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Embracing the "Social" in Social Media

Much of my work over the past few months has been focused on helping several organizations get up and running with social media. Last week I was doing a debrief with one of my clients on how we'd used Facebook and Twitter to support an event and how the results weren't as successful as they'd hoped. There were multiple reasons for this, unconnected to the the technology, but one issue really stood out. Their engagement with social media continues to emphasize the "media" aspect, with much less attention paid to the "social." And that's where they're missing the boat.

Focusing on the "Media" in Social Media

I think many organizations are understanding that they need to start being active in places like Facebook and Twitter and have begun to give up their iron grip on using only their websites to communicate online. But they are still focused on the one-way "media" aspect of social media, concerned with what they will communicate, not what other people might be discussing and how they can participate in those conversations.

Some characteristics I see in those organizations focused on the "media" aspect of social media include:

  • Desire to have only one or two people participating in social media so that messages can be "controlled." This is an extension of the tendency for organizations to refer people to Marketing/PR people when they want to communicate with the outside world.
  • More of a focus on establishing their presence and on what they're going to say, rather than on finding out where conversations may already be happening and adding value to those discussions.
  • Related to this, a greater tendency to post about their own activities and information and less interest in sharing what others may have to say.
  • Social media policies that restrict employee access to social media sites, thus restricting the ability of the organization to even engage their own staff in helping them promote activities.
  • Lack of involvement in using the tools from top managers. If you haven't used Twitter, Facebook, blogs, etc., it's difficult to understand their particular strengths and challenges. You aren't able to understand their potential power and make good decisions about how to utilize it. 

These behaviors are relics of the pre-social media world. Various social media platforms are treated simply as alternative channels for delivering "the message," rather than as two-way forms of communication and engagement.They are another version of TV or newspapers or annual reports and brochures.

From "Media" to "Social Media"

With most organizations I've found that the only way to get them to try social media is to first engage them with the "media" aspect. It's what they understand. It also seems to be the best way to help them get comfortable with the technology. They don't have to focus on new ways of behaving, just on the mechanics of tweeting or posting on a blog.

The challenge is getting them to then embrace the "social" functions, helping them to understand that they will never get what they want from social media if they simply treat it as a broadcast mechanism or a content delivery system. They don't use the tools properly and then are disappointed with the results, making it more difficult to get them to continue to invest the time and energy it takes to listen and nurture communities. When they use social media in the old ways, it doesn't work.

What I'm realizing is that in meeting clients where they're at, I may be doing them a disservice. I've thought it made sense to let them get their toes wet in the technology by helping them get comfortable with the tech before we dive into too many new behaviors. But I'm beginning to wonder if it doesn't make more sense to work with them first on embracing the culture and principles of social media before even getting into the technology piece. I try to reinforce and point out the need for social engagement, but the broadcast mindset is a strong, sucking whirlpool that can draw you in before you know it, I'm finding.

I'd hoped that by living with social media for a time, these organizations would see it's possibilities. I've thought that the best way to see social media's power is by jumping into it. But for some people this may not be the case. It's possible to use all these tools as one-way broadcast media, missing the social aspects entirely. The results are disappointing, though, and will leave people wondering why they bothered. Without the "social," social media doesn't work. My challenge is to find a way for people to see and embrace the social aspect more quickly. Without that, their efforts will be wasted.


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What do you think of the thoughts of Twitter itself that it is not a social network but is instead for content, news and information.

How does that relate to the way your clients have been using Twitter?

Hmmm--interesting point. What I've found is that some clients tend to use Twitter only to self-promote--to share info and content about their organization. I think most people find this about as interesting as listening to someone talk constantly about themselves. So at a minimum, I think Twitter needs to be a place where you also share info and links from other people. You need to make yourself valuable in a broader sense, by sharing what other people have to say rather than just what's going on with you.

This is such an easy mistake for companies to make.

Many organizations are so structured around the idea of delivering their message that the very idea of giving that up in favor of entering into a conversation with their customers is a daunting task.

Fortunately, you can use Twitter for either of these things. It can be a content delivery system or a medium for interaction. I think a lot of organizations start off using twitter as a content delivery engine. However, the most successful ones are able to successfully tap into the conversations happening all around them.

Good article!

Michele - thanks for sharing your own personal experience. It's good to read real things, the ones where you question, even admit that you aren't as successful as you had hoped.

I've shown my clients how other organizations have done it well. What I have found that works is to map out the audience segments and what they are interested in. Then, I've also worked out a process and system that supports this. As you and I both know, blogging, tweeting, does take time to do and is not a quick win. That is what organizations struggle with, I think. Building relationships takes time, is hard to measure and is based on people. Maybe start with the relationship angle as the goal?

The other way to go is to do a cause analysis on why it isn't working to validate your hunch.

Hope that helps in some way.


Tony, I think you're right that the idea of engaging in conversation with people is one of the most daunting to organizations. What I always find interesting is that they assume people will have negative things to say about them. If that's true--that stakeholders would be negative--then isn't that a problem even if you DON'T use social media? Is it better if you just don't know about it? In my experience, the negativity organizations fear is usually non-existent or very minimal, but it's hard to get them to realize that.

Holly--thanks for the great ideas. I'm always on the lookout for use cases to share with people so they can see how social media can be done well and how it works. Ultimately I think it comes down to the time factor in many ways. As you point out, it takes time to engage in conversations and relationships. Much quicker just to get in, say what you wanted to say and then get out. Of course, that isn't the most EFFECTIVE strategy. . .

I'm also not sure that people really want relationships with their stakeholders. They want transactions--money, volunteers, etc. But they don't seem to want to put the energy into the relationship-building necessary for people to want to do something for them. Conversations about social media end up surfacing a lot of deeper organizational issues, I've found, which can lead you into some pretty murky territory, as I'm sure you've seen.

Great post, thanks for writing it. I think you've touched on something really important. We're all interested in the shiny bells and whistles, especially when we've seen someone else use them successfully.

While I definitely agree that providing successful (or perhaps even unsuccessful) case studies are important, getting people to think past (or not at all about!) the technology is essential. Strategy is essential and, like you said, a discussion about this typically reveals more about the organization than they were bargaining for when diving into social media. But, without that step, forays into social media tend to be just that, reaffirming all the misconceptions they may have had about it, etc.

Here are some resources that I've found really useful for doing that:

Creating a Web 2.0 Plan for Your Organization

"This document was created to help you implement a practical, innovative, yet achievable and realistic Web 2.0 plan for your sponsoring organization / main client / employer. The Web 2.0 Plan outline should provide an overview of how your organization will use the web to reach more supporters, further engage the ones you have, and ensure your organization is aligned and has the people and capacity for ongoing success.

The first step in any online strategy process is to get clear on the your organization's big picture goals. Too often technology projects end up as the tail wagging the dog - being tech/feature/design driven - and thus get ignored, misunderstood, or under-supported by senior management. However when tech goals grow directly from an organization’s strategic goals, providing clear value to the core work, chances of long-term viability and success increase dramatically."

This great strategic document, which doesn't actually mention technology tools at all. It came from the Social Tech Training event held on June 22-24 2008 in Toronto, by Jason Mogus, of Communicopia and his team. I've just used it with a couple of teams where I work and it has been incredibly effective for both projects, to get folks thinking about their strategy, audience, engagement and approaches. Here's some more from him:

Reaching Out in a Web 2.0 World - Participant Notes from a Recent Workshop

Reaching Out in a Web 2.0 World
Video highlights of the presentation:

Hi Michele,

Gosh your post and the comments really resonated strongly with me. Working with organizations that have hired me to help them with their social media strategies and tools have brought me to quite similar conclusions.Conditioning around getting something or fixing something is so strong.

Your post helped me see how strong it is in my own behaviour.

I especially liked that you discovered that you may be doing a disservice to your clients in your attempts to be facilitative as you nurture the social media adoption process. I think I do the same. I think you are right to turn more towards introducing the culture of social media. I like that as I am recognizing the limits of trying to be so focused on fixing things and making them work.

Peter Block's work is changing how I think about community development and how I engage others in community development. The social is really the landscape where change can be the most personal and powerful.

I also remember a quote from one of my blogger mates that touches on your insight. "culture eats strategy for breakfast" - Peter Drucker

So if we develop strategies related to cracking open culture (attitudes, values, conditioning, etc.) and use that as a base for social media work, maybe that will have better and long lasting results... I will stew on that a bit more...

Thanks again Michele for opening this up for discussion.


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