How a Social Media Evangelist Became a Social Media Realist

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When did I become the guy who gets tired of social media? I haven’t blogged here in more than a month. I’m substantially less active on Twitter than I used to be. How did I go from annoying everyone around me by my incessant yammering about social media to the guy who grows increasingly annoyed when people talk about everything social media will do?

I’m not suggesting that I’m no longer excited about social media. I’m not suggesting that social media is dead (imagine that link bait, though). Quite the opposite, actually. Social media is not only not dead, it’s so alive that it’s become ubiquitous. There are Google+ master classes. You can read multiple books for marketing your business on Pinterest. You can go out and get a social media certification. You can buy thousands of Facebook likes. There are more than 125K social media experts on LinkedIn. There are more than 5,000 books on social media marketing. If you’re looking for a job and you don’t have the words “social media” on your resume somewhere, you aren’t even trying. Social media is where it’s at man. Everyone’s doing it.

And maybe that’s the problem. Everyone, from the government to big brands to schools to my parents, feels like they have to be using social media. And there are all too many social media experts, ninjas, and gurus ready to help them get on Twitter, start a Facebook page, and check in on Foursquare. When I first started using social media professionally back in 2006, it was because I recognized that these new tools could fundamentally change the way organizations communicated and collaborated. Back then, using social media in the government was like being among the first cavemen to discover fire. I was part of a small group of people who recognized this and committed to using this newfound knowledge to help the government become more efficient, more open, more transparent, and more collaborative. It was not only fun, it was incredibly rewarding as well. We were helping change the way government worked. We were effecting change that people said wasn’t possible. We just happened to be using social media to do that.

Obviously, things have changed since then. Where I used to have to fight tooth and nail to get my clients to use social media at all, social media is now viewed as the first option. Social media has become almost a cure-all for an organization’s problems. Suffering from negative media coverage? Start a Twitter account! Poor Q1 sales? Get on Pinterest! High employee turnover? Create an internal blogging platform! Whatever problem you have, social media will be there to solve it! And, there are literally thousands of social media experts out there ready to provide that solution to you (at a low low price if you sign up right now!).

I love getting a senior-level client up and running on Twitter or Yammer, not because I’m getting paid to do it or because these tools are just sooo cool, but because most of the time, it represents the first time in years that he or she communicates with the public without a PR or legal or compliance filter. I was able to give them the confidence, knowledge, and tools to actually talk with people – their customers or employees – like a human being. The only thing that made me happier than seeing a senior executive read an unfiltered feed about their organization and start participating in the conversation was seeing those conversations manifest themselves in actual changes in how the business operated. Now, all that’s given way to marketers, consultants, and gurus whose only goal is to get people using social media.

My goal is never to get someone blogging or Tweeting – that’s just the means to help them understand how to better communicate and collaborate. Simply using social media should never be the goal – social media is just the means, not the end. For years, clients have been asking me to develop “social media strategies,” and for years, I’ve been telling them that they don’t need a “social media strategy.” What they need is strategy to help them solve whatever business problem they’re looking to solve. Maybe they’ll need social media, maybe they won’t. I guess it was never about social media after all. It was about what social media enabled people to do, and increasingly, the only thing it’s enabling is jamming the same old business practices into Tweets, blog posts, and status updates.

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  1. ….goes a long way. And, this blog also suggests the need for more balanced thinking where digital informal communication is concerned.

    Last Friday, I attended a CMO panel discussion sponsored by multiple sales, marketing, direct response, and other professional groups in the Philadelphia area. The panel included senior marketing executives and PR experts who specialize in reputation and image. Until one of the PR folks virtually whispered ‘offline’ and ‘leveraging traditional print and electronic advertising and promotion’ about an hour into the proceedings, there was absolutely no mention of anything but social media. The entire focus was on how companies should, and can, be utilizing this approach to build their business. One PR consultant even noted that only 16% of the Fortune 100 CEO’s is actively blogging and said that this suggested both the low penetration of social media into large organizations, and the trememdous upside opportunity this represents.

    Everyone recognizes the growing importance and leveraging power of online social media, as an information source, a communication enabler, and a medium to influence thinking and consumer decision-making. That said, and as suggested by this thoughtful blog, it’s important to understand the role of offline and traditional advertising/promotion, and how, carefully merged and converged, they can impact marketing program success.

    As noted in my 2011 book, The Customer Advocate and The Customer Saboteur: “The amount of coverage online social media receives is tremendous. There is a strong and disproportionate amount of attention, as a medium for companies to influence consumers and as a medium for consumers to use to communicate with each other. There is so much material on how organizations can leverage social media to manage brand perception, dialogue with customers, and increase share of wallet and share of market that it could easily be taken as conventional wisdom that 'online social media' is simply a surrogate term for all social media. It must be remembered, however, that offline word-of-mouth is still the most significant driver of b2b and b2c customer decision-making, even among young people for whom mobile communication appears to be a way of life; and the results of multiple studies will be presented to reinforce that continued key finding.”

    One such major piece of research cited in my book was a 2010 online-offline word-of-mouth 'landscape' study by Wharton Interactive Media Institute and Marketing Science Institute, which gathered material from NM Incite (a joint venture between Nielsen and McKinsey) and Keller Fay Group. They evaluated over word-of-mouth information sources for700 U.S. brands, spanning the 2007 to 2010 time periods. In summary, offline word-of-mouth prevailed in almost every industry.

    When it comes to the financial performance of social media as a marketing tool, there’s a lot of debate about the Pepsi Refresh project, (launched in 2010 by Pepsi as a community-building project, as they opted out of Super Bowl advertising for the first time in 23 years) i.e. what academics and business professionals think the lasting effect of the program will be. Acknowledging that it was a bold experiment, most think it will have little strategic value. While this viral program has increased the level of engagement between Pepsi and its consumers, it has had virtually no impact on sales. Can an ‘artistic social media success’ replace bottom line results? And the larger question – will/can social media, by itself, ever replace a blended communication program?

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