I was recently at a school governors meeting and we were discussing the use of social media by teachers. Another governor made the irritating and rather naive throwaway comment of “the best use is not using it at all”, which from someone who works in IT is irritating at best. But it is interesting to examine what actually lies behind a comment like that. The media has been filled with stories recently about the negative sides of social media, whether it be insulting attacks on Olympic stars via twitter or the copyright issues around a users content on Facebook. But what the media coverage has failed to make clear is that very little of this is actually the fault of the sites themselves and that there are a huge amount of benefits that these sites provide.
One of the problems with social media is that it is faceless in nature, which means some people feel they can be insulting to others and say things that they wouldn’t dream of saying to someone’s face. It is people like this that often ruin the experience for us normal people, but it is also easy to read a comment in a completely different tone to the way it was written and intended. It is something we have to accept, in the same way that we have to accept emails can be read with the wrong tone. And that is the basis of my disagreement with my fellow governors comment.
The one thing we have to accept when we use social media, whether that be as businesses or as people, is that we are using the sites on the terms of the site and not on our own terms. This is a key point that a lot of people seem to forget when they start complaining about Facebook changing the way the site works or the way in which it uses content and data. It is ironic that people are more than happy to take advantage of the platform (which is provided to them for free) when it works for them, but as soon as Facebook decides to change something then all hell breaks lose. But it is important to remember it is Facebook’s platform, not yours or mine, and when we click that little box to accept their terms and conditions we agree that we are using their platform according to their rules, not our own. Let’s be honest, how many people have actually sat down and read any of the terms and conditions in any detail, let alone in full? Well I have had a quick skim through some of them in the past and it is quite enlightening. For example, most of these sites retain the right to use any content that is uploaded to them for promotional purposes. That includes any comments you make, videos you upload and photos you add. You cannot do anything about it because you have agreed to their terms and conditions and if you haven’t read them properly then this is your problem, not theirs. This is the type of thing I find most irritating.
So what is my point? Well the key thing we should all remember is that social media is the largest captive audience online in the world. Facebook claims to have over 800 million users, so there is a massive opportunity to tap into that. O2 recently turned a potential PR nightmare into a huge success on twitter by handling a network outage on a personal level and with humour. they actually managed to get news customers out of a network outage, now that is good social media usage. Why were they so successful with this approach? Because they accepted the platform the way it is, they engaged with it at the right level and they had a conversation directly with their customers on a one to one level. I recently attended the mobile strategies conference and Tom Grinstead (Product Manager at The Guardian) made a profound comment: “People have conversation, brands do not have conversations”. That is what O2 got so right, they spoke as individuals to individuals.
The thing we, as digital practitioners, need to bear in mind is that social media is a great opportunity if we accept the limitations of the platforms and engage with them embracing those, rather than trying to fight them. So far not many businesses have actually managed to show a quantifiable benefit to social media, but I think that is because they are not actually embracing the environments in the right way. Look at Coca-Cola on Facebook. Instead of trying to push their products they are simply about giving people an enjoyable experience. This increases brand awareness and creates a good feeling towards them and that is what social is about. Get the message out there, create ‘advocates’ of your brand and the long term benefit will be that people choose your brand over another. Have conversations directly with them, regularly and in a relevant way and you will get there in the long term.
Social media is not a quick win, it is about relationship building. The sooner businesses realise this and embrace it, the sooner we will really start to see how business benefit. There are plenty of examples of those already doing it.