Here’s the bad news folks, the great new world may not be all it’s cracked it up to be. I am referring, of course, to social media. Social media has been a boom industry in recent years with many specialist firms purporting to enable one to increase one’s visibility and, therefore, one’s sales.
It’s true, that any form of exposure will, on balance, ultimately increase a company’s competitive performance and sales. When we look at various forms of media, anything from mail shots to television, there are some broad statistics that can come out that suggest the relative efficacy of these means.
Social media, however, has been portrayed in common with all technological steps as the great new way in which we are able to reach the new markets etc. The truth is, this has to be contrasted with the saturation approach and ubiquitous uptake of the media itself that results in arguably more information overload then ever occurred through email, junk mail or even the fliers deposited ad nauseum through one’s letterbox.
Add to that the constant penchant for higher level profiles on the web and people involved in interminable levels of debate just to “get noticed” and the hundreds of millions of person hours globally per day that go into social media, absolutely 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 once who created custom bicycles. Social media had allowed him to travel the world in the specialist niche market he had created tapping into enthusiasts. Without doubt, for some industries and niche businesses, social media is a valuable new way forward to open up markets. That isn’t universal. I am not suggesting for one minute that one does not have a social media presence, it’s the level of effort one applies to this. If you want a specialist bicycle, you may be part of an enthusiast group. But if you want a good plumber locally, you may want to do that by word of mouth. Acme Plumbers, no matter how much they portray themselves on social media, will only get a certain level of local plumbing activity!
Social media follows the usual genre of advertising and commercial psychology, combining as it does a combination of identity presence and elements of social proof. The number of requests I get for people to “like” their page or whatever are legion and yet, this generation of presence and proof seems to be ritualistic in nature and arguably does not generate the level of business activity commensurate with the multiple efforts involved in the processes.
In common with much of the internet, 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 frequently have interminable debates on the obscure. I checked a couple out this morning; one debated “are you a brand or a commodity?” Another “what is customer service?” These semantics-based debates can be time consuming and to a certain extent gratuitous. It led me to thinking whether the writers have better things to do. Their businesses must perhaps be so replete with work they had the time for these indulgences and could afford to speculate that any presence they fostered in cyber space neither added to the intellectual debate about the subject area nor give them particular prominence of profile. So what’s the point?
We have to see technology in its true context. It is a tool and not a master. We need to be in a position to use technology to have a balanced presence on the internet, without feeling we have to worship at its altar almost by the hour.
It’s true social media and indeed many other forms of technology based communication can expand our reach across the globe and do create opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t exist. For many businesses, however, the face to face interaction, the building of business relationships over a period of time and the “word of mouth”, endemic within the business community is probably the key source of social proof and the one most likely to get your business credibly regarded. One can press a “like” button with great ease; it’s much harder to give a verbal recommendation of someone without some deeper thought and a critical evaluation of that person and some regard to the consequences of that recommendation to those you are commending to.
One has to be aware of the administrators of these media and their vested interest in business. A television company doesn’t morally judge whether you are wasting your life or not sitting in front of a television set, it simply wants ratings because that’s the core of its business. Arguably the same is true of social media, however high minded some of its movers and shakers sought to be. At the core, social media is in itself a business and it is important that when we occupy that environment we are discerning customers, not simply people wasting our business energies in gratuitous activity that confirms the need for the media, rather than the needs for your business within it.
Social media is a tool, not a way of life, put it back in the tool box after use and remember that your business presence is down to your skill across many domains.
Some Evolutionary Psychology theorists suggest that 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 understand the contribution of each to that community’s survival. It is interesting to note that most people who hold personal address books have less them 150 people that are regarded as close to them. Social media systems can mean that we have thousands of followers. It is very hard to effect any form of meaningful relationship with that large group.
In a world of “social technologies”, more than ever we have to continue to reflect upon our own humanity and the nature, depth, scope and quality of the relationships within it. These may be the key determinants of the kind of presence, identity and credibility that we want to generate for our businesses and we need to be careful of the constant mantras implying every business should invest heavily on a “be there or be square” basis in cyber space.
David Cliff is Managing Director of Gedanken and Chairman of the Institute of Directors’ Northern Sector Group.