From our archive : What's more or less important about social media

| July 1, 2009

have been spending time going through many blogs that cover ‘social media’. This is a sizeable task – not least because the definitions are so hazy – but it seems to me there is a massive gulf between the social media community and the people we work with, web or communications managers in large organisations.

In brief, the social media evangelists – who tend to be in PR/marketing type outfits – are saying ‘How can anyone not see this stuff as critical?’. The comms people, meanwhile, are saying ‘It looks quite interesting, but is probably marginal and has certainly been overhyped’. Can they both be right? Well, sort of. I’ll deal with that first, then go into what I believe is the true significance of social media in the large-organisation context.

The chasm between communicators

I was reading ‘A shel of my former self – blogging at the intersection of communication and technology’ by Shel Holtz, of Holtz Communication and Technology. A piece he wrote on 23 December is headed ‘We’ve embraced social media. Why hasn’t everybody else?’.

The piece points out that corporates are unlikely to be at the cutting edge of online communications and need to be given a chance. Nevertheless, there is a strong feeling that Mr Holtz, and the community he talks to and with, regard the bulk of business as simply not with it. He quotes one of his correspondents, Luke Armour, who says “It’s 2008 already, just how much slack does a modern company need at this point?”, which Mr Holtz says is a “good point”. He then goes on to describe his own history – he has a background in corporate communications and has been “on the Net since 1990”.

Mr Holtz’s most telling comment is “Once you understand the importance of the medium, there is an inclination I well understand to drag everyone else along”. This, concisely, explains the tone I found through the blogs: ‘Why on earth can’t everyone see what we know is the truth?’. Yet a headline on e-marketer, ‘Social Networks are Not Yet Universal’, could be news only to people who are so much at the cutting edge themselves that they have lost sight of where the mass of business is.

The feeling, when you read these blogs, is that concepts such as Twitter are utterly mainstream, have been around for ages and we only need to discuss the detail. Not surprising that they get up the noses of comms people who are still trying to persuade the CFO that the web isn’t a waste of money.

What of these mainstreamers, corporate web and communications managers? A lot of them came to the Bowen Craggs Web Effectiveness conference last June, and were pretty much shouting down attempts to talk about ‘web 2.0’. Partly they didn’t like the terminology, as we don’t, but partly they felt this was yet another fad that was being over-sold to them. Few were enthusiastic readers of blogs, let alone Twitter. More important from their point of view, the key audiences they were trying to influence were unlikely to be big users.

Both their scepticism and the proponents’ derision are reflected in the numbers. Socialtext’s useful list of blogs among Fortune 500 companies shows that 64 – or 12.8 per cent of them – had blogs of other forms of social media in November 2008. This chimes with our experience with the FT Bowen Craggs Index, which covers 75 large corporations around the world. Blogs are rare and, once you take out IT companies, close to non-existent.

Which group is right? I’ll come to that next. But what this strange disconnection does show is that it is risky for like-minded people only to talk to one another: they get a distorted view of the real world. Maybe we should have invited a social media evangelist to our conference (perhaps we will this year – it’s probably on 8-9 June in Barcelona). But maybe, too, the social media frontrunners should sit around and talk to mainstream corporate communications and web managers. Both groups would come away a little chastened, but certainly enlightened.

Blogs – and Twitter – really do matter

Here’s my theory about the real significance of blogs and their mini-extension, Twitter. They are not particularly useful in themselves, but they are becoming vital connectors.

Few people who really matter read blogs. CEOs, CFOs, senior civil servants, financial professionals, politicians still get most of their information and views from mainstream sources: newspapers, radio, television, lunch. Young people make much use of online information, but senior people are not – in general – young. So it is easy, if you work in a corporation, to ignore blogs. It is also a mistake.

When Bob Lutz, vice-chairman of General Motors, told a group of journalists, in a closed room, that he thought global warming was a “total crock of shit”, FrontBurner, a blog run by D Magazine, published his comments. They spread round other blogs like wildfire, and got out into the trade press. Mr Lutz then used GM’s own FastLane Blog to “clarify” his comments; this was immediately picked up by Reuters, and was thus injected right into the media mainstream.

Had the story stayed on the blogs, it would never have become big; but it didn’t because journalists read blogs. That’s what I mean by them being connectors.

Twitter is a service that lets people blog using mobile phones, though it also works on the web (indeed, a new HubSpot report suggests most users Twitter via computer). It has got itself some good publicity, with even the Financial Times running stories about its significance. Has it any? Yes, but only indirectly. If important people don’t read blogs, they certainly don’t read Twitter feeds – these consist mainly of people telling other people – in 140 characters or fewer – exactly what they are doing. I’m not sure why, either.

But what Twitter does do is act as a connector between blogs – and thus indirectly between mainstream media. There’s a good example of this from Ford, which has its own social media manager (another point to note). The story is told in an interview on For Immediate Release, a podcast service provided by Shel Holtz and Neville Hobson. It has also been written down by Ron Ploof on his site (ronamok.com).

Briefly, a site for Ford fans called The Ranger Station received a letter from Ford demanding that it hand over its URL and pay $5,000 – it was unclear why. The owner posted the letter on his site, sparking a storm of protest there, and spreading quickly to other fan sites and blogs.

Scott Monty, Ford’s social media man, found that he had been ‘tweeted’ – that is, sent a Twitter message – by someone alerting him to this. He started sending out his own tweets, saying he was looking into the issue. When he found out that the story was rather more complex than it appeared, he let the Twitter world know. He sent the message “Re the Ford fan site: I’m finding that there was counterfeit material being sold on it”, and followed this up by pointing his correspondents to a website that gave Ford’s line in full. This then spread around the blogs and fan sites, and the issue never made it into the mainstream.

It is obvious from this how Twitter prevented a damaging story getting any bigger. Not a very big story, of course, but I can see how it could apply to more damaging situations. The web is a giant rumour mill, while blogs and Tweets are increasingly important carriers of rumours. If corporate communications people want one reason why they should take such social media seriously, they should read up this story. They can still be irritated by the evangelists, but they can no longer ignore them.

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