January 22nd, 2010
Social media, particularly its use in business communications, is still in its early days, and like anything new and different, there’s plenty of mythology surrounding it. The problem posed by certain of these myths is that they mislead those trying to adopt social media, and can lead to bad decisions, poorly implemented initiatives and unrealized expectations.
E-Mail Is Dead
The blogosphere has been buzzing recently in response to a Wall Street Journal article declaring that e-mail is dead. Unfortunately, the Journal didn’t say e-mail was dead, but reported on Oct. 12 in Why Email No Longer Rules, “Email has had a good run as king of communications. But its reign is over.”
The concept that e-mail is in decline, rather than dead, is too complex for many bloggers, and the technique of declaring things “dead” is a tried and true blog traffic generator. Gizmodo, for example, responded with Email is Dead? Oh Really? and went on to cite statistics that show both e-mail and social networking use on the increase.
E-mail is far from dead, particularly in large companies. It’s hip and cool to say Facebook, Twitter, and text messaging have replaced e-mail, and “anything worth saying can be said in 140 characters,” but it isn’t true. Running a business is a complex affair requiring complex communications. Some companies use Sharepoint and other technologies to manage documents, but many still use e-mail to circulate Powerpoint, Excel, Word and other docs. Could you imagine negotiating a contract 140 characters at a time?
I emailed this article to my editor at Talent Zoo (where it originally appeared). Had I sent it to her via Twitter, it would have required 60 separate messages.
The CEO Needs to Blog
Guy Kawasaki once said that one measure of a company’s commitment to the Macintosh community was whether the CEO could be found in the company’s Macworld booth. That might be realistic for startups and small companies, but no way would you find the CEO of Adobe in the company’s booth.
Similarly, today, many contend that a truly engaged CEO should have a blog, or ought to be on Twitter. After Barrack Obama was elected, many people were disappointed when they couldn’t find him on Twitter chatting with the hoi polloi.
As powerful as it would be, it is unrealistic to expect the CEO of a public company or the president of a nation of over 300 million people to maintain a blog, or a personal presence on Twitter. To do so might not be a good use of time for a CEO or a president. These people must also comply with laws, governing communications by publicly traded companies or the president of the United States, which limit what they can say and may require too much oversight to be worth doing.
Certainly there are successful CEO bloggers at major companies, and politicians who use Twitter to communicate with the electorate, like Malcolm Turnbull, Leader of the Opposition in Australia. But that doesn’t mean it’s right for every company.
Many CEOs have opted out for business reasons. Or maybe the CEO is a poor or uninteresting communicator. Perhaps social media is not a part of the company’s communication strategy.
A company should choose its bloggers on the basis of their potential to write well and interestingly on one or more topics relevant to the company’s business. In all likelihood there are people in the company who are more interesting and more articulate than the CEO.
MySpace Is Where the Young People Hang Out
Everyone knows MySpace is the social network for kids, but in truth, in October, 2006, comScore reported More than Half (51%) of MySpace Visitors are Now Age 35 or Older, as the Site’s Demographic Composition Continues to Shift. 2006! That was three years ago! Of course the demographic at MySpace, and on every network, continues to shift, and is interpreted differently from study to study. A recent Pew Internet survey found:
“The median age of a Twitter user is 31, which has remained stable over the past year. The median age for MySpace is now 26, down from 27 in May 2008, and the median age for LinkedIn is now 39, down from 40. Facebook, however, is graying a bit: the median age for this social network site is now 33, up from 26 in May 2008.”*
Early impressions of a social network tend to stay with people, even if these impressions are no longer true. In social media, as in any endeavor, conventional wisdom should not be used to make business decisions. A little research can help a company avoid investing in the wrong places.
There’s plenty of data on social network demographics, although, as we learned above, it’s not always consistent. Even so, making any statement about “young people” constitutes a vague generalization, and is a phrase last used without irony by June Cleaver.
Social Media Communication Is Informal
Everyone knows online communications is not the same as formal business communications. Spelling, grammar and capitalization don’t matter as much as they used to, and Twitter, with its 140-character limit, also calls for a loosening of the rules.
Wrong. When you’re communicating online, people are judging you. Sometimes they’re just jerks who judge people, or martinets who enjoy correcting others, but they can also be important people who can influence your success.
If I was going to hire a PR agency, I would read the agency blog to learn about the firm’s communications philosophy. If its employees write poorly on the company’s blog, which after all is just a new kind of company web site, then why should I expect good writing if I retained them for my company?
In an age in which there are many regulations limiting how much information a potential employer can request from a candidate, social media is one area where they can freely gather extensive data on potential hires.
Recruiters are looking beyond employment history for hints about a candidate’s personality, possible drug or alcohol use, attitude toward previous employers and ability to communicate clearly and professionally. If you post a story about your night in a Mexican jail, you probably won’t get hired.
In fact, a poll by Harris Interactive and CareerBuilder disclosed that 14% of recruiters who use social media to vet candidates would reject a candidate who used emoticons (aka “smiley faces”)! LOL!
It’s Going to Go Viral
The best way to ensure the failure of a social media initiative is to label it “viral.” Every marketing manager is eager to create a video that will be viewed 1 million times on YouTube, making the company’s name a household word. Truly viral videos rarely come out of the corporate communications laboratory. They are instead more spontaneous, and involve a complex synthesis of many elements that is too difficult to reproduce with a business process.
When I was at the agency, we made what we referred to as a viral video. We wrote a script, scouted locations, and hired a videographer. The project took over a month. We posted the finished video on YouTube and Facebook. More than two years later, the video has fewer than 700 views.
On the other hand, my daughter, who was seven at the time, asked if I could suspend a couple of her Webkinz stuffed animals from a ceiling fan. She suggested we take a video of the animals spinning around. She then asked, “Can we put this one on YouTube?” That video has nearly 7000 views, many positive comments, and at one time was the most viewed YouTube video of Webkinz spinning on a ceiling fan.
Don’t Be Taken In By Conventional Wisdom
Most of the myths above stem from sweeping generalizations, a common form of logical fallacy. Corporate communicators who approach social media initiatives with logic instead of emotion will avoid the perils posed by buying into the mythology. You should always do the research before venturing into a new area, and assumptions should only be acted on when they are backed with data.
* Pew Internet and American Life Project, Twitter and Status Updating, Fall 2009 by Susannah Fox, Kathryn Zickuhr, Aaron Smith, Oct 21, 2009
This piece originally appeared November, 2009, on my Very Public Relations column on Talent Zoo.