Why social media requires more online gardeners

If companies are to cope with all the new varieties of communication springing up around their websites, they need to hire more hands to tend their plot, David Bowen says.

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How to respond to the new diversity What’s behind Facebook’s billions

Online managers should be demanding extra help. I suspect because they are a realistic bunch few are, which is why their bosses should be forcing new resources on them. We’re not talking big numbers – a handful of new staff would make all the difference. But it will be a false economy to hold back on them.

The lesson comes from the history of the web. When companies discovered the web most had little idea whether it would flourish or wither, so put minimum resources into it. If they could sell things online it was different, of course, but for most the favoured route was to get a website built cheaply for the centre, and let other parts of the organisation do as they would.

The result, by the early 2000s, was that most big groups had a sprawling mass of uncoordinated websites. They had flourished all right, but in the way that weeds flourish. So it is that for the past 10 years corporations, governments and others have been digging up the old and replanting in good order. There has been a shift from an uncoordinated mass of sites to brand-enhancing and far more effective web estates.

All this has been done with minimal resources. Some of the biggest companies have just one person dedicated to the corporate web; most only a handful. They have support, from agencies, IT and, with a bit of luck, their colleagues, but over and again I find that tiny teams have driven astonishing change. But, given they have, what’s the problem now? Why change?

More means to the end

Part one of the answer was given in last time’s column, ‘How to respond to the new diversity’. The proliferation of devices and screens – from tiny mobiles to giant televisions – means online managers have to think ever harder about how to communicate in a vastly increased range of circumstances.

Pshaw, some readers said – all you need do is make your website ‘responsive’, so that the same content can be reconfigured automatically to work on all these different devices. Lovely for some, such as newspapers, which have a fixed store of content and need to get it to readers whatever size or shape their screen. Much less lovely for the bulk of organisations, which will be reducing the effectiveness of their online communications dangerously if they follow the automated route.

Consider how, why and where people use iPads, and compare that with how, why and where they use mobile phones. Automate where you can, but don’t let automation drive the process. It’s going to be hard work; if it isn’t, worry.

More social media strains

So, here is part two, to pile on the pressure. It’s about social media channels: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google +, blogs and their friends.

Putting together the latest FT Bowen Craggs Index – out next month – we notice the unsurprising trend that these channels are becoming ever more important. Their icons decorate most corporate sites and there are increasing attempts to integrate them with the group’s websites.

That is difficult and, frankly, few organisations are doing it well. It is not helped by the fact that responsibility for social media is still often out of the hands of the web team.

But it is going to get worse. The column before last, ’What’s behind Facebook’s billions’, tried to explain why Facebook, Google and certainly others in the future have no interest in letting the neutral web be. They want to privatise it, and not together either.

The battle has started, with early skirmishes coming around the establishment of ‘brand pages’. Swap the word brand for company, and we find the giants are proposing to set up websites – corporate websites, pretty much.

American Express propagates channels

To take an example, American Express (AmEx) now has a corporate site, a Facebook page, a Twitter brand page, a Google + page and a YouTube channel.

Of course, so what? But look at what it is doing on these channels, and you find interesting overlaps. The most obvious is between the Facebook page and the website. On Facebook now you will find a careers section, an image gallery and a history section. This last comes from the new timelines, which track Facebook activity for the past few years but morph seamlessly into company history before then. That is why the AmEx timeline starts in 1905.

The YouTube channel now looks much like a corporate site: the template and navigation is consciously more like a conventional site than the clunky but distinctive YouTube layout we are used to.

Twitter has recently launched its ‘enhanced business profiles’ to companies that spend more than $25,000 with it. American Express has one and it is allowed to customise the page to have panels of content and videos. Actually, AmEx’s is quite unimaginative, but the first tweet triggers an embedded (YouTube) video, and it’s not hard to see how the page can be tailored to look pretty much like a website.

Then there is Google +. Unloved and dying, as some say, or a Trojan horse to divert traffic towards the group’s own territory? AmEx’s page looks at the moment like a pale imitation of the Facebook equivalent, carrying the same messages but with a fraction of the interest. A post about its inclusion in a ‘most admired company’ list gets 801 ‘likes’ and 65 comments on Facebook and just 15 +1s (the ‘like’ equivalent) and five comments on Google +.

But if the Trojan horse theory is right, Google + is really about diverting traffic to its site, not about what is on that site. I would be surprised if Google does not start offering functionality matching that on a corporate site, as well as that on its rivals’ sites.

Not losing the plot

Where does this leave the online manager? Well, it is essential that companies do not just get a new set of weeds. They need to manage the channels alongside one another and they or their team need to do this in a controlled way. Someone has to link the Facebook timeline with the history section on the site; the careers sections need to be coordinated. Social media newsrooms or ‘dashboards’ are a start, but where next?

As functionality on the rival sites grows, managers have to decide whether to create multiple sites (should content be the same or not?) or whether to distribute tasks between them. And how will you stop visitors – used to a single starting point – become as baffled as I am in the washing powder section of a supermarket?

There will be much added complexity and much extra work. It is possible teams can handle this without any extra resources; but if I were their boss, it’s not a risk I would like to take.

First published on 07 March, 2012