and seek out family bonds, cats don't necessarily need a companion, human or otherwise. But they can be socialized.
On Thanksgiving last year, my husband and I took in a cat that we named Miso. Miso was terrified, having been taken away from a smoky, airless home where dogs used her as a pissing target, and then taken to another house where she was terrorized by a very territorial cat and a hyperactive dog. We have two mellow cats, so our house was deemed a better location.
It has taken about 8 months, but Miso is learning to be cuddled. My plan for befriending her involved gentle contact, finding out where she did and didn't like to be petted (she adores having her neck rubbed, but will not tolerate any touching of her feet). She jumped up on counters and attacked houseplants, so I used a misting bottle to get her down, and then cat treats to reward good behavior. It's a slow, painstaking process. To train a cat, you have to be willing to know where the limit is, to watch the cat to see how she reacts. You have to have persistence, to try and try again, sometimes come away with some scratches, and keep going anyway, with compassion, understanding, and love. And the payoff, a purring pal that snuggles you while you watch Law & Order reruns, is pretty sweet.
I have an unofficial nickname of "Cat Whisperer," because I have a knack for understanding cats. But really, the lessons of reaching a cat are subtle, and are well applied to social media.
What? Cats and social media? No, I'm not talking about LolCats.
Social media, whether used for a specific aim (sell a product, increase event attendance) or a general one (establish thought leadership, build a community), is a channel that acts a lot like a cat. If you're out on Twitter or Facebook, you're trying to herd cats. You have a bunch of personalities floating around who may or may not want to interact with you (or anyone) and you need to reach them, to establish a meaningful connection.
Starting out, you don't know who's out there, what they like or don't like, but you have to start somewhere. So you begin with a single message: "Welcome to our Page!" Maybe someone says hello back. Maybe no one does. So you try again "Are you interested in books? Check out the new selection of fiction at our library!" Maybe someone tweets back. And you've learned that books are something you can use to make a connection.
Getting into social media, though painstaking, gets easier when you know what you want. When I cared for a feral cat in my backyard, my mission was to capture her to have her spayed. (Five years later I had to give up when I moved, but I did get around to being able to pet her.) With Miso, I wanted her to feel comfortable in my home and have an affectionate relationship. When you set up a Facebook page or a Google+ hangout, it's really important to know what you want to accomplish. Without a game plan, you might spend all your time and energy and in developing something, and then it could fall by the wayside, because you don't know what to do with your newfound friends. Do you want to gather a temporary community for a single event? Or are you building a donor base that you can use to continually fund a non-profit's mission?
But the real key here is to listen to your audience. In the beginning, I'd pick up Miso and almost instantly she'd squirm, wanting to get down. So I'd put her down, because that's what she wanted. Over time, she learned that contact was nice, and now I can hold her for a long time. So if you audience is telling you that they don't like so many sales-y messages, stop sending them. Change your content, test your content, find what they like and then keep doing it.
Building an online network, an online community is really tough work. It means being incredibly persistent, being patient, and using feedback to guide your strategy.
Now go out there and herd some cats.