Chris and Mary Lower, the spouses and owners of Maple Grove-based social media and public relations agency Sterling Cross are highly regarded in the burgeoning Twin Cities social media scene. But don’t call them “social media gurus.”
It’s a term that makes them laugh and shake their heads. Such “experts” often are mid- to late-career marketing or PR types looking to latch on to the Next Big Thing. (Test the guru: Ask for case studies.)
Besides, as Chris notes, it’s not a field that you can be an expert in: It’s changing too fast and too continuously. “These experts say things like, ‘Make big money on Twitter!’” Chris says, chuckling.
The Lowers do know their social stuff. (Their practice isn’t all social work. Mary also does a great deal of traditional PR.) Sterling Cross has built a particularly practice among independent and small-chain restaurants (notably Baja Sol), as well as a number of retailers—businesses where “socialness” is fundamental. Though offers and announcing specials are still big parts of their social media presence, expressing a personality is just as essential in building loyalty.
My favorite Sterling Cross project: buzz building for Lake/Lyndale restaurant and sake brewery Moto-i. Why do the obvious—touting sake, talking up the new restaurant? Good social media strategy requires real imagination, a willingness to experiment, and (where appropriate) a sense of fun. Working with Sterling Cross, Moto-i posted tweets that included links to Japanese game shows and sumo scores—creating a sense of playful mystery, and whetting the appetite of aficionados of Japanese culture.
Sterling Cross keeps tabs on what’s being said about its clients on line using some of the innumerable monitoring tools that have popped up. (Sterling Cross also runs the Twitter presence of a new apartment complex in St. Paul called the Lyric at Carleton Place, whose key target market is artists.)
A growing part of Sterling Cross’s practice is reputation management. As Chris notes, last April’s Domino’s debacle offered a lesson on why that august PR practice, crisis management and communications, needs updating in the Internet age. Not understanding that “24 hours is a lifetime on the Internet,” Domino’s waited too long to respond to the sick-making video that went viral at the speed of light.
Having worked in big PR agencies early in their careers, Mary and Chris believed they needed to construct their own agency differently in order to accommodate a social media practice. Given the fast changes in that realm, nimbleness and a flexible size were essential. Though (with creative director Scott Baird) a three-person shop, Sterling Cross can expand as needed. There are a number of skilled communications and PR people out there who, whether by choice or by layoff, are operating as independents. Sterling Cross can call on this network for particular projects. It recently contracted with an expert in sports marketing, an area that the Lowers have limited background in.
Sterling Cross has expanded into the hotel realm, a practice that’s growing fast. Just as “everyone has become a food critic” in the Internet age, as Chris notes, “hotels live and die with their online reputation.” Sterling Cross is also educating clients about the future of getting found on line: beyond “Google search” to “social search.”
Christine Fruechte, the CEO of Minneapolis-headquartered Colle & McVoy, a (kinda) traditional ad agency that is embracing online tools, compares the social media landscape to the “the Wild West.” To me, that means: No rules have been set. And there are plenty of patent-medicine hucksters working the frontier.
But they didn’t drink Kool-Aid in Dodge, and Sterling Cross is no Kool-Aid (or Guru Kool-Aid) stand. As Mary says, “We don’t look at social media as ‘shiny.’ They’re just communications tools. They’re the next carrier pigeon, the next newspaper.”