Social Media – What Value Conversation?

After my recent assertion that all this ‘conversation’ voodoo was little more than the next great excuse for not doing very much at all (and being paid, often quite highly, for not doing it) – my reasoning being, simply, that ‘conversation’, as she is hyped by the social media gurus, doesn’t actually exist – I come face to face with this. It is a listing and explanation of the ‘ten most common stages that businesses experience as they travel the road to full social media integration’, created by someone called Brian Solis, who, apparently, is a principal at new media agency FutureWorks. (Should you be the sort of terrifying masochist who seeks out opportunities to peel your fingers or pick at your eyes with fishhooks, you can connect with him on Twitter or Facebook.)

Frankly, dear blog snorkellers, where do I start? It’s delusional and, if it got into the hands of the weak-minded (you’re not weak-minded, are you?) could be seen as dangerous. Take this, for example:

“At last, 2010 is expected to be the year that social media goes mainstream for business. In speaking with many executives and entrepreneurs, I’ve noticed that the path towards new media enlightenment often hinges on corporate culture and specific marketplace conditions. Full social media integration often happens in stages — it’s an evolutionary process for companies and consumers alike.”

What on earth does he mean – goes mainstream for business? No-one, as yet, and as far as I can see, has managed to make business out of social media. Not even the social media owners are actually making money out of it. Does no-one remember the dotcom bubble of 11 years ago? It’s not the messiah, people, it’s a very naughty boy. 2010 will not be the year social media goes mainstream for business – it might be the year when business pisses away a significant proportion of its total marketing spend following the advice of Mr Solis and his peers, however.

I also cannot help but noting the use of the phrase ‘the path towards social media enlightenment’, deliberately imbuing his subject with some quasi-religious significance and tacitly implying that those who do not run towards social with open arms are both unenlightened and somehow heathen.

And then there’s the assertion that ‘full social media integration often happens in stages’ – as if it’s something that happens all the time, the new normality, an inevitable metamorphosis that will change us all – thereby bestowing credence on what are, after all, little more than crackpot theories.

And that, gentle readers, is just the content of the first paragraph. There’s pages and pages of this insidious and infectious nonsense. It talks about “the conversation” (as you’d expect it would), it talks about ‘finding a voice and a sense of purpose’ and it talks about “humanising the brand”. It goes as far as to suggest that social media both merits and may cause an organisational transformation, in which it is imperative that teams and processes support formal Social Customer Relationship Management programmes.

To be fair, the document pays lip service to the concept of metrics to measure ROI – volumes, locations and nature of online interaction – but at no point does it address true value-adding business goals, such as selling more product, dispensing more counsel or lending more money. In fact it goes as far as to say ‘we report to executives who may be uninterested in transparency or authenticity – their goal, and job, is to steer the company toward greater profits’ as if there’s a special type of person whose job it is to worry about profit, while the rest of us get down and dirty having conversations, creating communities, listening, responding and adapting our products and services.

Don’t get me wrong, social media is here and it’s (probably) here to stay. Ignore it at your peril. But it is not that important. It is not something that has to permeate your business, brand or organisation at all levels. It is not the future of communication as we know it and it is not an excuse to stop what you’re doing now and enter some Utopian world where no-one’s responsible, there’s no control and you simply have to go with the flow – because this is bigger than all of us, man.

Horseshit! Wake up! This is the call of the sirens and the more you listen to it, the more chance you’ll throw yourself overboard and drown in a sea of endless, meaningless ‘conversation’.

Crisis Management – The Idiot’s Guide To Creating A Plan – Eurostar

Ooooooooh, ouch. Eurostar provide an object lesson for everyone in how not to do it. The reason I come to this now is because of this piece – which I have lifted from Steve Virgin’s blog (most excellent, by the way, wholly recommended) – which details Eurostar’s commercial and marketing reaction to the – well – cock-up, frankly.

It mentions their social media concerns and demonstrates that social media was not included in their crisis management plan. Oooops.

It simply isn’t something you can ignore. Be prepared – or be prepared for the consequences.

Corporate Communications – The Authentic Enterprise

Found this down the back of the internet. It’s a report – entitled The Authentic Enterprise – from  the Arthur W. Page Society (an American organisation for the promotion and betterment of public affairs and corporate communications professionals). It examines the changing nature of a business’ relations with its publics and what it needs to do to adapt to, exist in and survive today’s world of open and transparent communications. I should say – it’s from 2007 – but I hope the following exerpts will intrigue you as much as they intrigued me. It’s genuinely quite sensible.

“The quality of the company’s products and services (or lack thereof) is apparent to all customers and potential customers. Its treatment of employees and retirees is visible across the corporation and to potential employees and public interest groups. Its citizen ship, environmental behaviour, corporate governance standards, executive compensation practices and public policy recommendations are transparent to all.”

“A company must be able to answer such questions as: What business are we in? What markets do we serve? What differentiates us as an employer, an investment, a partner, a neighbour? In what do we deeply believe? What will endure? What do we value? And how can we ensure that everyone associated with the far-flung enterprise understands and acts in accordance with our mission, values, goals and operating principles?”

“However, building a management system based on values is a significant challenge.”

Social Media – The Other End of the World

As my regular blog snorkellers will know, I’ve not been backward in coming forward with my theory that social media is on its way out. This is for reasons too innumerable to mention here, including the fact that no-one’s making any money out of it, it’s being swamped by spam, the user growth figures are slowing, the user growth figures have never reflected the reality of the amount of people who sign up then never use the service again and – my favourite – because I say so.

There is another theory, however and in the spirit of fairness and balance, I give an iteration of it a hearing here. Clickety-clink – here’s the link!

(Can’t believe I just wrote that.)

The theory says that the traditional digital comms tools – email, websites – are themselves on the way out, to be subsumed into social media. The reasoning goes that social media provides opportunities to communicate and to provide content that email cannot – to summarise and paraphrase – email is one-dimensional and the social media are not. Same goes for the traditional, reasonably static website – why would you, really, when user-generated, arguably richer content pertaining to a brand or organisation is out there in the blogosphere, or posted on Facebook?

But then the theory trips up. I think it trips up because of the widespread inability to separate social media into its two component parts.

  • Something that people do in their spare time (and when they’re notworking, obviously) to keep up with friends and family, ask for advice on things that trouble/interest them and view/download jokes, clips, tracks, patches etc etc.
  • Something that simply is not working as a marketing, communications or reputation-building tool.

Just because individuals, in their day-to-day lives, may decide to run those lives via Facebook or Twitter or some combination of the two, does not make them valid, or valuable, business tools. Business requires communication without distractions, without logins, without a ‘spirit of community’ and – most importantly – without commentary from everyone who reads it. This is why email, as it is currently, works – for business purposes – so well. You can choose who receives it, you can monitor it and you can cane people who misuse it or try to hide their use of it. The thing that will change about email is how we send and receive it and what it looks like when we do send and receive it.

I also draw attention to the school of thought that says ‘ask a 20-year-old whether they’re using email’ as if this has any bearing on the matter. No, they’re not – they’re texting and using social media (well, some are, anyway) – but, quite frankly, who cares? Email is a business tool (and I include marketing and corporate comms within ‘business’) and 20-year-olds are a notoriously difficult-to-reach audience with limited appeal. You might as well ask an 80-year-old whether they’re using email for all the relevance it has.

And traditional, static websites – well, here’s a sensible post. Actually, there’s more of a place for traditional corporate websites that ever before – and why? Because, thanks to social media (and the way the bigger internet players are forcing us to behave – yes, forcing – Google SideWiki, anyone?) there’s such a slew of information that, ironically enough, the only place you’ll be able to go for reasonably accurate and (dare I say) impartial information will be the corporate website.

Now, I’d just like to make it clear – again, and mainly for my wife, who thinks I’m a cave-dwelling technophobe – that I am not either denying the existence of social media or telling anyone to stick their heads in the sand. Social media is here. Loads of people are using it. It is right and fitting that if we work in communications then we should have a knowledge of it. That being said – I repeat – do not confuse the social media that people use to run/ruin their personal lives and the social media that has all the potential to ruin your business (uncontrolled rumour and bad-mouthing) and none of the potential to materially enhance your revenues.

Social Media Policies – Pros and Cons

You may well have seen this, but I hadn’t and I thought it’s worth commenting on. This is from February this year, when an Irish blogger – Jason Roe – thought he had discovered a glitch in Ryanair’s website. He blogged about it. His post attracted commentary from Ryanair Staff – later confirmed as being, yep, a member of Ryanair’s staff.

Read – and gasp in wonder – here.

Quite clearly, at the time, Ryanair had no social media policy, governing who could post to what, when and how they should approach it. When the official response came out – here’s an article containing it (and a picture of Mr Roe) – it was made quite clear that they had no intention of getting a social media policy anytime soon.

You can take one of two things from this – up to you.

  • This is a salutary lesson in the importance of having a social media policy and ensuring that all your employees understand and abide by it
  • This demonstrates that it really doesn’t matter whether you have a policy or not, and whether your employees post to social media sites/blogs/messageboards or not – if your company has a sound business proposition, corporate reputation is not important, you’ll continue to make money

Personally, I think it’s all about what sort of company it is and – most importantly – what sort of leadership it has, based on the eternal truth that, like it or not, all business organisations will reflect the character of their leaders (CEO, President, Chairman – whatever).

In the case of Ryanair, it’s all about price. It’s cheap and it at the moment it has a strong customer base because it’s cheap. As long as it’s cheaper (or as cheap) as its competitors, it will have a share of the current market, a market which is (must be?) growing as people (generally) have less money. Therefore, the warmth of corporate reputation and customer admiration is something it doesn’t need.

And its leader is Michael O’Leary, a seemingly unpleasant, short individual with – it would be easy to infer from interviews given and commentary made – the emotional intelligence of a scorpion and the subtlety of an angry rhino. (Just in case anyone’s missed him – here’s some O’Learyisms.)

On balance, a company such as Ryanair has no need of a social media policy currently. It remains to be seen how long they can continue like this, mind.

(Oh – and I’d fly Aer Lingus or Aer Arann if I were you.)

Social Media – What They Really Want (2)

Since my last post I’ve been inundated with quite literally no requests for clarification of the term ‘Free Stuff’. This complete lack of interest seems to centre round the misapprehension that, when I say ‘Free Stuff’, I’m talking about tangible goods, for free.

No. It’s a metaphor. What I’m talking about is something that a consumer (or stakeholder) wouldn’t otherwise have, that adds value to their existence, and comes without charge. So – it could be tangible goods for free, or it might be an exclusive discount, or a print-and-play voucher, or a competition, or simply some useful information.

As we’re discussing this in the context of social media, I know there are those who will maintain that this is exactly what social media does – through the medium of the conversation, the Q&A, ‘Free Stuff’ (generally information) is provided.

Well, yes and no. Mostly no. Social media are populated by several groups. Those who seek to belong, those who seek validation (through followers and fans), those who cannot bear to be alone, those who believe others are interested, those who are there by mistake and the ghosts who came once, never go again, yet leave traces of themselves in terms of usernames and unfinished profiles. All untraceable, unevaluable and – mostly – unquantifiable.

And as they are so diverse and give little clue to what they really, really want (and I’m certain that many of them do, simply, want to zigazig ah) a brand or organisation wishing to give them ‘Free Stuff’ actually can’t. Because one size does not fit all and they don’t ask directly (well, not often).

What this means is that brand or corporate pursuing its benighted and expensive social media ‘strategy’ is obliged to provide one of three things. Reaction to negative comment, general product or corporate info or Irritating Voiceover. Or any combination of the three.

Well, the pedants will say, this IS, by the definition outlined here, Free Stuff.

And indeed it is. But it’s low-level, generic Free Stuff that should be on your website anyway. If your consumers are having to get, or ask for, general info via Twitter or Facebook, then there is something seriously wrong in another area of your communications mix. Or, maybe, those consumers (stakeholders) are just sad and needy and desperately crave human contact. Any human contact.

Going back to Free Stuff – the Free Stuff that people want is stuff that feels special and unique – unique to them and their group. It’s stuff that cannot be delivered via mass-market social media, open to everyone. It’s stuff that can only be delivered on a ‘personal’ basis – in today’s internet age, signing up to a brand’s website is personal enough.

Two things, then.

  • Social media cannot fulfil the consumer’s defining need for Free Stuff
  • Your website (and associated digital marketing) can

Why, therefore, are you wasting time, money and effort on social media?

Social Media – I’ll Tell You What They Want

So. There I was, sprawled on the couch (the grey one that used to be cream in a time Before Children) in what passes for a living room (which is, incidentally, supposed to be a Child-Free Zone, but has recently, I’ve noticed, been threatened by a slow-moving but inexorable tsunami of plastic cars, aircraft and soldiery) pondering life, t’universe and everything and waiting for the second episode of Flash Forward. 

(For those who haven’t been exposed to this meisterwerk of the television producer’s art, Flash Forward, and its cast of thousands, deals with the premise that everyone on earth suffered a two minute and 17 second blackout – at exactly the same time – during which they all experienced some sort of glimpse of their individual futures. The rest of the series, I’m presuming, will be spent finding out why, who, how and – most importantly – how to stop the future happening.)

Now, Flash Forward isn’t a bad programme, but I’m getting the feeling that Channel Five are absolutely desperate for it to achieve cult status. It’s the irritating voiceover you see. Just when you think it’s safe to sit on your sofa and watch your programme of choice, you get some voiceover lovely (on behalf of the station) telling you just how marvellous the programme is going to be. And, by implication, what a wonderful human being, a paragon of taste and style, you are for watching it. Indeed for discovering it in the first place. You are well and truly sat in one of the very frontest seats in the tip of the pointy end of the vanguard. And then Irritating Voiceover Woman starts asking rhetorical questions! As if you hadn’t noticed the f***ing kangaroo hopping down the street and the strange person in black who should have blacked out but didn’t!

Thing is, this is a blatant sales technique. It’s not adding anything to my enjoyment. It’s simply hyping something that I’ve already bought into. It is uneccesary puffery – preaching to the converted – a waste of resources. It does not bring the consumer in – in fact, speaking personally, it alienates them (me). Worst of all, it’s pitched at a very low level – I recognise it for what it is and find it mildly insulting. And if I do, then, speaking as no Einstein here, so do thousands of others. (And finally, in this instance, unforgiveably, Flash Forward ain’t no Twin Peaks – don’t even think about drawing a parallel. )

Briefly – very briefly, because I didn’t want to miss any programme (I’m terribly respectful of my audience, but I’m afraid, dear blog snorkellers, you’re not as important as Flash Forward) – I was minded of stuff I’ve read and conversations I’ve had about the nature of content. Specifically, obviously, content posted to social media by brands (companies or organisations) as part of a social media strategy.

It’s one of the main tenets of the big US argument for letting employees post to social media, without going through the PR department. As I understand it, the (US) feeling is that anything coming out of the PR department is like the Irritating Voiceover – full of needless promotional puffery, recognised for what it is, and – truth be told – slightly insulting  to the consumer. This, obviously, is not what the social media consumer wants.

Unfortunately, in their mad rush to get away from what the social media consumer doesn’t want, the social media gurus seem to have lost track of what it is that the consumer ALWAYS wants – always has done and always will do.

There’s this belief that the consumer wants a say, wants a conversation, wants to be asked questions. Well some of them probably do – and they’re the ones who are tweeting Starbucks or Facebooking Domino’s Pizza. (Is it just me or is there something rather sad and depressing about Facebooking a global pizza company?) But I’d be willing to bet that most of them don’t. From my experience, there’s one thing that consumers want from a brand (once they’re vaguely satisfied that the brand doesn’t kill babies or manufacture its products from toxic waste).

Consumers want Free Stuff. They don’t want an Irritating Voiceover – although they’ll put up with it, if there’s some Free Stuff at the end of it. They want Free Stuff, given to them in a non-threatening, non-patronising, non-strings-attached manner. They don’t want to be told they’re brilliant, they (mostly) don’t want to be asked their opinions, they don’t really want to have a say.

They want Free Stuff. And if it’s good Free Stuff, they’ll probably come back and buy it next time. The moral of the story, therefore, is:

  • PR people – stop doing irritating voiceover – be genuine, be honest and, occasionally, tell people how to get Free Stuff.
  • Social Media Gurus – stop asking for opinions, stop trying to start conversations and keep them going – acknowledge those who want to say something and tell people how to get Free Stuff.

Tell me I’m wrong.