Welders: Creating sparks in the social space

A few weeks ago, I was asked to keynote at an annual gathering of welding equipment manufacturers. The topic? Social Media. In the previous conference, it emerged as the number one thing these industrial marketers wanted to learn more about.

Now, if that image introduces some cognitive dissonance, you’re not alone. Anyone I mentioned this to tended to raise an eyebrow and look at me with skepticism. I quickly learned to counter with, “Did I mention that the conference was in Indian Wells, California at a beautiful resort at the end of February?”

“Ohh,” they would respond, nodding knowingly, “well, that makes sense then.”

I wouldn’t press the issue, but I also knew something they didn’t know. Don’t be too quick to judge welders, because they’re a different breed. I know this because life has surrounded me with welders. I have two brothers-in-law that are welders. I worked my way through college working summers on pipeline crews, doing the jobs welders didn’t want to do. I’ve had several years of observation of the welding community under my belt, and it didn’t surprise me in the least that social media would be something they would be interested in.

You see, welders are craftspeople. There’s a pride in their work, their tools and their community that may seem strange to those from outside their inner circle. I have sat and listened to welders talk for hours about the challenges they encounter on a job site. They care about what they do. In fact, in the hands of some, an arc welder and acetylene torch become tools of artistic expression. If you don’t believe me, check out the work of Craig Palm.

How did I find Craig? I found him on the official Facebook page of Lincoln Welders. And frankly, the authenticity and passion of the Lincoln community blows away 99% of what I’ve seen pass as social media marketing out there, from brands that one would assume are far more sophisticated when it comes to digital marketing. But Lincoln has something that is essential when it comes to creating online communities. At the heart of it..there’s something there. Something welder’s care about. It’s not manufactured, spun or contrived. It’s real. It’s common. It’s engaging. It’s the stuff communities are made of.

And that was my message to the group. Social does not equal market just as marriage does not equal stalking. Marketing is defined by terms like targeting, reach and effectiveness – all implying one party doing something to the other. Communities are defined by terms like belonging, engaged and members – all speaking of a two-way relationship, where both sides are partners. It’s a much different dynamic, but that eludes those who view social as just another channel to be employed to drive the bottom line.

For companies like Lincoln and Miller, they understood that there was already a strong community of welders with common interests and passions. If welding were just a job, welding helmets wouldn’t come in dozens of different custom designs. But they do, because your helmet signals both belonging to a community and makes a personal statement about you. You wouldn’t do that if you didn’t care.

Social isn’t for everyone. In fact, before you start pinning your hopes on social, ask yourself a tough question. Is there something there? Is there a reason to engage? Does your business elicit conversations that could happen over a beer and span an hour or two? If there’s nothing there…then your online community will be a ghost town.

I have to be honest. I went to the conference expecting to teach them something about social media, but in actuality, I left getting just as much as I gave.

Orig­i­nally pub­lished in Mediapost’s Search Insider March 22, 2012