Social Media – Policies, Usage and Effects

The more links I follow, the more commentary I read, the more I am convinced that no-one has a scooby what this social media stuff means, looks like, does or is capable of. In addition – and I’ve been blogging about this for months now (and that’s a long time in social media) – the debate simply hasn’t moved on. The social media devotees are still accusing those who express doubt of being luddites, and the luddites are still arguing about what constitutes a robust social media policy.

(Dear Blogsnorkeller, if you are new to me and my meanderings, I am – I hope obviously – talking about use of social media in a business or commercial context. I have no views on use of social media on a personal, non-work-related basis. It’s a free world. Live and let live.)

Today, I’ve come across discussion of the difference between ‘policy’ and ‘guideline’  – which, admittedly, dates from March, and is in the comments on this post – and which then led me to what looked like a promising debate about what right a company has to dictate to its employees how they represent themselves when posting to social media. I’d have thought every right – but then it appears that some companies, in their attempts to formulate corporate policies, are actually trying to impose rules on their staff 24/7. Which does seem a little strange.

What troubled me was not necessarily the difference between ‘guideline’ and ‘policy’ – in my opinion, it’s quite clear, if you’re talking a set of rules that employees must abide by, then it’s a policy. ‘Guideline’ implies ambiguity – eg ‘Try to be authentic’ (real example) – and ambiguity is open to misinterpretation and misinterpretation leads to error.

No, what troubles me is that this debate is actually taking place – get a grip – social media is here now, we need to understand it, we need to legislate for it, we need to be prepared for a possible future where – if we let it – social media dictates how we do business. A free-for-all, in other words. And as long as we noodle around, playing semantics rather than seizing the tiger’s tail, the more of a headstart it will have and the less chance we have of being able to harness it for commercial ends.

Today I’ve also seen a piece on social media ROI – which, on the whole, I completely agree with – apart from the implication that there are some things that you can’t evaluate and shouldn’t try to, because they have intrinsic worth. Well, that what we said about PR for a long time – you can’t put a price on corporate reputation – and that’s why PR remains a hillbilly cousin to marketing. Listen up, social media strategists – you HAVE to put a value on this. You HAVE to find a way – if you really want social media to become a valued corporate promotional tool.

And, from the same source a bit on  why social media won’t save your business – only just relevant to this post – but I guess it’s about the effects of social media – or rather the effects that it won’t have unless you’ve got everything else right first. Remember, large organisations with poor customer service records or shoddy products, you cannot polish a turd. Aaaah, the more knowing might say, but you can roll it in Twitter.

And then, a really wishy-washy post on social media policy guidelines. (Well, that’s my opinion – you can decide for yourself.) And it makes me cross – going back to my starting point – to see that this feeble nonsense was posted in August this year. Have we gone nowhere? Is no-one prepared to nail colours to masts? What is going on that people are still talking in terms of employees ‘being treated as grown-ups, given guidelines and being trusted to do their jobs’, when this is so obviously dangerous, liberal, Utopian nonsense? (See my thoughts on ‘policy’, above.)

And finally, to reinforce the fact that we really are going nowhere, here’s a post that takes a good look at social media and attempts to get some understanding. I like this post, but – I’m afraid – I don’t really understand where it’s going and, well, the content isn’t new. (If you ignore these two things, mind, it’s quite reassuring.)

Thing is, we appear to be be stuck in a sort of internetty Groundhog Day. We’re just not progressing. Or maybe I’m not looking in the right places.

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.

Social Media – The ‘Meatloaf Equation’

Sorry. It’s very easy to poke fun and, as I’m the sort of guy who likes ‘easy’, if I get the opportunity, then I will seize it with both hands.

Today I’d like to draw your attention to mashable.com and an article that was published in January this year entitled ’40 of the best Twitter brands and the people behind them’. You can read it if you like – never say I don’t give you anything.

To cut a long story short because, for some reason, I’m just not that into it today, it doesn’t make edifying reading. In fact, if you look behind the breathless and rather candyfloss tone of the article and examine the numbers, you’ll see that the quantity of followers for each of these brands (the 40 best Twitter brands, mind) is minute. And undoubtedly, there’s quite a lot of effort (even if it’s by one person, in their spare time) going into serving this audience – effort which, simply by the laws of math, isn’t making much in the way of a difference.

Anyway, I recognise that eight months is a long time in social media and there’s been a lot of growth, so – and it’s all my inherent laziness would allow – I picked on one of the 40 best Twitterers (Scott Monty at Ford) and compared followers now, with followers then. Mr Monty is now up to over 25,000 followers, compared to 8,500 in January. Which is roughly a three-fold increase and – on that basis – pretty impressive.

However – and anyone who’s been here before will know that there is always an ‘however’.  Current data says there are 45 million registered Twitter users globally. 10% of that would be 4.5 million. 1% would be 450,000. 0.1% would be 45,000. Ford – and a fair number of the other 40 best – have approximately 0.05% of the available audience. Factor in the statistics for Twitter account usage and attrition and it’s a very, very small number indeed.

It’s an example of the ‘Meatloaf Equation’, which goes something like “Two outta three ain’t bad.” “Yes it is. It’s 66%. It’s crap. A ‘B’ grade at best. Must try harder, boy.”

What’s my point? All that effort put into social media strategies for a possible audience of 25,000. Most of whom are untraceable and leave you with no information about themselves. Many of whom don’t actually exist (in that their accounts lapse as soon as they start them up – the average account, total number of tweets from which is one). And very, very few of whom are going to repay you – for these are brands after all – with a purchase.

’40 of the best Twitter brands and the people behind them’? Self-congratulatory back-slapping for those in the gang. Otherwise – vapid and meaningless.

Social Media – Sadly, Doing Nothing is Not an Option

It’s one of those horrible moments of dawning realisation, the sinking feeling of impending doom, the painful awareness that the buggers have, in fact, in some way, succeeded.

Yes, ladies and gents, fellow sceptics, I’m afraid that, like it or not, as communicators we are all going to have to embrace social media and actively do something about it. As you may know, this is a bit of a shift for me. I’ve always been of the opinion that there are far better ways of promoting your brand, company or organisation and – while you should not ignore it – social media is one of those things that you keep an eye on (watching for significant change or potential threat) with an 85% certainty that it’s a passing fad and it will go away.

(This opinion is not just something I made up in the bath, mind, it’s the result of having read all sorts of different points of view and assimilated a reasonable amount of data. Some of the latest stuff says that there are now 44.5m Twitterators globally and that, in the UK, the fastest growing age range for Twitter is the over 50s (this from Nielsen). Search the web – there’s loads of stuff – but it all (in a roundabout way) points to two things. That no-one really understands where social media is going or how to harness it and that, unless someone develops that understanding, it is (and will remain) little more than a passing fad.)

Of course, as with any new shiny object, there are those who are terrified that they’re missing out on the next big thing and there are those who feed on that terror to further their own ends. So we’ve seen the rise and rise of the ‘social media strategist’ and we’ve seen more amd more companies embracing social media strategy – some sensible, some less so. At best, you have companies creating networks of highly, trained, carefully controlled brand spokespeople (which they probably already had anyway) with a specific remit to comment on their areas of expertise through social media. At worse, you have an unseemly and dangerous free-for-all, propagated by the cyber-hippies and cyber-socialists, who believe that vox populi, vox dei and that social media is going to change the face of capitalism as we know it.

Still – and so I thought – there’s no need to have – unless you’ve got some spare people, time and budget just sloshing around – a social media strategy. Be aware of what social media is, keep up to date – but as long as your company or brand has a good corporate reputation, is reasonably ethical, fair and honest, and has a decent corporate culture (am I asking too much here?) then you’ve very little to fear and very little to gain.

Of course, there’s always going to be the odd blip, isn’t there? Damage done to corporate reputation by misguided or malicious use of social media? People (employees who are either not enrolled enough in corporate culture, or who are simply not clever enough) using social media without thought for the consequences. Dominos Pizza. Then, earlier this week, Currys and PC World (UK high street retailers). And I’m certain that there are plenty of other examples that simply haven’t attracted as much attention.

Clearly, this is nothing new. There have always been idiots who, given an opportunity to write in a comments book, or give answers to a survey, or email to a suggestion box, are suddenly overtaken by a severe case of Tourette’s. The difference is that, in the past, inappropriate behaviour was generally confined to small audiences of colleagues, or the employee’s friends and family. If it came to light, then suitable disciplinary action was taken. Now however, the Tourette’s-afflicted staff member has instant access to an on-line audience that can number tens of thousands.

So, social media has forced our hand. Doing nothing is not an option. Every company that has a reputation it wishes to protect should now be working on, and implementing , a social media policy which outlines, very clearly, what is and what is not acceptable in the workplace and when/if discussing the brand. As social media use (especially content) cannot be monitored or regulated, it should really be banned altogether in the workplace and the penalties for failng to abide by the policy should be draconian.

All well and good – but imposing a policy like this will inevitably be seen as removing the employee’s right to freedom of speech. (Mind – since when did employees have a right to freedom of speech? They turn up, they work, they get paid for it. Nothing about freedom of speech.) Social media and its soya-sandalled, hessian-draped, patchouli-doused acolytes are creating/have created an expectation of utopia – where everyone is an individual, where everyone has a voice, where the relationship is not between consumer and brand, it’s between consumer and brand employee.

Thus, for the sake of your corporate culture, for the sake of employee relations, it’s not going to be enough just to have a policy on social media usage. No, you’ll also have to have an identification and training programme for social media spokespeople, and a communication programme in place to explain to general population why they can’t post to social media sites and why the accredited spokespeople can.

In fact, you’ll have to develop a social media strategy. Luckily there are simply zillions of social media strategists out there who’ll be delighted to help you work this one out. For a simply stupefying amount of money.

On second thoughts, forget you ever read this.

As you were. Carry on.

Social Media and the Unbearable Smugness of Tweeting

Anyway, by some horrible mischance, someone stumbled upon this blog and that someone was responsible for the content of a US website, Ragan, which is a resource for the PR and coporate communications industries. Cutting a long story short, this person asked whether I’d mind if she published one of my blog posts – this one – and of course I said ‘no’, because, well, the internet, it’s a free-for-all, isn’t it. So she did – perform clickety here – and, my, well – read the commentary for yourself.

I took a number of things out of this experience, and I think one or two of them are worth having a look at in a bit more detail.

My original post was, in part, prompted by an article in the Wall Street Journal, which talked about big firms – such as Ford and Coke – adopting a policy (or considering doing so) which would allow their employees to post to social media sites, on behalf of the company, without going through the communications department first. For one reason or another – you can read it for yourself – I felt this was a bad idea, and I said so.

Plenty of people disagreed with me – plenty of people felt that the age of the employee is upon us, that vox populi, vox dei and that taking away an employee’s unfettered access to social media was like taking away their telephone or email account. This is such a trite piece of bollocks that I won’t even bother to get into it here, as was the idea that by recommending that staff access to social media should be controlled, I was in some way denying the fact that employees have a life outside of work. (Of course they do. Of course they talk to other people about their work, Just not – normally – to hundreds, maybe thousands, of strangers in a virtual environment.)

In addition to the cyber-hippies and the foaming new media evangelists there was, however, comment from both Ford and Coke – authored by the very people mentioned in the original Wall Street Journal article. This was fascinating and I was genuinely delighted that a) they’d found my article and b) they’d taken the time to respond.

On the back of their responses I learned that the WSJ had over-egged the cake slightly. What both firms are doing is less about giving employees free rein to post whatever, whenever and more about creating a network of hand-picked, well-trained social media ambassadors, with the ability to talk about the areas in which they specialise and the understanding to know when to refer an enquiry to someone else (this last is Coke-specific). This is great and sounds very wise – but is very different to what is being preached/recommended by those in the grip of social media fever.

I then went on to consider Ford and Coke’s responses further – and the fact that their reactions had been very rapid – and the fact that their reactions were both posted by the senior social media guy. I’ll leave it with you to decide, but did I detect a slight overreaction? I mean, who am I – and what do my opinions matter? Is it possible that – somewhere – these guys are worried about the substance of social media and its true value to big corporate? Might it just be that they don’t want too many questions asked? Are they the guardians of the horrid secret? That the Emperor is in the buff? As I say – it’s for you to decide.

So, having accepted the brickbats, I conducted a personal brand health check (and if you don’t do this already, you should be doing it). I googled myself. Specifically, I googled ‘jeremy probert social media’. And, there I was. My point of view was being roundly condemned on – ooooooh – at least three online fora.

But most interestingly – for me, anyway (I know, I know – don’t get out much) – was that Scott Monty (the Social Media type at Ford) had tweeted to the effect that he couldn’t find me on Twitter. The implication being (and picked up by one of his fellow twats) that if I didn’t have a Twitter account, then I was in no position to criticise social media.

Again, this is such trite bollocks that I won’t even dignify it. But I will share an opinion. I do wander around social media sites a lot and I do find myself on Twitter on a regular basis. Sometimes I enjoy it – there are some interesting people, sharing interesting stuff – always, however, individual, always unbranded, very often comedy. And then there’s what appears to be quite a large majority, using Twitter as an unconscious ego trip, basking in the delusion that someone actually cares who they are, where they are or what they do.

The research into Twitter usage – and the use of other social media outlets – is well-documented. I don’t have to tell you what it says.

Social Media – Vox Populi, Vox Dei?

Those of you who’re regulars here will know my views on social media (blah, blah blah, don’t ignore it, yadayadayada, better ways of spending your money, time and effort) and you may aso have some passing awareness of how those views have got me into some small amount of trouble (mainly in the States, unsurprisingly) with those who see Social Media as the Next Big Thing, a digital messiah, a cure-all and something that will change life as we know it. (Don’t get me wrong, it might. Who knows what it might do. Ah – yes – that’s it – no-one knows what it might do. Which is the problem in grasping it with both hands too readily. It might be poisonous.)

Anyway, there’s this school of thought that says that the nature of the contract between audience and brand or organisation is changing. Has, in fact, changed. It says that the contract is now – because of social media – between the audience and the employees of the brand or organisation. That you should mobilise your workforce. That you should allow your employees free access to social media, to post on your brand/organisation’s behalf.

What the school of thought is saying, in summary, is ‘vox populi, vox dei’. Now, as any fule kno, if vox populi, vox dei, then the devil’s in the detail. But it goes further than that. The quotation ‘vox populi. vox dei’ is but part of a larger quotation:

“Nec audienti sunt qui solet docere, ‘Vox populi, vox dei’; cum tumultuositas vulgi semper insanitas proxima est.”

The literal translation of this is: “Do not listen to those who are accustomed to teach [claim], ‘The voice of the people is the voice of God’, because the tumult of the masses is always close to insanity.”

I rest my case, m’lud.

Social Media – The Dawning of a New ‘New Age’?

Got into a bit of a debate recently, as avid followers of this, the blog that not-very-many people read, will know. It was all about the possibly fatal, and definitely barking, madness of letting the general population of employees of a company post to social media sites in an unregulated and unmonitored stylee. To summarise, I’m against it, some people are for it. Apparently, Ford and Coke (well, their social media marketing types) are for it.

Anyway, the debate shifted slightly and became more about trusting your employees to be brand ambassadors and being less controlling of how they do it. Apparently, as long as your people are honest, at least slightly personable and proud of what they do, then other people – your audiences – will know. And if the company is made up of people like this, then they will know. And it will be the sort of company that they want to deal with. This put me in mind of something else I read recently, which said (I’m paraphrasing) that in future consumers (public, audiences) will not have a contract or relationship with the company or the brand – instead they will have it with the company or brand’s employees.

Is it just me, or is this hopelessly Utopian? Am I getting a whiff of hessian and patchouli here? Are people actually trying to tell me that if we’re all nice to one another, then we’ll all be happier and more successful? Am I being told – in point of fact – to ‘give peace a chance’?

It’s worrying. Am I too close to the whole social media debate, and thus seeing nuances and blowing them out of proportion or, in fact, are we seeing the dawn of a new ‘New Age’ created by social media and the fact that people, all over the world, are happily and politely interacting with complete strangers.

And because, in the main, their interaction with complete strangers is good, and informative and polite and safe, they’re lulled into thinking that a) this good, informative, polite safety extends into other walks of life (it doesn’t – West Ham v Milwall anyone?) and b) if there was more of it, and if people embraced it, then life would be better and all our problems would go away.

The rise of the cyber-hippy?

You know what John Lydon said – never trust a hippy.