Social Media – In Cyberspace, No-one Listens to You Scream

A long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I was working for a company in relation to whom the use of the phrase ‘set in its ways’ was being kind. It was a company run by quite elderly gentlemen in suits (even those who weren’t quite elderly somehow were, if you see what I mean) who sat around in old wood-panelled offices and once a year, at Christmas, stood outside the gates and threw sovereigns to the barefoot orphans in the snow. OK, they didn’t, but it was THAT sort of company. The company made its money by enticing people to its premises and selling them intoxicating beverages and a selection of (mostly) fried food and, sometimes, a bed for the night.

In 1999, the world changed. Almost overnight, the talk was of internet entrepreneurs and dotcom business and simply extraordinary amounts of money were being bandied around in connection with the aformentioned entrepreneurs and businesses. This, we were told, was the future – there was to be no looking back and before very long, everything was going to be done over the internet. Shopping, socialising, consulting, meeting – everything. Don’t argue, we were told, it is inevitable.

Shiny Object Syndrome took hold. Hitherto rational companies started re-inventing themselves as dotcoms. Massive investments were made – in technologies that no-one fully understood and were not able to fully leverage or utilise. The company that I was working for was the subject of an article in the FT – would it be able to reinvent itself as a dotcom – how would the inevitable change to a digital way of life affect its business.

I’d like to claim that we were clever and anticipated the collapse of the house of cards, but we weren’t, we were simply unprepared, and being simply unprepared, we told the truth. We were banking on the fact that there would never be a transition to an online way of life. People need people need people. Sure, this new-fangled webby thing would help people find information and organise themselves and communicate – but there’d never be any substitute for meeting up over an intoxicating beverage. And, as history tells us, we were right.

Fast forward to 2007. I have been reincarnated into the exhibition industry – luckily as a corporate communicator and not a small stone which is probably what the Buddhists would have preferred. I learn very quickly that the exhibitions – or rather the ‘events’ – industry is way behind any other 21st century industry sector to the point that it is almost as if the 21st century hadn’t actually happened. I land in this frightening landscape just as the industry notices t’interweb and freezes like a resident of Norfolk caught in headlights – it’s the end of events as we know them, they shriek (eventually) – everyone’s going to be doing everything online! Quick, quick – reinvent ourselves as online communities and virtual exhibitions! Cue an all-too-familiar scramble to invest in technologies that no-one fully understands and no-one can fully leverage or exploit.

Long story short – it didn’t happen. The events industry is still going strong and, the last time I looked, it was in growth. Why? Because people need people need people. They need to interact in real time, to see, to hear, to touch, to smell – to experience. Real business does not get done on-line. Real business is done over a handshake, when you’ve seen the whites of the eyes, or the cut of the jib or whatever cliched metaphor tickles your fancy.

And here we are in 2009. Many would have us believe that social media is the next big thing. That without it, as communicators, as businesses, as brands, we’re missing out and – in the future – we’ll lose ground. And it is with a disorienting and rather queasy-making sense of deja-vu that I see otherwise sane companies running around throwing money at social media strategists, buying technology and expertise that they don’t fully understand and can’t fully leverage or exploit.

In the meantime – because people need people need people, because the internet is a lonely place, because you cannot guarantee that anyone is listening – the social media gurus themselves are organising live events (‘Tweetups’ – a term coined by Scott Monty, a man with either too much time on his hands, or no need for sleep) so that they can meet, interact with, see, touch and smell (not too much smell, please) their followers and the people they follow.

This is, of course, an activity that’s facilitated by social media. No issues with that. On a social/personal basis, it makes sense. For a brand, corporation or organisation however – it doesn’t.

Cut out the middleman – in this case social media – and use the budget, time and resource that you’ve liberated against experiential activity. Meet with your audiences. Let them touch and feel and taste your products.

Or, at the very least, take them down the pub.

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