John Owrid: The world of social media relies on self-importance as establishment recognition grows.

johnowridditch-sharing-iconsThe one thing that social networks either don’t measure or don’t publish is obviously their sense of self-importance. Yet if such a metric existed it might tell us far more about the world of social media than we get from other published data.

If that sounds like a snipe it isn’t intended to be. The founders of the major social networks and their (largely) Silicon Valley communities have been quite upfront about linking their self-interest with the wider public interest from day one.  In fact they never really characterized their companies as simple technology networks, but instead portrayed them as the means for individuals to liberate themselves and fulfill their natural desire to share.

Whilst other technology brands have sometimes been horribly guilty of failing to articulate what benefit they bring to the wider world, the same cannot be said about the social networks. Being shy about their social purpose is one charge we’ll never have to make.

According to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg this purpose,rooted in the desire to share, still remains in its infancy as sharing is set to grow eight to ten times by the year 2016. If this claim was confined to the occupants of Silicon Valley it might seem less contentious. But Zuckerburg was referring to the wider world and whilst highlighting people’s potential to share isn’t the same as forecasting their propensity to do so, it is clear that digital technologies have rendered far more elements of our lives shareable, enabling individuals to become their own ‘long tail’ practitioners, mining the niche or specialist interests in their lives to great effect.

A bigger social bubble.

From the perspective of 2013 the expectation is that people will continue to share and inflate the bubble and hype of social media which writers like Jonathan Franzen so decry. In a recent interview on BBC Radio he said:

“Agents will now tell young writers, ‘I won’t even look at your manuscript if you don’t have 250 followers on Twitter.’ I see people who ought to be spending their time developing their craft and people who used to be able to make their living as freelance writers. I see them making nothing, and I see them feeling absolutely coerced into this constant self-promotion.”

Franzen’s concerns about everybody being forced to become a social media practitioner are not without justification. As the ‘social’ industry chalks up its 10th anniversary, with Twitter soon to undergo an initial public offering that may value it at $15bn and Facebook now recovered from its rocky IPO last year, there is a new sense that it has now become an embedded part of the establishment and an inescapable life ritual.

social media mbaWith impeccable timing a new book,The Social Media MBA by Christer Holloman has just been published (by Wiley) and in classic business school fashion maps out 30 case histories of companies using social media to achieve a bewildering array of commercial effects. Tellingly, like myriad business books from the past, the examples are provided by organisations that are hugely familiar to us (including Honda, Price Waterhouse, Sony, Unilever and Kraft).  In a remarkably short space of time the practice of social media has acquired institutional status and become what one senior marketing executive recently described as ‘CRM (customer relationship management) with knobs on.’

The social business case.

When unraveled, the commercial argument appears almost unassailable. Peer Index, the social media management specialists (featured in our Ones To Watch Report) recently reported that 92% of consumers around the world now say they trust “earned media” (peer-to-peer recommendations through blogs or retweets for example) above all other forms of advertising. Finding brand advocates who are influential in an arena relevant to your brand is key, especially because of the amplification power of social.

Yet as CRM strategists know only too well, relatively few of these 92% are that influential. Peer Index analyzed a sample of more than 20 companies with large social communities and found that in all of them, at least 30% of their following consisted of inactive users. Even more worryingly, in just under half of these companies, 50% or more of followers were inactive and in the worst case, 69% of a brand’s Twitter community was inactive.

Whilst such figures might be used to provoke unease at the rate at which social media is going mainstream, they aren’t especially surprising. The Pareto principle governs most markets, so the notion of social influence being a commodity possessed by only a minority of people is simply a fact of business life.

A more important concern might be that social media is being assimilated before what it involves or means has been properly understood and digested. In culinary terms this would be the crime of allowing the ingredients to predetermine what comes out of the oven. Not so much a case of too many chefs in the kitchen as not enough of them to know what to make.

New media or new purpose.

Part of this predetermination is perhaps due to the ‘media’ label itself. The idea that Facebook, Twitter, Linked In, Instagram, WordPress and Blogger are media properties, rather than simply communication platforms, might seem a semantic distinction, yet it is one that has undoubtedly helped their commercial positioning and made it easier to embed the idea that like more traditional forms of media, the paymasters will come from marketing.

Yet are the marketing department’s goals sufficiently exalted for some of the newer purposes that social media is now encountering? And even if they are, isn’t there too much of a temptation to burden the functionality of new media with old media measurement mentalities if not its metrics?

There certainly seem to be more people now thinking these thoughts. For example, Stephen Davis of Harvard Law School, an expert on corporate governance, has written that “corporate governance and social media are trends newly met, and market participants are only at the very beginning of a learning curve”.

In other words whilst some companies think of social networks simply as additional channels for distributing the kind of content that they’ve always generated (albeit in a more digital form), others see them as a nexus for a very different and altogether more accountable way of doing business. In the case of the latter this has less to do with content and messaging and more to do with the inner purpose of communication.

These two perspectives – let’s call them a more optimisable way of doing marketing versus a more optimistic view of business purpose – may prove tough to reconcile in many companies. There is an innate conflict between public and private agendas that social media seems to amplify rather than resolve, which not only affects businesses but also the individuals who work for them. IBM’s Social Computing Guidelines offer the technology group’s staff the following advice:

 “The lines between public and private, personal and professional are blurred in online social networks. By virtue of identifying yourself as an IBMer within a social network, you are now connected to your colleagues, managers and even IBM’s clients. You should ensure that content associated with you is consistent with your work at IBM.”

In the physical world these demarcation lines are much less blurred, yet it is hard to imagine that the kind of walls required by traditional notions of corporate governance will ever be built into the worlds of social networking. Yet without containment features many of the more conservative industries, especially in areas such as financial services, will struggle to behave in a way that is commensurate with the ideals that Zuckerburg, Reid Hoffman, Jack Dorsey and others had in mind when they started out.

Avoiding social ineptness.

Of course what may ultimately save these more conservative sectors from the public embarrassment of appearing to be socially inept are the social strategies of companies that might be expected to know better. If the efforts of mainstream consumer brands result in marketing campaigns that under estimate the potential for individuals to engage and interact the commercial opportunity will be diminished for everybody.

The prospect of this happening seems less likely if we are to believe new US claims that social has now flipped from marketing candy to become the core driver of a brand’s strategy. That was the overarching idea at a recent Association of National Advertisers annual meeting in Phoenix. No longer focused just on tactics to use on Facebook and Twitter, social is apparently now owned by the CMO and powering substantial market-share-driving campaigns for grown-up brands.

Google President-Americas Margo Georgiadis told the first morning’s breakfast meeting that a remarkable 24 of the top 100 brands have had a viral video on YouTube this year. She implored marketers to create content like this instead of traditional advertising, and heralded brands that are plugging into pop culture, citing Pepsi’s edition of the Harlem Shake with Nascar driver Jeff Gordon. That video hit 7 million views and delivered what publicists described as ‘topical street credibility’ for the brand.

Whether these metrics are testimony to social’s self-importance or real-world commercial clout remains a subject to debate. To put them in context it’s worth referencing the recent example of blogger Jon Negroni’s viral post, “The Pixar Theory,” which became so big that it was republished on Mashable and Slate.  To date, it has accumulated 4.4 million views on Negroni’s site without him doing anything more radical than writing some copy and getting it mentioned on Twitter.

Negroni didn’t do the work for income, but rather because the topic, and blogging in general, interested him, achieving something that would probably have been impossible for Pixar to accomplish with the same sorts of resources.

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