Social Media – How CAN it Work as a Corporate Communications Tool?

Anyone who’s bothered to read the opinions and examples that I’ve posted here (and if you have, thank you – thank you so very much) will know what my stance is on the social media phenomenon and how it relates to corporate communications and this business we call ‘spin’. For those who’ve not bothered to keep up with my musings, bimblings and meanderings (booooooo – and there are so MANY of you), I’ll precis here. Stick with me, it’s important as context for what will come later.

In brief, I’m of the considered opinion that what we’re seeing – in terms of the unseemly bandwagon-jumping, the social media marketing industry that has grown up to satisfy the ever-expanding need for a social media ‘fix’ and the lemming-like rush by brands, companies and organisations to grab a piece of the social media tartlet (so much tastier and more rewarding that the sausage and mash of traditional communication) – is nothing more, or less, that a repeat of the dotcom boom of the late 2oth/early 21st centuries. No matter how you look at it, because of its very nature, because of the enormity of choice, because of the way people interact with it, the internet is never going to be an terribly effective or truly measurable marketing tool.

There. I’ve said it. And guess what – I’ve not been struck by lightning and the door hasn’t been smashed in by the black-suited and be-sunglassed Social Media Police. Mind you, hedging my bets, I will caveat the big statement by saying – as I have so often – don’t ignore social media and the internet. In a traditional communications campaign – presuming all the resource you need and a perfect world – you don’t ignore weekly freesheets just because they don’t have the reach of a national newspaper or radio station. In fact, in certain instances, weekly freesheets deliver the sort of audience that larger media outlets won’t deliver. But – and it’s a big but – you’ve got to want to reach that audience and that audience has to deliver value back to you. Otherwise it’s not worth it.

Social media is exactly like that. If you’ve got the time and the resource – and let’s not forget that making use of social media is incredibly labour intensive and thus costly in comparison to other forms of communication – and you’ve got, most importantly, the need, then social media will deliver you stuff. Obviously. There wouldn’t be all this hype if it hadn’t delivered to someone, somewhere, something worthwhile.

I had a chat with an ex-colleague who is making a living out of providing content for t’internet recently, and for a period of at least half-an-hour, I thought I’d made a big mistake. Not only were his arguments for social media as a comms/marketing tool coherent and compelling, he also had some big corporate examples – one particularly – of how the use of social media (in this case Twitter) had delivered big monetary value to said big corporate. When I got home (after a great deal of beer, I’m afraid), in a Carrie Bradshaw moment, I started thinking about the instances in which the use of social media has delivered value to brands, companies and organisations, and whether there’s a formula or a pattern to be perceived.

Was I, in effect, wrong or – more palatable to me – were there specific circumstances that triggered results from social media, circumstances that cannot be simply ‘turned on’ by a corporate communications team and thus cannot really be harnessed? Does the Emperor have a fantastic designer suit in his wardrobe, or is he simply walking through a room full of falling handkerchiefs? (OK, that may be a metaphor too far.)

Something that aided the thought process was a question posted recently on LinkedIn, which was “Can Twitter ever be used successfully as a brand management tool?” At the risk of being seen to manipulate things to suit my own arguments, I’d suggest substituting ‘Twitter’ for the more generic ‘social media’. That’s the beauty of a blog – I can do whatever I want.

There were, as you’d expect, loads of answers. Some yes, some no, some puppyishly positive, some demonically negative. What there were, however, were examples, which I’ll list here, and I’ll also add the example provided to me by my ex-colleague (see above if you’ve been so enthralled by the last para that you’ve forgotten what went before). So – in no particular order:

“CCN is using Twitter to prove it is the news leader in timely deliver”(sic)

“Pres Obama is using it to prove that he and his admin are the most relevantly connected politicans on the planet”

“A variety of Hollywood personalities are using it to build and maintain their brands”

“The famous Los Angeles BBQ Taco Truck is alive and well because of Twitter!”

“Just started a Twitter account for a music-sharing site – now have 1,000 followers”

“(Big American Computer Company) addressed their famous customer service issues on Twitter – an extra $xxm orders were received on the back of it”

On the face of it – all good and, in some cases, high profile uses of Twitter to achieve an end for a brand, company, organisation or proposition. But. And there’s always a but. In each case, there’s a reason why they’ve been successful and they’re not reasons that you just ‘turn on’ to make your brand more social media-friendly.

CNN is a media outlet already and people are used to accessing CNN for their news – therefore getting users to sign up for CNN ‘tweets’ is hardly a triumph of new media marketing. It could be said that CNN must have big issues if it needs to use Twitter to promote itself.

Barack Obama – he’s the most powerful man in the world! Of course people are going to try and be friends with him on Facebook!

Ditto Hollywood personalities. As a crass example, if George Clooney, or Scarlet Johansson are on Twitter, they’re going to have followers. Go figure.

The famous BBQ Taco Truck (whatever that is) and a music-sharing site – these are things that push social media buttons – everyone wants music (especially for free or for cheap) and everyone wants tacos (well, within reason). What I’m saying is that both of these examples are pushing against an open door – they’re things that people want and if you have these things and cannot get followers then you should retire. Now.

The (Big American Computer Company) example is, however, interesting, and here’s where I leave you for today. This company were sitting on a crisis. Their customer service was shocking and customers were up in arms. At this point, they had a choice, do nothing, or open a dialogue. Their customers were ready and prepared to engage in dialogue, so the door was already open. Yes, they could have got it wrong, but that would have been a display of communications stupidity so vast that they would have deserved everything they got. What they did was invest, spend time, maintain regular and open dialogue, monitor responses and issue prompt and sensible feedback. They turned things around, they got extra orders. (Now that their crisis has been ‘resolved’ mind, it would be interesting to see how many people are still following their Tweets.)

Of course, for every good example of crisis management through social media (and this is the first I’ve heard of) there’s a poor example. I think I need only say ‘Dominos Pizza’ and ‘YouTube video’.

So, for social media to be a success, you need to be a brand, company or organisation that people know about and want to engage with (and the only way to achieve that is through traditional media channels) or you need to have a big problem and be prepared to front it up and engage in open dialogue with your audiences. Which might, of course, backfire.

But I see a business opportunity. Recommending crisis scenarios to big companies. Bear with me. If you have, for example, a deodorant brand, you could STAGE a crisis. Say you release a few cans of deodorant that, instead of smelling like lemongrass and patchouli (like it says on the label), smell of distilled rancid skunk. Massive customer furore, multimedia press coverage – and the perfect opportunity to create a Twitter account to ‘apologise’ and ‘explain’ to your customers.

Genius. Only it might, of course, go horribly wrong……………….

Social Media – Royalty Without a Stitch

I’ll post more about this later, because I’ve had a few more thoughts, but in the interim, for your delight and delectation, here’s a piece from Marketing Week, March 25 2009. Apologies for the delay in getting it up here.

This, for me, says it all. No – stop – don’t ignore social media, or chuck your digital strategy in the bin – but don’t – don’t – let it become an all-consuming obsession.

Social Media as a Comms Tool – The Fish Theorem

So. There I was, in Belgrade, attending a press function. As you do. It was a CSR affair, so there was the usual smattering of government officials, intellectual elite and the odd random performance artist. Unfortunately, that very morning, the Serbian government had called a press conference to unleash the latest war on, and I quote, (a quotation from one of the intellectuals there), ‘the mob’. Thus, all things being equal, war on the mob vs CSR, there weren’t any TV crews. Oh – and the centre of Belgrade was gridlock, probably because of all the TV crews trying to get pictures of dubious men (and possibly women) in dark glasses.

Be that as it may, as the event wound down, I got into conversation (over a complimentary glass of the local hooch, which appeared to be – to all intents and purposes – peach flavoured meths) with a lady from the PR agency who’d organised the whole shindig.  Having ascertained that she’d been in the business we call spin for some five years, I asked her what she considered her speciality and she told me that she mainly practised digital PR, on behalf of a number of hi-tech clients. She also said – and here I had to question whether I’m actually wasting the money I give to that nice Mr Clinique and his wonderful male grooming range – that I would probably hate digital. The words ‘because you’re a bit old’ were left, politely, hanging unsaid.

And maybe it’s because I’m a bit old, or maybe it’s because I feel the Emperor is slightly bereft in the vestements department, or maybe (altogether) it’s because I’m a Londoner, I rose, snapping, to the bait and developed the fish theorem of social media. Or maybe it’s because of the peach flavoured meths, which, I have to admit, is the only drink in recent times that I have had to put down unfinished. If you ever find yourself in Belgrade – well, don’t. Just don’t. 

So I asked the nice young lady how she measured her work in the digital field. How she could actually deliver a sensible measure of ROI to her client. What she felt was achieved by the whole social media effort. Whether, in point of fact, there were any tangible results at all. And we progressed to the big debate around social media (in its ‘real’ sense) vs the commercial aims of a comms practitioner’s clients and, further, the raison d’etre of a comms practitioner period. After all, what do we, the benighted few, actually do – if it’s not sell our clients products through image and reputation creation?

The stark fact is that, with social media, the only way to achieve an end is to produce something that people want to read or view and that they then want to re-post or circulate to their friends. It’s all a bit Ronseal – social media. Does exactly what it says………… The other unavoidable deal about social media is that it is completely uncontrolled. To quote Will Smith in Shark Tale – you may think you know, but you have no idea.

No – until someone can actually measure social media and tell you (or your client) exactly what you’re getting for your investment (financial or opportunity) then it must remain second string to traditional media.

You see, going after social media as a comms tool is like fly fishing. You cast your fly and you watch as all the little fishes gather round it. All the little fishes are thinking “oooooo – look at this, something new, are we going to like it?” But to hook them, you’ve got to be oh so careful. Adding a commercial message at the wrong time is like striking too soon – you rip back the rod and all the wee fishies scatter, never to be seen again. And unlike fish, which are renowned for being stupid, your social media audience will never come back. However, even if you get it right, and you strike at the right time, then your reward is one fish or, possibly, if you’ve got a few hooks, several fish. OK, so they’re yours to do what you will with, but it’s still just a few fish.

Traditional media is like a stick of dynamite. Get the story right, get the mass coverage – BOOM. Fish everywhere. OK, they may not all be the right fish, but amongst your gasping, flapping haul, there’s going to be a great deal of the right fish.

And, not that I’ve ever bought a stick of dynamite, but it’s got to be cheaper than a couple of days fly fishing on a decent stretch of river. And that’s the deal – working against social media is disproportionately expensive, especially as you – no matter what anyone says – cannot measure the results.

“Evaluating social media” – give me a break

Ooooooh, I am cross. Clearly, as are we all, I am a member of endless online networking fora, in the blind hope that one day I might ecounter someone who’s not either trying to sell me something or wishing to suck my brain dry for free or an ex (or current) colleague for whom time obviously weighs rather heavy. I’m actually hoping that I’ll encounter someone that I can sell something to, or whose brain I can suck dry at no cost. And I know all I want to know about my colleagues, so I see no real need to connect with them online.

Anyway, as you know, gentle reader, the internet is just one big ethereal balloon full of questions – and these online networking fora seem to have been allocated more than their fair share (see point above ref sucking brains dry gratis and for nothing). Unsuprisingly, as the whirlpool of hype around the use of social media for communications purposes continues to get wilder and louder and drags more people into its evil clutches, so the amount of questions – often from those who should know better – about evaluating social media gets greater and greater.

So, for your delight and delectation, here is the answer I posted to the question:

“Quantative research on social media is evolving quite fast, however what’s up with evaluative research of social media? Is anyone measuring the qualitative value of social media relationships and what are the basic criteria for this kind of measurement?”

I said: “At the risk of being a Luddite (and, potentially, in the future, being the modern day equivalent of the numpty who said that “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers”) why would you want qualitative research on social media? Trust me on this one, we’re still trying to find some sort of meaningful evaluation system for “traditional” PR and communications, so what makes anyone think that they can perform serious research into social media? The beauty of social media – and indeed, t’internet as a whole – is that it is unregulated and therefore – QED – unquantifiable. Don’t ignore social media. But from my point of view, until someone comes along and demonstrates not just how much reach it has, but how it impacts on its participants, then I, for one, shall treat social media as second-string to “traditional media” which – while it still cannot be evaluated satisfactorily (and anyone who’s even thinking AVE should be quietly put down) is at least measurable in terms of audience.”

Since then, I’ve developed what I’m calling the ‘Fish’ theory of social media vs traditional media – but, hey, that’s another post.

AVE – What’s that all about then…..

Today, I was asked a question about whether it was possible to assign an AVE value to coverage on the internet, given that if you buy space on a decent site, then you’re paying for space and rotation, so it’s rather more – well – dimensional than ads in print or via broadcast. It’s not to say it can’t be done – in fact I think it can, and I’m sure there are people doing it quite effectively – but the point is that it got me thinking about the whole concept of AVE and that, I’m afraid, made me quite cross.

AVE’s not just unreliable, it actually belittles the effect of actively-generated editorial, communicating brand or corporate messages. Editorial coverage cannot be compared to advertising – they are chalk and cheese, apples and oranges etc etc. But, sadly, somehow clients get all warm and runny inside when they see the magic AVE figure – I blame the communications industry – if the clients actually understood what corporate communications does and delivers, they’d see AVE for the rank nonsense that it is.

Sorry Metrica and all the others making vast amounts of money out of evaluation (and telling me that my last quarter’s coverage was 95% positive – what? On what basis? How? Who?) – it’s horse droppings. No matter how cleverly you use it, it’s still horse droppings. The results of corporate communications activity – in the media at least – have to be measured against business benefit – so that’s an uplift in sales, or a properly measured and surveyed change in audience opinion. And that’s expensive.

But no more expensive than paying an agency to produce some lovely graphs that mean nothing.

As an aside, in four days time I shall present, to a global audience, the results of Corporate Relations activity over the company’s last reported quarter. In terms of positivity of coverage (95%), number of pieces of coverage (vs the quarter before) and AVE.

The sheer grubbiness of it makes me want to have a shower.