Social media, however, has been portrayed, in common with all technological steps, as the great new way to reach new markets. But this has to be contrasted with the saturation approach and ubiquitous uptake of the media itself, resulting in arguably more information overload than ever occurred through email, junk mail or even fliers.
Add to that the constant penchant for higher level digital profiles, engagement in interminable levels of debate just to “get noticed” and the hundreds of millions of hours daily going into social media; it ought to produce some level of industry stimulation. The issue is: is it commensurate with the effort for many businesses?
I met a guy on a plane who created custom bicycles. Social media had enabled him to travel the world through his niche market of enthusiasts. For some industries and niche businesses, then, social media is a valuable new way to open up markets. However, if you want a good plumber locally, you may want to do that by word of mouth – no matter how much Acme Plumbers promote themselves on social media, it will only result in a certain level of local plumbing activity!
Social media combines identity presence with elements of social proof. The number of requests I get for people to “like” their page are legion, yet this presence and proof arguably does not generate a relative level of business activity.
Electronic media allows the biggest shop window in the world, where we can browse interminably, but not necessarily buy. Equally, so much of social media is dominated by small closed ‘groups’ that often have interminable debates on the obscure, while adding no particular prominence to their brand.
So what’s the point? Technology is a tool, not a master. We need to use it to have a balanced online presence, without feeling we have to worship at its altar almost by the hour.
True, social media can reach across the globe and create opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t exist. For many businesses, however, the face-to-face interaction, the building of business relationships over time and ‘word of mouth’, endemic within the business community, is probably the source of social proof most likely to get your business credibly regarded.
One must be aware of the administrators of the vested interest of these media in business. A television company doesn’t morally judge whether or not you’re wasting your life sitting in front of a television set; it simply wants ratings, the core of its business.
Arguably the same is true of social media. At the core, social media is in itself a business, and it’s important that when we occupy that environment we are discerning customers, not simply wasting our energies on gratuitous activity that does not effectively benefit the business, but which validates the media.
Some theorists in evolutionary psychology suggest we have difficulty in developing deep social relationships with groups of more than 150. This number is regarded as the ceiling at which one could be familiarised with people within a living community and could understand their contribution to that community’s survival. Social media systems can mean that we’ve thousands of followers. It’s hard to effect any form of meaningful relationship with that large group.
In a world of ‘social technologies’, more than ever we must continue to reflect upon our own humanity and the nature, depth, scope and quality of the relationships within it. These may ultimately determine the kind of presence, identity and credibility we want for our businesses.
David Cliff is chairman of the Institute of Directors’ Northern Sector Group, and managing director of Gedanken, a community of professionals based at Rainton Bridge, and all committed to helping individuals; business and public service support in growing and developing people; improving mental wellbeing; managing conflict; and promoting positive places and communities to work and live in.