Monday, 26 September 2011

Do companies really value social media?

Social media is often seen as the panacea, the cheap alternative or that silver bullet to solve a company's problems.

It isn’t any of these things, but a successful social media strategy can make a major impact on the way a company does business.

Because of the transparent and open nature of social media, it can affect a business down to its very core values and change the culture of the staff.

Finding different and effective ways of communicating with customers and stakeholders can turn a good SME into a growing business.

The problem is that some companies see the success of their peers and decide they want a slice of the action.

Social media strategies, particularly among SMEs, are becoming more ‘me too’ and less strategic.
I’ve been involved with projects which owe more to sticking a moist finger in the air than any analysis, benchmarking or realistic targets. 500 followers or likes sounds a good figure to aim at, so that’s the target even if the major competitor with a 2 year old Facebook page only has 125 followers despite a lot of hard graft.

The same goes for the level of investment. Just because a project is “cheap” to set up, labour costs and the intellectual property value of a concept or idea is seriously undervalued. Just because something is cheap to make, doesn’t mean that a fashion brand will charge basement prices.

Look at the adverts for vacancies linked to social media. They often look for someone who can impart a vital board-level vision for the company, deliver campaigns and carry out the day to day management. Sometimes this includes direct reports.

Change the words ‘social media’ for marketing, human resources or accountancy and you’d be looking at a big salary. Yet many firms think they can purchase this strategic knowledge for a wage just above the graduate entry mark.

There are enough examples of companies brought down by poor social media strategy, ignoring customer services, abusive messaging and failing to deal with issues with products despite plenty of people trying to help the business. If Vodaphone can be caught out, then what chance does the local cake shop have?

That said, the local cake shop social media is possibly run by the owner who is sensible, has strategic knowledge and knows their customers inside out. The danger comes when you give the task to a recent graduate because “young folk know about that social media thing.”

There is a massive myth about the capability of twenty somethings with social media. Some understand it, but basing strategic knowledge on keeping in contact with your mates is a very odd concept. They are also good at talking on phones, but does that make them experts on creating voice based information services or a search engine for a mobile based website?

Equally, why does being good at Facebook qualify you for understanding LinkedIn which has a hugely different demographic.

The people who get social media most are thirty to forty year olds. Social media started around 2000 with the growth of forum websites, Friends Reunited, online journals and chat rooms. LinkedIn is over a decade old.

They’ve more need to use technology to keep in contact with school and university friends scattered across the country and the world, rather than a group close to their friends bound by geography.

Equally, the older age group has some commercial experience and acumen. Social media experience is linked to more traditional communications theories and the application of these ideas is complex. Learning how to build a community is an ongoing process, not just a simple process.

And if anyone thinks these are just small companies, its large household names who think that by bringing in a youngster they can transform their business. But even if they were a whizz kid at twenty, if they are adding real value to your business, then paying them a decent wage will retain them for yourself. Do you think the best will stay for £20,000 if someone else values that individual more?

Look at the big brands, Adidas, Coca-Cola, Disney and even B2B firms like Ernst & Young. See how much they invest in social media as a strategic communications tool. They value their campaigns which is why they are happy to spend the money.

So before you join the social media gold rush, stop, think about why you are doing it and check it will be effective for your company. Get advice, benchmark against similar companies inside and outside your industry. Then you need to invest in the right people to manage or create campaigns.

This might be agency or in-house, but really understand what you are asking for versus what you’ll get in return. Remember, if you pay peanuts, you’ll get monkeys!

Monday, 5 September 2011

When Journalism chased the rainbow

Social media has changed journalism for good in a number of ways. Whilst many of the changes have been positive, not all the developments have been positive. On balance, does the positive’s still outweigh the negatives?

Ten years ago when the twin towers fell, social media didn’t really exist but online was suddenly became the most important media for the first time. Twenty four hour rolling news could only cover the pictures and the shock of the images on that day overshadowed the level of factual details of the event.

News of loved ones, details of the initial damage and the need to know what else was happening from billions lead to major news corporations drowning in the additional traffic; Message boards overflowing with comments. It was here that a new breed of internet only websites came to the wider public’s attention.
A few years later, the Hudson plane crash broke as hundreds of New Yorkers saw a plane descending at an unerring height – unsure whether it was a repeat or something else. By the time the plane had landed, the story had been recalled across Twitter countless times and the news stations were struggling to get the story.

Even now the pressure on rolling news sees them chase the story, often in vain. I’m regularly hearing about stories, particularly from other countries.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that rolling news is getting it wrong trying to catch up. Take the bomb in Sweden where Sky and the Sun were heralding the arrival of Al Qaida based on assumption upon assumption until they had built a constructed news story on speculation. The same people a few hours later were making similar claims about far right extremism.

Weeks later the riots were blamed on social media, despite social media being blameless – again because of speculation, guesswork and a desire to push the news agenda on.
Journalists feel the pressure to get results, but they are sometimes missing the trick of making the most of the medium you are in. When I trained as a journalist, I learnt that there were three stages to a news story:

• The initial breaking news
• The detail of the incident
• The analysis of the ramifications.

Then, this could mean a story lasts three or more days. Nowadays all three phases are covered off almost concurrently. As the news breaks, the details are assumed and the guests are wheeled on to discuss the assumptions without having had any time to gather their own information on the event. Relying on the news source, their views are skewed from the beginning.

Traditional media is never going to beat social media to the next earthquake. But it has the resource to get reporters to the scene with professional VJs (Video Journalists) relying more accurate and objective reports than the partisan mobile phone videos, however intriguing they are.
The death of radio has been exaggerated for so long now, but radio realised the power of the theatre of the mind. Emotions seem rawer with a detached voice and evocative wildtrack. Print cannot be beaten for double page spreads of stats and visual layouts that are tricky even on a computer screen. Yet journalists are chasing the big story while missing some of the more popular quirky stories by days – something online news sources and scraping services have been taking advantage for years.

The world has changed with social media but the basics of journalism are being lost. Attributing sources are becoming vague or non-existent. This week alone I heard a news story begin “according to reports on Facebook” – not quite the trusted news mole in the home office or facts based on cast iron documentation. Reports need to be checked and double checked. Many of the conspiracy theorists on 9/11 basis their entire fiction on the misreporting of a confusing and ever changing events of that day. It are these inaccuracies that distort the truth and perpetuate myths and fears.

The world of 24 hour news needs to slow down, play on its strengths and not rush past the story before its even begun - ensuring all three stages of reporting are played out. If they don't, then it is the viewers who lose out.