Social Media – So Many Pundits, So Little Understanding

What is wrong with this sentence:

“No surprise, by social networking the panel meant the Big Three: Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. But it also includes other web 2.0 tools, including blogging and YouTube. In fact, the first question asked of the group was about how a small business can experience the viral video phenomenon a la Susan Boyle, Britain’s overnight singing sensation. The answer: ‘be careful what you wish for’.”

If your answer is ‘nothing’ or ‘not much’ or – heaven help us – ‘actually, that’s quite interesting, I’d like to know more’ then you might find what follows a little dull and probably not to your taste. When I ask what’s wrong with the sentence, of course, I’m not referring to the appalling grammar and syntax (I’d be here all day), or indeed to the fact that it’s breathless, pseudo-tabloid, poorly-informed journalism of the first water.

No, what astounds me is the simply incredible lack of knowledge that is implied both on the part of the panel and the audience (who probably paid to be there). Lest you think that I’ve chosen a particularly naff paragraph, let me share a little more. (Whoever this guy is, I’m sure he’d forgive me for repeating what he said. He’s in no real danger, mind, as this is, after all, the Blog That Nobody Reads.)

“The world of marketing has changed forever” said John Jantsch, who wrote ‘Duct Tape Marketing: The World’s Most Practical Small Business Marketing Guide’, during an engagement forum about how social media can transform the way small businesses do business. “There’s no more hunting for customers. It’s about putting informational content out there to be found and to engage in meaningful ways.”

This is so wrong, on so many different levels, that I have difficulty actually getting my head round it. What is he talking about “there’s no more hunting for customers”? This is dangerous, irresponsible tosh which implies that once you’ve got a social media presence, you’re made for life. And all for the price of a bit of ‘informational content’. And “putting it out there to be found” – hey, I’ve been putting this blog (which is arguably considerably more informational and engaging than Mr Jantsch’s sodden meanderings) ‘out there to be found’ for months now and – guess what? – no-one’s found it! No sh*t, Holmes.

But let’s return to the first sentence. People wanting to experience the viral video sensation ‘a la Susan Boyle’. And the answer from the panel? “If your video goes viral, it can hurt you if you’re not prepared to meet demand – if you can’t, you’ve blown it.” No. The only thing you’ll have blown, as an SME trying to make a ‘viral’, is your marketing budget for the next decade. Again, this is frightening, dangerous, irresponsible nonsense. As I’ve said before – viral is something that happens, not something you can plan for. It needs luck and timing, as well as judgement and creativity, and it needs a sponsor (brand or organisation) that is able to use its equity/reputation in a lateral and sometimes “off the wall” fashion, without risking damage. And how many organisations can you think of that can do that? Remember, for ever single example of a truly viral video clip, there are hundreds, if not thousands, that sank traceless.

All of this stuff came out of the US National Small Business Week Conference, and it is genuinely shocking to know that there are so-called serious media professionals recommending Facebook and Twitter to SMEs. SMEs – it’s a fact of life – need to draw customers in and sell stuff, not spend a massive amount of time and effort posting informational content and having meaningful, individual ‘quality’ conversations.

I know this was a conference about social media and thus, unsurprisingly, that was the topic – but nowhere, as far as I can see, did the panel talk about the importance of having a web presence (not expensive) that you can manage yourself (not difficult), on which you can post the stuff that matters to you (not time-consuming). They didn’t talk about enetring a dialogue with your customers through the medium of email and building email databases – don’t post content and wait for people to come to you – draw them in through your web presence (have a ‘for further information’ form) and don’t forget traditional mail-outs and small ads that point people at your web presence and encourage them to register. Bribe them! People who register their details get put into a draw to win a voucher for a restaurant or a shop! Again, I know you’re in the realms of sales promotion and data protection, and that there’s a whole set of rules that go round this – but, trust me on this one, it’s a better use of your time than being a face on the book or a bit of a Twit.

The National Small Business Week panel did have some sensible stuff to say though – set up your Google Profile. Absolutely – do it, you’d be mad not to. (It’s not social media, mind.) And they also said that one should add social media to one’s existing marketing arsenal – and I think what they meant is ‘don’t focus on social media to the exclusion of everything else’. Don’t ignore social media, but remember you’re likely to get better results from other forms of marketing activity.

But on the whole, reading the write up of this session/discussion was a depressing business. There’s too many people who’ve jumped the social media bandwagon, and now believe themselves somehow qualified to dispense advice to the other group of people who do not understand at all, but are frightened of missing something. And they listen to the advice, and they go off and waste their time. Seriously, how many businesses will go down the pan because their owners are spending too much time/budget on trying to reap an – at best – non-existent social media whirlwind.

But, just so I don’t come across as a churl – here’s some buzzwords to throw in at your next SM session – audioboo, brightkite, maycontain and unhub. New things that look surprisingly like – well, the old things, actually.

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