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!

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