You don’t need a social media strategy

Social media has entered the mainstream and the consultants and gurus are out there telling everyone that they absolutely must have a social media strategy. It's rare for a week to go by without hearing of another company wondering about the wisdom of their new blog, Facebook page and Twitter account, part of a social media strategy someone has sold them. I find this all quite mad. If social media has gone main stream then it has changed from being a tool that you might choose to use to add value, to become something that you cannot afford to ignore if you want to keep up. This doesn't mean that you need a social media strategy though. What you need is a communication strategy. Adding social media to the mix doesn't excuse you from working to understand who you want to communicate with, where they are and what you want to say to them. Social media will be a part of this strategy but it won't be the only thing, and its not a reason to ignore the fundamentals.

There's a point in every technology's life when it changes from being the new-new thing and becomes just another cost of doing business. Electricity, for example, went from a complex technology requiring a Chief Power Officer and department of engineers responsible for designing, building and maintaining the generators required to power your factories, to become something you get from a wall socket. Social media appears to have past this point.

Social media is not longer some strange voodoo that is only understood by a few select individuals. We're past the scare tactics, thankfully, when gurus were predicting doom for brands that didn't prepare for the dissatisfied social media savvy customer. Today, it seems that everyone has a Facebook account (even my mother-in-law has one). Many of us are enjoying what is being called ‘the first social olympics’. Main stream media have even taken to spraying Twitter hashtags and Fackbook keywords all over their broadcasts.

The sales pitch from gurus and consultants has moved on from scare tactics. Now they're trying to convince you that your business will be left behind if you don't jump on the social media bandwagon. A best practice social media strategy—one crafted by the same guru and using all the best social media tools—is just the thing you need to stay relevent.

When social media was still the new-new thing its only inhabitents were the early adopters. It was a great tool if you wanted to engage with these early adopters, but somewhat less valuable if you wanted to communicate with your broader cusomer base. Social media was something that stood aside from the bulk of your business, usually run by a guru (or, more commonly, an intern) left to their own devices.

Now that social media has entered the main stream we want to use it as a tool to address the broader market and not just the early adopters. Social media can no longer be apart from the rest of the businiess. The problem turns from one of developing the raw capability, to the problem of how we integrate the capability into our overall business strategy. When is social media the right tool to use? And how do we tie it into our other communication activities?

I'm reminded of a story a few years ago. A council in the middle of Briton had rolled out a new web-enabled appointment service for the local hospital network. The idea, I expect, was to leap into the twentieth century by using the latest and greatest technologies rather than sticking with the staid old tools of the past. Products never survive first contact with customers, however, and the solution's creators soon discovered that most of their customers were of an age where a modern web-enabled appointment service held little interest for them. While the message was getting out no one was hearing it, as the target audience perfered teletext and the telephone to the web. If you want to communicate then you need to use the channels that the recepient prefers and pays attention to, rather than trying to drive them to those that you perfer. Communication is, afterall, concerned with communicating with the audience, not communicating with yourself. For the appointment solution the right thing was done, the solution was retooled to use teletext, and it went on to become quite a success.

Unfortunately the lesson from the hospital appoint story is one that we need to relearn every time a new technology du jour comes around. While the new-new technology might be the cool thing to work with (and the best thing to pad our resumes), it's not always the right tool for the job. We need to stick with the fundamentals where the focus is firmly on the audience and the communication we want to enable.

  • Who do I want to communicate with?
  • What do I want to convey?
  • Where is the audience I want to communicate with?
  • How can I communicate with them?

… and then we bring together all three of these points to determine:

  • What is the best way of getting my message across?

The web-enabled hospital solution my have been a nice way to convey the appointment information, but the audience was not listening. Something similar is likely happening to that business who are the proud owners of a shiny new social media strategy; the technology might be great and execution flawless but if the audience they want to communicate with aren't at the other end of the the channels the strategy recommends, then its all for naught.

We might build our strategy around blogging only to find that the collection of teens we want communicate with are more interested in Facebook. If we tweet at the cheese, wine and old school Jazz festivle is anyone listening? And the grandmother knitting circle at the local retirement village could be more interested in Pinitnerest than our carefully laid out email newsletter.

Social media needs to be part of an integrated strategy, not something off on the side with a special strategy of its own. Focusing on the communication mechanism rather than the audience means that you'll be investing your time and money to communicate with whoever happens to be at the other end of the line. This might work for you, but the odds are that putting aside the shiny toy for a moment and investing a little time mapping out what you actually want to achieve—the who, what, where and how—will be time well spent.


2 thoughts on “You don’t need a social media strategy

  1. Excellent Post Peter. I have to agree and disagree on few of your points. Disclosure: I’ll try to be as objective on this as I can as my day job involves creating Social Media strategy.
    Two points:
    1) While I totally agree with your point that companies need communication strategy in which social media is a part of the mix, from what I ve seen, companies are unable to understand the difference between communication and broadcast. They look to social media more as a broadcast medium. Which is why they are often eager to outsource social media to an agency. They don’t seem to understand the perils of outsourcing managing of relationships to some agency who has no clue over the vision of the firm. They think engagement means updating statuses in all these social networks. They are yet to figure out what does engagement really mean.
    2) We often tend to think of social media as a tool as it is considered as another enterprise software tool. Companies who have taken social media very seriously understand that it is an infrastructure which offers space for communication to happen amongst diverse stake holders. The implications of this shift from tools to infrastructure is critical as it changes the way we measure the value of these investments. If we perceive social media as a tool, we can very well define the usage of tool based on our business objectives. The truth is that we can decide before hand how social media will be used by the organization. It is emergent. Companies can’t simply cut-paste those ready-made objectives and use-cases offered so generously all over by social media gurus and plug them in their organization. Unless companies are ready to experiment with these initiatives with a keen eye to sense how it is being used and what really works, they cant succeed in these initiatives

    As this space evolves, they might figure all this out by themselves. Until this happens, there is work cut out for social media strategist!

  2. I think we’re agreeing here. The role you’re describing in your second point is really a solid communication strategist, rather than a social media expert. Just as a ‘Social Media Guru’ can be guilty of ignoring conventional media, an old school communication / marketing expert can be dogmatic in their approach and ignore the fact that while social media is the same (it is, after all, ‘just another communication tool’) it is also different.

    There’s will always be a need for the consulting services of a a smart, well informed communication strategist to help organisations sort out who to engage with their customers/audience. The trick is to find one that is not obsessed with the shiny new toy, and who also acknowledges that the new toy has a role to play.

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