Skeptical about Social Media Skepticism

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Several days ago, the Globe and Mail, our local paper, ran an article entitled “Canadian executives question benefits of social media.” The main takeaways were:

• Resource and manufacturing companies have been cautious while service firms have been more aggressive
• Resource and manufacturing firms do not see the same value as customer-interfacing firms that are shifting advertising from traditional media to social media, and resource and manufacturing trail behind
• Reputational risk is a concern and while Canadian executives may be reluctant due to concerns about risk, there is also a risk in not doing anything
• Benefits of social media for business have been exaggerated
• Some employees are actively discouraged from using social media

I had set the article aside to read later, but before I returned to it one of my friends and Twitter followers asked a few others and me what we thought about it. I had too many thoughts for a tweet or even several tweets, so I thought it best to create this post.

A question of fit

Not every industry or organization is a fit for social media. People who help companies with their social media initiatives, at least the wise ones, are not holding a social media hammer while looking for a nail. They assess the situation, determine whether or not there is a fit for social media and, if so, what tools and strategies are most appropriate. Thrusting social media upon an organization before they are ready or if it is not warranted is doomed for failure.

I had a client for a strategic planning project several years ago where social media would have provided little benefit beyond dissemination of information about their industry and the activities within it. They were an industry association with essentially a finite membership base and an industry (music publishing) that has been crushed by piracy and disruption by digital distribution. Social media would not find new members, grow their business or help them combat the changes in their industry; social media would have been too little too late.

They say “fish where the fish are,” and if the fish you are trying to go after are not using social media, then you have saved yourself a lot of time and trouble by remaining focused on the ways and means of reaching them that have succeeded in the past.

If an organization’s business model, marketplace dynamics and/or stakeholder audience, customers, shareholders and otherwise are not conducive to the use of social media, then let’s stop trying to shove a square peg in a round hole.

You are in social media, whether you want to be or not

The article refers to one firm using Twitter to distribute news. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that approach. People will often talk about social media and the need for engagement, but Twitter often serves people’s desire to simply listen without the requirement for engagement. I get nearly all of my news from Twitter. By the time something has reached the traditional media or has been printed in the morning paper, it has already burst onto the scene in social media and run its course.

The article also talked about concerns regarding “reputational risk.” This is another issue that proactive listening and monitoring could address. Often companies dismiss social media because they feel their organization and their stakeholders are not there, but when you show them mentions of their organization—especially by influential stakeholders—that span positive to negative sentiment, then they start to change their tune. They are in social media whether they want to be or not.

We have been here before

I remember hearing the president of a major US retailer’s e-commerce unit speak at an event where he talked a great deal about their early days in e-commerce. He admitted that they didn’t know what they were doing and that they spent a lot of money figuring it out, but eventually they did. I am not suggesting that companies today have to spend a lot of money to figure it out, but what I am saying is that we have the luxury of nearly 20 years of online wisdom, case studies and best practices to help guide our efforts. Yes, the social media landscape has grown rapidly and continues to move at a brisk pace, but that does not mean that we abandon business fundamentals. If you can’t tie social media to corporate objectives and measure the impact and ultimately the ROI, then don’t do it.

John Wanamaker, a department-store magnate in the late 19th century, famously quipped that half the money he spent on advertising was wasted, but that he didn’t know which half. In a previous post, I suggested that if an organization does a poor job of measuring its current sales and marketing efforts, then it is unfair to suggest that somehow social media would be their salvation.

You have to design a closed loop to ensure social media ROI. You need to be sure that you have the proper measurement system in place. If an organization can’t tie its social media efforts, web analytics, and lead generation efforts together to show a return on investment then they have bigger problems than social media. Just like direct mail and email marketing beforehand, social media supports content being distributed in the right places and ways with the intent to attract and engage people, prompt them to act, and eventually convert to a user, a customer, an advocate, or, more broadly, a stakeholder with the ability to measure the outcomes.

First CEO to plank wins

Canadian organizations have not always been on the bleeding edge. Many have tended to follow rather than lead when it comes to emerging technology trends. For such a highly connected country, we don’t tend to leap into the new as readily as our neighbours to the south. It was that underlying aspect of being a follower that stood out from the article for me. Some were advocates for social media while others said that they still didn’t really have a handle on it. Some had jumped in and were making it work, while others were still figuring it out or were uncertain that it ever would.

It made me think about the reaction I get from senior leadership during my speaking engagements when I show them some of the behaviour people exhibit in social media, such as memes and activities such as planking or horsemaning. Typically, their first reaction is that they wouldn’t do that. I usually agree with them. However, it is not about them or me. It is not about who would plank and who wouldn’t. It is about the behaviours, interests or opinions that their stakeholders exhibit or express. If their stakeholders plank, then that might suggest that one of the best ways to engage them is by planking.

Now, I know that hundreds of senior leaders are not going to go out tomorrow and plank, but think of it in terms of humans being humans. How can an organization and its employees convey more humanity to their stakeholders while still serving their corporate objectives? It may not be through planking, but it could very well be through some other way to engage and delight stakeholders. Organizations just need to give it some more thought and the latitude to try.

Throwing the baby out with the bath water

I didn’t put down the article thinking that all is lost and that the prospects for social media are doomed. Not in the least. It simply reiterated that not every organization or industry might be a fit for social media—a point that I am in complete agreement with. It also highlighted which types of organizations are seeing benefits and how they are deriving them. It’s those kinds of stories that I share to help educate people about the opportunities available to them from the use of social media, especially in the category of social selling.

It took 20 years for email to become ubiquitous; now it is considered one of the most cost-effective marketing channels. Hopefully, we will be able to say the same thing about social media in the coming years. We have already seen enough proof just from case studies and how time is spent online to indicate we are on the right track.

So, I shared how I felt about the article. If you read it too then how did you feel about it? What were your thoughts or takeaways? I’d love to hear them.

A recognized senior social strategist, speaker, and blogger. He has held senior strategy roles with wireless, e-business, financial, and social CRM service providers, helping clients remain competitive by embracing social media and digital technologies.

0 thoughts on “Skeptical about Social Media Skepticism

  1. I was one of those people who asked Andrew, so I’m the first one to read this post. Andrew and his team have worked on the true business strategy side of social instead of where most users live, the communications side. Upon re-reading the article myself I went away more hopeful too as it was about the ‘right fit’. I’m so glad to hear someone like Andrew give corporations permission to take it slow, be in broadcast mode only to start but still understand they have a default social brand already. Most of the ‘social media experts’ are obsessed with engagement but to me, it’s about starting slow and as Andrew really stresses, properly tracking progress. Gosh I love bringing in the example of email into this discussion, I’m going to do that more often. Great addition to the conversation, thanks Andrew!!

  2. ajenkins says:

    @Paul Nazareth I am glad you enjoyed the post and thank you for sparking the conversation. I don’t think it is over yet but hopefully we are making progress in the right direction.

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