Social Media Offers No Panacea

Running of the Presidents - TJ & Abe Neck & Neck

Today almost every organization needs to engage in social media, even if it’s just monitoring the general conversation on related social media sites. Yet, social media is no panacea, and an organization needs to understand some of the barriers it will face before it jumps in.

Unfortunately, most companies and nonprofits don’t consider the difficulties of participating in conversational media, instead they jump in because they have to, or because of the promise. While the Holy Grail can be promising, it’s important to remember that monetizing social media for fundraising or sales can be extremely difficult. And that’s assuming your organization can even wage a decent ongoing conversation.

Social media really offers organizations the opportunity to build relationships with an extended community. It does not replace traditional marketing or communication tools (see the Old Spice guy campaign analysis by Rick Bakas), but augments them with a better set for initial one-to-one (or one-to-a relative few) engagement.

From there, the next step is integrating regular tools and approaches for willing community members to do things (vote, buy, donate, volunteer, etc.). Look at the Humane Society’s web site and all the things you can do once you come in from their social properties. Really, how an organization uses social to facilitate its business becomes a very unique thing from place to place, tying back to mission.

There are several critical pre-steps to social media that I like to see organizations weigh in before actively participating in social media:

  • Listen and understand how it fits into the larger community ecosystem.
  • Ready to give up control of the message? A huge barrier for many executives that have been steeped in command and control communications training, and one that needs to be vetted.
  • Does the organization have the capacity, the resources necessary to participate?
  • Can the organization manage personality infusion, conversational style, and embrace business transparency in full?
  • Finally, while enabling unfettered conversation can the organization manage the dangers of personal branders and personalities on the Internet?

This is not an easy thing to do. Making this decision means embarking on a cultural journey that like it or night will change the organization internally. Even storied social brands like Dell went through incredible journeys to embracing their customers in crowdsourced initiatives. The ability for thousands of people to openly express their opinions — externally AND internally — is intimidating. Whether or not a company or nonprofit participates in this open environment — or more likely, the degree of participation — is a strategic management decision.

It’s important to remember that competition will force organizations to participate openly or lose market-share. Authors Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams did a great job encapsulating this trend in their book Wikinomics. This $9 million research project turned into book went into great detail about how online communities and group contribution benefited businesses.

The result according to Joe Wikert: “While some leaders fear the heaving growth of these massive online communities, Wikinomics proves this fear is folly. Smart firms can harness collective capability and genius to spur innovation, growth, and success.”

Yet, its not a light switch moment, or as easy as starting a Facebook page or Twitter profile. For almost every organization, social media is an evolutionary process that not only organically builds it’s community on the outside, but also changes its culture over time.