Back When Social Media Was Human…

October 26, 2010
By Lisa Barone in Social Media

Over at the Harvard Business Review, Alexandra Samuel has a standout post on the devolving meaning of social media that I’d encourage everyone involved in marketing to go read. Her post touches on the vast disconnect that exists within the term “social”. Whereas a social company was once defined by being ‘of society’ and centered around social responsibility, social policy, social change, etc, the term has devolved to mean something entirely different. Now when we talk about “social”, we’re talking about the Web. We’re talking about marketing and promoting and pushing – all things that ‘social’ was never about. In her post, Alexandra wonders if there’s more at stake here than just a shift in vocabulary.

She writes:

…If there’s one field that’s hurt by this weakened definition of “social,” it’s social media itself. As social media professionals, we have the opportunity to define our field and our work as a social project: the project of enabling and inspiring online interactions, information and behaviours that advance society. We have the opportunity to take a massive advance in technology and communications and harness it to the social good; to define social media as interactive and beneficial.

Want to create more inspiring online interactions? Take that paragraph and tape it on your computer monitor. Every time your brain stalls, re-read it.  If you’re lucky, eventually it’ll sink in.

But fine, so maybe you think advancing all of society is a bit ambitious for your small business. How about advancing your corner of society? Instead of looking at social media as a way to sell, to collect followers and to push, treat it as an opportunity to design a better industry and clean up your corner of the Web. Because, not to get all rainbows and unicorns on you, if every business did that, not only would we cure much of what ails marketing, we’d also be building more profitable businesses. And I think that’s something everyone can get behind.

But to do that, we have to stop building social media campaigns and start developing company-wide social initiatives. Ones that focus not on pointless numbers but on creating opportunities for growth by:

  • Using sites like Facebook and Twitter to communicate, in real time, what issues your company is facing and the opportunities that rest within them.
  • Using platforms like WordPress to create conversations in the form of content to connect you to your audience and share what your brand believes in and values.
  • Sharing stories using YouTube, Flickr, StumbleUpon, Delicious, Pandora, and sometimes even words to inspire action.
  • Using sites like GetSatisfaction to listen to your customer’s cries so you can fix what’s broken and reemphasize what’s working.
  • Building satellite communities by listening where your audience is talking so that you can connect with customers looking for that connection.

Alexandra touched on something powerful in that business owners have an opportunity to define and inspire what social media is going to be. There’s a huge responsibility with that. And I don’t think social media was ever supposed to be about linkbait or one-time campaigns or proving the cost of engaging with a customer on Facebook. That’s just what we’ve allowed it to mean.

Last month, Matt Ridings asked if our addiction to ROI was killing social media. I don’t know if it’s killing it, but I think it’s definitely responsible for the vocabulary shift we’re seeing. We now live in a world where you have to show the ROI for answering a customer’s question on Twitter. And while I understand the need to prove the worth of an activity, it seems like we’re moving backwards when we’re putting a price on being human.

The very smart Amber Naslund recently wrote that if we continue to celebrate shiny video campaigns as “successful social media”, we’re missing the point and getting lost in the window dressing. Social media isn’t a campaign, it’s a challenge to build a more connected company. That’s how you avoid a social media disaster and it’s how you create something that matters and that will stand when the rest of this shiny fluff crumbles. And it will.

You have a choice for what social media will be for your company. It can either be the shiny new marketing strategy you throw into your cart or it can be something that transforms you and signals a different way of doing business. And while the latter might seem like the scarier choice, I actually think it’s the safest. Because by creating a real socialness between you and your customers, you bridge the gap that was once there and welcome them into your business. People don’t respond to the notion of status updates or to slick social media campaigns, they respond to how you/your brand make them feel. At some point, Twitter will die. And when it does, you won’t be able to keep your profile or your followers. What you will be able to keep is your socially-connected company and the open business that you’ve built. And that’s what you should be building. It’s what you should be inspiring.

Like so many have already heralded, we need to stop looking at social media as a series of campaigns and see it for what it was always intended to be — the project of enabling and inspiring online interactions, information and behaviors to our business, and maybe some day, even society.


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