8 (Cold, Hard) Truths about Social Media
Organizational leaders and other senior professionals need to be savvy enough to judge the true value of what they read and hear about social media's promise, develop realistic expectations about both processes and outcomes, make smart decisions about where and how to engage, and create workable plans of actions for moving forward. Knowing these truths about social media should help. (February 5, 2015)
I am an idealist at heart, but I also pride myself on being a pragmatist and strive to provide guidance that enables individuals and organizations to achieve their goals and objectives in the most efficient and effective ways possible.
When it comes to social and digital technologies in particular, although I do believe, I'm not naïve - and I don't want other people to be either. I've never been a bandwagon jumper, unabashed fan or cheerleader, and my perspective on the value of new technologies, platforms and tools has been neither uncritical nor without qualification. Approaching social media as a path to guaranteed riches and success would have probably been more popular and lucrative, but it would have been disingenuous and not in anyone's long-term best interests, including my own.
Though it may seem hard to believe, many organizations are still in the beginning stages of including social media in their marketing and communications mix. Some are embarking on a new venture, others are finally ready to become more digitally present and engaged, and still others are regrouping and/or looking to optimize their existing commitments.
I've been an active participant in, observer and student of social and digital technologies for six years. In spite of its ubiquity - or perhaps because of it - leveraging social media today is a bigger challenge than ever before, and it's far more difficult to do it effectively. But not many people will tell you that. There's still a fair bit of emphasis on easy! fast! cheap! approaches, and a tendency to promise outcomes that are difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.
I think it's important for organizational leaders and other senior professionals to be savvy enough to judge the true value of what they read and hear about social media's promise, develop realistic expectations about both processes and outcomes, make smart decisions about where and how to engage, and create workable plans of actions for moving forward.
Knowing these truths about social media should help.
4 Truths about Social Media Platforms
Later adopters don't gain the same followership early adopters do. Organizations that are just now establishing a presence on social media platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and YouTube will face significant growth challenges. It is much harder today to get people to subscribe, like or follow on any social media platform, especially the established ones. The kinds of growth numbers that were easily attainable just a few years ago are now nearly impossible to get if you're not a big brand, some kind of celebrity, or focused on a topic people feel very passionately about.
There are many reasons for this, including the fact that the general novelty of social media has worn off, and that early adopter, gotta-have-it mentality is gone. Plus, there are a lot more platforms, apps and tools (both established and new) competing for people's limited time and attention now than there were five to ten years ago.
For all the same reasons...
It's harder to get people's attention and engagement. This is especially true as platforms grow and mature. Many if not most posts will get lost in the volume of noisy activity coming through people's feeds, and those that do manage to grab some eyeballs are less likely to garner much reaction from them. And in spite of what some people might say, it's virtually impossible to determine in advance what content will resonate enough with people to motivate them to share it, and even harder to predict what will become a trending topic or even go viral.
It's no longer "free" (not that it ever really was). It wasn't that long ago that most social media platforms were open environments that enabled organizations to participate as community members, leveraging the platforms without having to pay. As the platforms have evolved into companies looking for revenues and profits, they have adopted advertising-based monetization models that increasingly mean you gotta pay to play. Yes, it's still possible to participate without having to fork over cash, but most organizations won't reap significant benefits from that. And of course, even though using the platform itself may not require a financial investment, organizations still have to invest time and human resources to create and curate content and engage with others. In fact, as the platforms become less open, that investment is likely to have to increase significantly.
Social media engagement has moved from competitive advantage to table stakes. Leveraging social media is no longer a way to get ahead or surpass competitors; it's now necessary simply to keep up. In the early days organizations could use social media to significantly increase their exposure and brand awareness, and then parlay that increased recognition into prospects, customers, and increased revenues. Those opportunities still exist on newer platforms, but social media rookies are less likely to establish a presence there without first committing themselves to established channels. The engagement question for many organizations, therefore, has moved from opportunistic experimentation to basic necessity.
4 Truths about Social Media Engagement
It's a grind. Don't be fooled by the breezy and chipper language, exclamation points and emojis - social media management is hard work. Social media platforms are relentlessly demanding masters that expect to be tended to regularly - by human beings. There are no silver bullets or viable "fix it and forget it" strategies, and automation tactics have limited value. In addition to ongoing engagement, adjustments have to be made as existing platforms die and change, and new platforms come to life and gain momentum. Change is the only constant, and it.never.ends.
Every platform is unique. Each social media channel has its own sweet spot. Their audience demographics are different, they serve different purposes, they have different language conventions, and they function with different normative expectations. Yes, there are some cross-platform similarities (usually because a feature of one, like the hashtag, gets co-opted by another), and much content can be shared via multiple channels, but on the whole the approach to each should be customized. In addition, the proper combination of social media channels and means of engagement for consumer-oriented entities (including the public sector) is different from the portfolio of platforms and engagement approaches that will work best for business-oriented entities.
Taken together, the previous two truths mean...
Social media management requires dedicated resources. Too often social media responsibilities fall into the "other duties as assigned" category, given to people who "like it" and/or are "good at it" - or perhaps simply have extra capacity. In some cases, the expectation is that "everyone" will do it. But treating social media as an adjunct to people's regular jobs means that it often gets short shrift, and that shows in the results - namely, poor/outdated presences, being overrun by spam and/or trolls, low levels of engagement, poor/no responsiveness.
Not every organization needs a full-time social media manager (or equivalent role) necessarily, but it is important to make sure that social media management is fully integrated into someone's job responsibilities, that the person has the right knowledge, skills, and abilities, and that s/he is given time and other resources to engage effectively.
Organizations that don't have the right internal resources (yet) should hire them from the outside. Or they should realize...
If you can't do it right, don't do it. I can't emphasize enough how NO presence on a social media platform is better than an anemic, unattended, and/or seemingly abandoned presence. Weak digital identities serve to undermine brands and can defeat an organization's ability to achieve its goals and objectives. If social media is not a significant enough part of your marketing and sales mix that you're willing to invest in and commit to it, you're better off staying out of it. Don't be a dabbler. For additional thoughts and guidance along these lines, see 5 Digital Engagement Questions Every Organization Should Address.
As always, I welcome your feedback. What questions has this piece raised for you? What would you add to, change, or delete from the recommendations provided?
Follow Courtney Hunt on Twitter