Sleeplessly, I was reading Chris Brogan's post on cafe-shaped conversations in social media. The premise is that these smaller, more intimate conversations between companies and customers work when you're small, when those conversations can be parsed into smaller chunks. But what about the guys who make aluminum foil or laundry detergent or anything that's stamped out by the mass-millions? The companies whose customers and revenue numbers have copious zeros trailing? Are these tools realistic for them, or even relevant to how they do business at volume?
I thought perhaps that the question cramped by brain because of the late hour. But here I am, 12 hours later still chewing on it. And here's what's stuck with me.
Often, the intent of engaging in social media can be more compelling than the mechanics of how its applied. Fundamentally, a company has to embrace the value of having more personalized, transparent communication with customers, and be committed to trying to execute that on a large scale (more on this below). It's the intent of that participation - the desire to forge a more human-based bond with customers and prospects - that is a critical component of whether that can be achieved at any volume. Put simply, if the company doesn't care about those small scale relationships, it just doesn't matter.
Commenting on Chris' post, I mentioned that traditionally mass marketing is dependent upon a top down approach. We cast the net wide and "funnel" the mob through varying stages of commitment from introduction to sale and back again. But community-based conversations are rooted in a bottom-up approach that includes finding smaller pockets of individuals that are compelled by a brand or a company, and nurturing those relationships so they grow organically. Tending the roots, if you will.
The Issue of Scalability
The trouble with social media happens when the resources required to nurture relationships - and the time involved in cultivating same - become more and more cumbersome. It's far more difficult to tend to a massive commercial farm than a backyard garden, so you have to adapt some catch-all tools in order to do that. It doesn't negate the need for each individual plant to receive it's nourishment, but it allows some of that tending to happen en masse while more delicate tasks must be tended to by hand.
If your business is starting small, you can evolve from a highly personalized approach to a larger scale one more easily. Your resources to tend to the relationships grow as the business and relationship grows along side. But what happens when you're already AT scale? Can you truly find ways to revert to more concentrated conversations with smaller pockets of customers? Can you actually allocate adequate resources to same without slowing down the perpetual train of more automated transactions?
The Bridge Between
I'm not averse to mass communication. In fact, I'd call a blog mass communication: you're on one end, sending out a message to a concentration of readers that's larger than you. That's mass.
The difference is what happens to activate the tractor beam and keep those eyes, ears, and hearts coming back time after time. If I'm engaging with Best Buy, I know I'm not the only one they're talking to, and I'm ok with that. But what I need to know is that when I choose to exercise my voice and ask for a response, someone is on the other end to pick up the phone (or email or Tweet or text or whatever).
The blog has transcended our ideas of mass communication because it does something that a mass mailing never did: allow us to respond instantly and individually. Same with press releases. They used to be tools for the media, shotgunned out into the world. Now, companies like Ford are making their press releases a dynamic part of their social media newsroom. By tweaking the mass communication mechanism, they've opened up the possibility of dialogue with more than just a bunch of journalists, and given their readership an immediate and public voice.
It's at that point that the mass gets broken down into those cafe tables that Chris was talking about. Some people will never, ever choose to sit down at that table for a conversation. But the challenge for the larger companies is that somewhere, someone *will* want to do that. The trick is in enabling the self-selection. Providing the choice.
Sales will continue to happen en masse on a transactional basis for companies that operate at that scale. That's just the dynamics of supply and demand, and as long as the demand is there at a fundamental level, mass will continue to work for some. But as deconstructing more personal relationships from the masses becomes more and more a prevalent method of communication for businesses and a driver for long term loyalty in a fracturing commercial world, the big businesses are going to have to adapt. I believe that they're going to need to learn to take their mass approach and allow the neighborhood-style communications to filter out, and have someone there ready to respond when they do.
How they participate in these communities has to be different. They may not be able to be in every cafe waiting for the conversations to start. But they need to have the intent and willingness to notice when those conversations start to happen on their own, and stop in to join the conversation once in a while.
As a parting sentiment, it's important to reiterate that not every mechanism works for every business (or every person for that matter). And vilifying those that choose to continue to operate in more collective mentality is fruitless unless you can honestly and accurately claim that there's a fundamental reason for them to change (i.e. if it ain't broke...). Understanding that dynamic for a juggernaut of a company is hard work in and of itself, and making incremental changes even harder.
Do I believe individualized communication has deeper impact? You bet I do. Do I think the evolution starts now? Yes. Am I naive enough to believe that no balance exists between the massive and the microscopic? No way.
Perhaps we need a social media serenity prayer: Let us have the temperance and humility to accept that there is no such thing as universal truth, even when it comes to the human element in business. Let us have the courage as bright, sophisticated stewards of social media to change and evolve the businesses who can embrace this and thrive. And above all, let us exercise the patience and wisdom to know the difference.
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