Column: The social façade PDF Print E-mail

Haven't you heard? Having social media is totally the in thing right now. It's so hot. You absolutely have to try it. You can “leverage user-generated content” in order to “create a buzz” and “go viral” with your company's brand! It will send your “organic conversion rate” way up, man. It will give you a way to “engage with influencers” around your ideals, leading to “super-monetisation”.

 If you aren't social, you're nobody!

Oh, wait. You have heard? From everywhere? At least 100 times? Oh.
In fact, at this stage even the least tech-savvy higher-ups have attended enough conference sessions and workshops on the new CRM and digital strategy to get the gist of it.
If they've been lucky, they've come away feeling uplifted and inspired about everything this social thing can do for their business, and they have a convenient list of 10 steps to implement it.
If they've been unlucky, then they feel panic-stricken and a bit nauseous and they've gone to their HR manager with a list of “things to worry about”.
All the rage
Either way, we're now at a point where most companies – from the banks to the post office – have a Twitter account, a Facebook page and quite possibly a profile on LinkedIn. Armies of interns, customer relationship people or PR employees watch these channels and “listen” to consumer concerns – a job in and of itself, I'm sure. They are even paid to react (“reaction time is everything”, said the workshops).
“@Mr_disgruntled: We have seen your issue and are attending to it,” says a typical reaction.
“@Miss_Sour: Thank you for your comments,” says another.
Most common problems can be solved this way, much as they could be through call centres (without the waiting time). These channels also provide space for free advertising, much as company Web sites do. There's nothing wrong with them, just as there's nothing – technically – wrong with a pair of Crocs. Ridiculous as they may look, they're a decent product. Good at what they do. Dependable. Are they going to change your life though? Very unlikely. Having a pair will not turn you into a superhero, just as having a Twitter account will not make you a god. Or even up your profit margins. Or even change a single thing, really.
It's one thing to hire someone to run a Twitter account for you; it's another thing entirely to reap the benefits of social media.
People have been speaking for a while now about whether the social media bubble will burst. Social media, in these conversations, could easily be substituted with any kind of fashion. You might as well be talking about brightly-coloured, plastic, footwear when you say things like “will critical mass in the market be reached?” and “surely the user base will level out at some stage?”
In this case, yes, the run will come to an end, the season will change. Of course it will. The hype will die down, and what is a bubble if not hype personified?
Social itself, though, is not a fashion. It's not something that you can put on top of what your company is currently wearing and call it “très chic”! A social policy is not a pair of shoes that you can slip on because your competitors have them. At least it shouldn't be.
Social state of mind
Social is more than a façade. Not to sound trite, but it really is a different mindset.
It's the mindset that gives consumers a megaphone, and with it, power. Social makes a company public in a way listing shares on the stock exchange never could. Every consumer has a voice and not only expects to be listened to – listening is not good enough – but expects to make a difference, to change things, expects things to be done.
There seems to be a disconnect here, where even the most social-savvy companies appear to struggle. An example from the end of last year – with no names mentioned – really drove this home for me.
Company X launched a fancy Facebook campaign one Tuesday afternoon. It received immediate negative feedback due to the contents of some of the pictures in the campaign's album – deemed offensive. Did they halt the campaign? Did they take down the pictures?
No. They reacted with a standard “thank you for your concern” and “we'll bear that in mind next time”, as if the campaign had been written in print and they had to wait for the debriefing before they could do anything.
That company (and many like it) is probably looking at last quarter's results and wondering why it isn't seeing the huge impact it was promised when it first implemented social.
I think the simple answer is that customers aren't stupid. They can see from a mile away what is highlighted by events like this – the company isn't really interested in letting them have a say, could care less about their thoughts. It's the old mindset – of the company making unilateral decisions based on its own agenda – dressed up to look pretty.
This kind of social is a bubble. A bubble that will burst when the consumer realises the company is listening, but not hearing, and certainly not taking action.
Meanwhile, the other social, the real social, I believe will go on forever, or at least as long as the technology allows it. This kind of social involves giving a voice not only to the consumer, but also to the social media people (or “customer experience officers”) within a company. It involves taking into account what is said by consumers and using that to make real changes.
Without this, social media is just a whole lot of people banging their heads against Facebook walls. Entertaining, but in the end, pointless.
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