Business and Social Media – A forced relationship? Notes from BCS event

Frustration - by GKS on FlickrLast night I was on another panel at the BCS discussing what is perceived to be a forced relationship between business and social media.  A good night was had by all panelists and Itua did a great job in his first Chairing role.  I’ve included below my notes from the session.  This won’t be what I said verbatim but the main points are there.
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I want to focus on the notion of a ‘forced relationship’, because intentionally or otherwise, social media often becomes a function of business and can become subject to pre-existing protocols that weaken its effectiveness as a communication tool.

First of all I want to acknowledge that I come from an academic background in marketing and communications, so I’m willing to critique my own sector. I’m not just going to head in to a diatribe of marketing bashing – of course I understand the importance of marketing. But I think as a sector, marketers need to be very careful about how we co-opt social media into our normal business practice.

There is a tendency among marketers to adopt social media “because that’s where audiences are”. This is not necessarily a good thing to do. There is always the possibility that audiences are on social media because they are trying to find a place where you are not.

Further, when marketers adopt social media there is often the temptation to retrofit social media to other marketing practices – like counting the number of articles of coverage or the number of friends or likes or visits. But using social media as a brand awareness tool is really underusing the medium. It’s actually far more useful as a product development tool and as a listening post than as a traditional pseudo-advertising tool. Indeed there is always the possibility that in reducing social media use to driving traffic, you will in fact be alienating those people who want to contribute to your products and to your business practice.

Social media are indeed like a pub or a coffee shop. If you’re in those spaces, you’re there to discuss business, ideas or just spend time with friends. You don’t want billboards to obscure the people around you, you don’t want brands to impose on your private conversations, and you don’t want touters shouting at you and blasting you with advertisements.

So when it comes to a forced relationship, there is as much force coming from business as from the technologies themselves. And that’s a bad thing.

But it all comes down to businesses not thinking clearly about the potential benefits of the technologies. I agree with many commentators that businesses need to think about what they want to achieve when using social media. But it’s not good enough just to say you want to achieve greater brand awareness. When the ‘forced relationship’ is limited to brand awareness, existing protocols for measuring brand awareness and articulation of value are invoked, and the relationship is uncomfortable, because you’re trying to retrofit traditional PR & advertising practice to the digital domain. Executives hate it because you can’t really infer anything from high numbers of visitors to sites or followers of a twitter account or facebook Likes. Really, you just can’t. There’s just not enough history of consumer behaviour to really infer anything at all. You certainly can’t infer conversions in terms of sales.

Social media are unquestionably a serious requirement in present and future business models. Not just because audiences are present in those ‘spaces’, but because they are efficient communications tools. The relationship between business and social media needs to be rethought in line with trends in human behaviour and information consumption. Rather than focusing and limiting use of social media to a marketing activity and an exercise in brand awareness, businesses should instead focus on business process improvements, knowledge management, intelligence gathering, product development, workforce management and experiential learning.

All of these functions can be quantified. Business process improvement and prototyping can be measured by reduced costs and speed of production. Knowledge management can be measured by reduced repetitive queries, increased information sharing and improved induction processes for new staff. Intelligence gathering can be measured by improved by reduced costs of market research and improved (direct) conversions. I could go on…

The risks of social media should also be rethought. Information leakage is one of two things:
1. Information that has always been leaked but now is accessible by more people (ie: not technology the problem but people)
2. Information that probably should be leaked, particularly if it means that an organisation can improve.
Again it comes back to something I’ve been saying for a long time – we need to get over the plastic-perfection of PR image. To be authentic, organisations need to admit and be open to flaws.

This is why the relationship between business and social media has always seemed ‘forced’. Social media professionals – marketers among them – have been trying to make social media do what marketing has traditionally done, and to support traditional business practice. Social media were invented as a means of overcoming limitations of current business and personal communication. Trying to make them fit is trying to make them do what they are designed to challenge.

So in summary, the forced relationship is a result of businesses trying to bootstrap social media to traditional business practice rather than considering how human behaviour is changing, how information consumption is changing and how business practice can benefit. Social media are not an evolution of marketing channels but rather a revolution in contextual communication. It’s time business caught up with that.

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