In December 2007, there were 14,000 Maltese people on Facebook. Fast forward to May 2010, and that number is 162,000, and growing daily. As a nation, we’re right up there with the top 15 worldwide in terms of our national, proportional take-up of the social network – something which says as much about our access to technology as to our desire to connect with others.
Web 2.0, or social media as it’s colloquially known, is much more than Facebook. It’s ‘two-way’ technology that enables sharing, online conversations and many forms of user-generated content. There are literally thousands of tools that can be loosely grouped as social media: videos, blogs, micro-blogs, podcasts, social networking, community and social bookmarking sites, forums, wikis and more. The read-write web where everyone can potentially publish what they want to a global audience should by now have made social media as mainstream as the daily newspaper. And yet, it is one of the most misunderstood phenomena by the business community. Locally, a recent spate of scandals and law suits fuelled by blogs and Facebook pictures has only helped increase the confusion and anxiety. As one business person told me, “I have no idea if I should ignore this stuff, get my kids off Facebook or try and understand what’s going on because it may well impact my business.”
I have been using social media technologies since 2005 and researching their applicability for business for the past three years. Here’s a little of what I’ve learned so far:
The rules of marketing are changing. Social media has taken the institutional control of marketing and put it in the hands of the general public. With technology increasingly ubiquitous and available to all, people now have the tools to carry on conversations and express their views on brands and their content online. Prospects inevitably form many of their opinions and impressions of a brand or a company from others they come in contact with online.
Two-way means engagement. This is a far cry from the traditional broadcasting way of doing things. In the old days, you used to be able to throw money in print, TV and radio advertising and wait for the ripples to come back to you in the form of clients. Now, the ripples have a voice, and can bite back or come back to haunt you.
Your employees can become terrific online ambassadors, or a total embarrassment. They need to be guided how to engage. Trying to block them from using the media is always counter-productive. Most people nowadays access their favourite social networks via mobile devices.
Social media is not about PR. It’s about social engagement. It’s definitely not just about you, or your business. It can be used for PR, and marketing, brand building, customer support, reputation management, community building and a pile of other social engagements. But the tools were originally devised to do other things.
Having a website is no longer enough. A blog can be a terrific substitute for an expensive website. There is no substitute for great content.
You don’t need to use all the tools. But you do need to have a basic understanding of most of them. Because your customers and prospects are engaging on many of them, and you need to understand what they are saying about you, and your business.
To succeed, you have to be transparent, open, and reactive. That’s difficult for many businesses that have thrived over the years by doing the exact opposite.
You cannot just set up shop and do nothing else. There are thousands of Facebook fan pages hijacked by the competition, dead blogs and inactive Twitter accounts. You need a real commitment to succeed.
Social media is not free. Many of the tools are free to use, but your time isn’t free and neither is that of your employees. Good content costs money.
Trust is a huge factor in social engagement. Social media marketing is most effective when users in the community know you. Building trust online takes time and management of your social web presence across communities.
Social media builds awareness and drives conversations. It’s a powerful way of enabling interaction between the company and customer. Selling is a secondary or tertiary benefit of social media.
Beware of self-proclaimed social media experts. Especially people who have never been in the trenches of business and understand the pressure there is to generate sales, reduce costs, engage customers and do something about a brand. Knowing how to set up a website, or a Facebook fan page or dabbling in some SEO does not qualify someone to call themselves an ‘expert’.
You need a strategy before you dive in. Get a road map. Smart people first start by listening. And there are tools that enable you to do just that. What most organisations lack is how to structure and create an interaction with consumers which is consistent in approach and enticing enough for third parties to engage.
Social media can be measured for ROI purposes. You can set KPIs and measure the success of social media campaigns. Much of what you spend in traditional mainstream PR and marketing cannot.
Social media doesn’t work when you’re shouting about yourself. You need to find a way of getting other people to shout about you, for you – of their own free will.
It’s not so much about the future as learning from the lessons of the past. You cannot ignore social change when ordinary citizens believe that they have access to new ways of getting their voices heard, and engaging with the people and issues that really matter to their lives. If you run a business or a country, social media is both opportunity and threat. Ignore that at your peril.
This article first appeared in The Commercial Courier, April-May 2010