Back When Social Media Was Human…


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.

Your Comments

  • Shane

    I read that article when you tweeted it out and I loved it. Your observation about building a more connected company is 100% spot on. It’s kind of like marketing, right? It’s not about the campaign, it’s about the relationships you are trying to build. Thus it remains the same for social media. It should not be a ‘campaign’ as much as it should be about building a connected community with the two-way web. And if you are doing it that way, then it should not matter whether Twitter exists or not because it’s a way of thinking, not a tool to use.

    I like to think of Social Media as a long-term relationship rather than a one-night stand.

    • Lisa Barone

      I think it even goes beyond the relationships you’re creating with actual customers, to be honest. Obviously that’s a big part, but I think businesses need to think larger than that. It’s about making your company more connected to its community and using that openness to advance your business and the field you’re in. I found Alexandra’s piece so, so inspiring, both from a business level and even on a human level. It was gorgeous.

  • Brian

    Another good post Lisa. I think too many people view social media as a “free” ad platform and do not get what it should be about.

    • Lisa Barone

      I definitely agree. Sometimes I think marketers should just TELL business owners that Twitter comes with a $XXX month price tag so they’d take it more seriously. :)

  • Daniel Redman

    Excellent post, Lisa.

    The 800lb gorilla in the room that could find the ire of finger pointing may end up being Adwords/Analytics. Early in the ‘prove-it’ days of internet marketing we were bucketed with the TV and radio folk looking to match metrics and make the same sense that those wasteful badgers presented every week. ‘Prove-it’ has gone through its rigors with SEM as the easiest adopted pet and now all other online activities are expected to fall in lockstep once again, this time drawing the parallel of Interactive/Social Media to its cousin SEM. The train of progress will continue to roll as the most progressive marketers will adopt and adapt magnanimously leaving bucket-happy skeptics wondering about ROI. Once Fragglenet Marketing (or whatever is next) becomes the heir apparent, I expect it will follow a similar pattern.

  • Alexander Craghead

    Lisa, this is a fascinating post.

    I’ve noticed two impediments from clients to what you propose. The first is a general sense that SM is a timesuck, and therefore costs them too much money to implement “right.” This drives them towards automation, one-way SM use (broadcasting via SM) and farming things out to interns and etc…. We have a long way to go to make a case that SM is for more than getting more donations or selling more widgets.

    Second is a bigger, broader issue that I’ve very recently been banging my head against. In order for a company or organization to effectively engage in SM as you outline, it means they have to re-orient themselves, to place the exchange/dialogue first. It’s a world where listening matters as. Uch as speaking. Unfortunately, some organizations meet this by saying that they just don’t do things that way, that it doesn’t fit how their corporate culture works, and shut it down. I recently went through a process where a highly sucessful SM project led to customer requests for different kinds of services or better coordinated services. The various departments at that organization ended up killing it because nobody could see the link between those services and the silo inside which they saw SM as operating. They refused to change the organization to meet the needs of the customers that were unearthed on SM, because SM was just a throwaway experiment and not viewed as a meaningful part of their organization.

    • Lisa Barone

      Alexander, you’re definitely right about all the issues you’ve outlined. I think the only way to show that social media ISN’T a time suck is to show how your competitors are using it to steal customers and leads away from you. Nothing fires someone up like showing them how the guy across the street is using something they’ve ignored to make money.

      The second issue you bring up is obviously a lot bigger. And not every company is going to see the value in changing how they do business to create a more open facing company. But I think if you look at the brands that HAVE made that investment, it’s paid off for them. The more aligned you can become with your audience, the better off your company is and the more you can drive real change to improve things. Like Alexandra says in her post, we have a huge opportunity to inspire a better future, for our companies and for our corners of the world. It seems like such a waste to continue to view social media in terms of “campaigns”. Hopefully brands will someday see the bigger picture. I know it’s something I try to nail down with clients.

  • Michelle Ross

    I think you’ve totally hit the target with this post. Businesses are so busy trying to quantify the VALUE of the relationship with the community around them that they completely lose sight of the fact that RELATIONSHIPS have intrensic value.

    When someone feels they have made a real connection with you they are going to WANT to do business with you, share the information you have, and tell their friends about you.

    All the blah-blah-yadda-yadda in the world does nothing without the relationship.

    • Matt Cheuvront

      Was going to leave my own thoughts but this sums it up beautifully, Michelle. It’s easy to get stuck in the “ROI of Social Media” and in doing so, completely lose track of the point of it all – building relationships that lead to results (whatever that means from business to business). The value of a relationship cannot always be quantified, nor should it be.

    • Lisa Barone

      I think that’s all so true, Michelle. We’re trained to look at numbers in order to quantify value — and while I get that, I also think it’s detrimental to social media. Because often social media is about those relationships and the letting people into your brand and building that awareness. If you’re so focused on things you can measure, it changes your interactions and you lose a bit of what makes brands sparkle.

  • Jon DiPietro

    I like comment about the scarier option being the safest. At the risk of sounding like a suck-up, that was kind of profound. The problem is that businesses jumping into social media usually ends up like a middle aged guy at a frat party; awkward and creepy.

    So that’s the challenge, even if they buy in to your premise. In my opinion, the answer is simpler than most people think. That doesn’t mean that it’s easy, just that it’s not that complicated.

    “And here’s where businesses get social media wrong. They behave according to economic norms in a situation that demands social norms.”

    • Wayne

      I tend to think the predisposition of companies working in the b2b space is to look at social media as a PR channel instead of an interactive relationship and trust building tool that could lead to economic transactions as might be more evident in b2c comapnies. Could this be because connecting as a “company” is different than connecting as a person at that company? How about the fact that marketers might be less personally connected with their work and be held accountable to the economic measures v. the social measures?

      It does depend upon the industry; I’d wager “younger” more entrepreneurial ones tend toward authentic interactions with customers because they’re closer to them (and perhaps need them more!). Paul & Gabriele touch upon that.

      In terms of engaging in the online social networking space, it was interesting for me to note the difference in both the twitter volume and type of information shared for a Craft Brewing event in Chicago v. a Pharmaceutical event in New York. I experienced the brewers as far more informal, personable, and engaging, while there were plenty of PR blasts on the hour every hour for people exhibiting at the pharma event.

      Some thoughts to add to the stew

  • Wayne

    Thank you for sharing your insightful observations. Indeed, the reason social media is what & where it is today is due to people’s desire to connect. If social media becomes dominated by PR firms and businesses using it as a bullhorn, it will wither that much faster.

    • Lisa Barone

      It will either wither or it will transform into something completely different than what it was meant to be, which is what I fear is already happening. I hope marketers don’t ruin social media for everyone.

  • Gabriele Maidecchi

    I agree on the fact social media should permeate the whole essence of an innovative business rather than being just one branch of it. While startup and generally “young” companies will have it relatively easy, I don’t see it as a much realistic feat for old-style companies (apart the necessary exceptions), don’t you think?

    • Lisa Barone

      I think old-style companies will definitely be slower to move and maybe that will be okay because they have their already-established audience there tolerating you. But I think even the older companies are going to have to find ways to bring in some of these social components inhouse because that’s what customers are beginning to expect. I keep seeing studies that show users EXPECT a business to be on Twitter or on Facebook. The same way people expect you to be on the Web, they expect you to be in social media, as well. I don’t think big brands will be able to avoid that.

  • Paul May

    I think your point about making social part of the underlying fabric of the business is dead on. I don’t view campaigns as incompatible with this though. The problem isn’t that people conduct campaigns….it’s that they ONLY conduct campaigns and the ones that they do aren’t even social. I.e., instead of viewing them as an opportunity to connect with more people, they view social as the new megaphone.

    The companies that I’ve seen most effectively integrate social into their core conduct a ton of campaigns, but they’re truly social. Most importantly, contacts made from the campaign aren’t viewed as just a list that can be thrown into future email campaigns. They’re viewed as new relationships that they can cultivate. The campaign is just the first touchpoint in the relationship.

    • Lisa Barone

      The problem isn’t that people conduct campaigns….it’s that they ONLY conduct campaigns and the ones that they do aren’t even social.

      Exactly right. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the social media campaign, just that we view social media in TERMS of campaigns and nothing more.

  • Andrew @ Blogging Guide

    This is a very thought provoking post. Social media is really so taken out of context nowadays that the purpose behind using it is definitely not contributing towards the betterment of relationships but just on advertising and making profits. You’ve hit the nail on this post, helps to to stand back or slow down a little bit and rethink.

    • Lisa Barone

      Thanks, Andrew. I think Alexandra was so right in her post when she spoke about how the term “social” was devolving. If you look at what marketers have done to social media, it’s sad but so, so true.

  • Cindy Lavoie

    I agree that a social media “campaign” seems disingenuous, like you’re trying to force what should happen naturally, e.g. developing relationships.

    Our agency works mostly with small-to-midsize companies, helping them get into the world of social media. Their impetus often comes from a feeling that “we should do it because everyone’s doing it”, but often they don’t really want to open up and connect with their customers or community; one-way communication is more comfortable. We find it’s often easiest not to suggest “campaigns” but rather to get them started slowly – to start by listening, then commenting, then getting a feel for which channels feel natural. You know, sort of how human communication happens naturally. Without the “campaign” approach, you’re less likely to come on as a blatant self-promoter, and more likely to listen first, connect second, and establish trusted relationships ultimately.

    • Lisa Barone

      Awesome, Cindy. I like your approach to slowly working clients in and getting them comfortable with two-way communication before you just throw them off the deep end. I’d imagine by doing it that way, they’re also able to see how beneficial it is to become part of these online communities. And, like you said, they also learn the RIGHT way to interact. Thanks for sharing!

  • Alexandra Samuel

    Lisa, what an extraordinary post. Thanks so much for sharing my piece for HBR, and for your own thoughts on what it means for companies to really embrace social media as path to finding their best way forward…one that has meaning for their customers and team.

    • Lisa Barone

      Thanks, Alexandra. I’m so flattered to even see you here. I know I said this on Twitter, but I was incredibly moved by your post on HBR. Simply fantastic stuff.

  • Jacklin Octave

    When i first started using social media, i was completely out of the league and didn’t know what to do, because i was so confused, and had a different concept of it. People were so aggressive in terms of promoting their companies and took away the essence of the term “Social”.
    I am glad that i stumbled upon this post, and i really want to thank you, Lisa!

    Is there any way we can bring the concept back and re-evaluate our approach when it comes to communicate with companies/customers?