Conversation trumps content: It’s the human spark of knowledge and caring that carries true value
As adoption of social technologies spreads into even the most risk-averse industries and companies, executives have questions about where social media could take them and where the different kinds of social media consultants can guide them.
Depending on how one defines social media, it is a multimillion-dollar consulting and services industry. Most of the players have a marketing approach in which they help their clients to create content and interact with people in major platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, MySpace, blogs and specialized social networks. Most firms focus on consumer-facing (“B2C”) scenarios because the market for business-to-business use of social technologies significantly lags consumer uses.
The three main types of social media services providers are:
- Pure play social media consultancies have been created specifically to address this market.
- Legacy advertising and marketing firms have mobilized social media practices. Most of these are focused on content creation, their traditional domain.
- Technology vendors are two types: pure play tech startups and legacy enterprise vendors that are bolting on social features to their suites.
Please keep in mind, the links are broadly representative; there is significant crossover between several of the types.
The evolving social business approach
Based on past client work and intense observation, I’ve observed that, increasingly, the conversation is the content. Frankly, most people are utterly fed up with consuming slick marketing “content.” They thirst for honest, real, human interaction that is authentic, spontaneous and caring. Therefore, marketing and ad firms’ approach of creating content to engage is quite outdated. Yes, content can spark conversation, but it is rapidly transitioning to a supporting role. Similarly, technology firms’ proposition, which is often, “Use this technology to engage people,” is equally outdated because, although inane technology can prevent a community from forming, it’s the human spark of knowledge and caring that carries the value.The best technology can only be intuitive and invisible — it won’t create a community.
It isn’t easy to create a situation in which the firm can have a persistent, engaging series of interactions with people. It requires significant homework, focus and resources. Very loosely speaking, here is a basic description of how to succeed:
- Vision typically addresses, based on our business, who are the stakeholders we care about (i.e. customers, regulators, employees, investors…), and how are they adopting? How are our competitors and business partners adopting? Create a vision and sense of immediacy for our business.
- Strategy. Who are we? Does our culture naturally lend itself to spontaneous, transparent communication, or do we have constraints (i.e. healthcare, law). After getting our arms around stakeholder adoption and who we are, we can create a strategy.
- Test. Because social business is so new, even the best strategy will have numerous unknowns, so we use pilots to test the unknowns in small, short-cycle projects. We often start engaging with pre-existing platforms like Facebook when stakeholders are already there.
- Services. The above steps are classic “consulting.” But pilots morph into execution services in which we scale the effort in step with business results. The last phases are integrating the now-proven social business processes with legacy processes, which includes displacing them when appropriate.
Digital social networking: Our era’s dialtone
Most organizations will do best to develop in-house capabilities with social technologies and behaviors. I firmly believe that digital social networking, because it enables more social interaction and humans are overwhelmingly social, is the 21st century dialtone. In other words, all stakeholders will shortly expect organizations to relate to them using digital social tools.
This means that organizations that don’t will struggle to remain relevant. Employees will have to get very proficient as soon as possible. So, this is not something you want to outsource to a service provider long term. Therefore, look to extensive mentoring where clients develop native capability. Yes, it makes sense to outsource in some situations.
Most firms don’t understand this, so they have their agencies post Facebook, Twitter and blog content, which is usually an utter failure, but they don’t realize it right away. People can smell manufactured content a mile away, but they won’t say anything, and they won’t come back. They won’t share. This can be OK when competitors are just as clueless — but those that get it first will win attention and loyalty.
The other thing is, Web 2.0 is very different from Web 1.0 because it’s social; its skills are more nuanced and take time to learn. Firms that think they can wait to adopt and throw a bunch of money at it when a couple of their key competitors (finally) pull off major successes will have a rude awakening. There is a significant learning curve for employees and management that money can’t address; only time and experience lead to results.
Keep in mind that expectations are rising rapidly among increasing pockets of stakeholders and constituencies. Think about Comcast, which completely reset the bar with their Twitter customer service approach. It took AT&T years to get it together, and they lost immense credibility in the meantime.
- Social business (media, networking) is not “another channel” that you should outsource long term.
- The attraction for most people, social’s differentiation, is authentic, truthful interaction, not “content.”
- Interaction cannot be manufactured, but it can scale when your firm serves as host and the community is doing most of the interacting.
- The best parties are given by hosts who know how to invite the right people, make appropriate introductions, provide ancillary amenities and let their guests do the talking.
- Hosting is not easy to do offline, where the skills have been known and practiced for millennia; succeeding with it online requires a significant learning curve.
- The competition for stakeholder attention online will increase exponentially.
- People will reward the firms that participate in a relevant, timely and authentic way with their attention and their business.
Christopher S. Rollyson is a partner in Socialmedia.biz and managing director of CSRA, a management consultancy that advises enterprises and startups on social business strategy and execution. Contact Christopher by email, follow him on Twitter and Google Plus or leave a comment below.