The Tao of Social Media

Architecting Better Data-driven Digital Experiences

The Tao of Social Media

In working with clients to incorporate social media into their business, I am often asked to address the question of who should “own” social media.

To answer this question I hand them a copy of The Cluetrain Manifesto and quickly steer them to the work of people like Brian Solis, Steve Rubel, David Armano and Jeremiah Owyang, all of whom pretty clearly establish that the whole notion of “ownership” of social media or anything else presumes an organization with partitions between the various functions, a structure of organization that is antithetical to the nature of social media.

The right approach to social media comes across like a Zen koan: If you’re going to effectively integrate your business into the culture(s) engendered through social media, you first need to kill-off your notions of “Social Media”.

Social media exists in many forms, in many places, all at once. It certainly exists in the technologies that engender and facilitate social and data networks, but it also manifests in the personal and social attitudes and behaviors that are both shaped by and shaping a culture that wants to be constantly connected, has blurring boundaries between “public” and “private”, and has come to expect the ability to consume and produce information at all times, in all places.

Over the last several years, I think the ability to even ask the question of who “owns” social media was engendered by a misguiding understanding of social media as just another channel for traditional PR and advertising to sail messages across. That perspective has been pretty well dismantled by the recognition that as an outlet, social media is more of a rapid river than a placid lake. When you jump into social media, you can point your kayak and paddle, but you’re liable to get carried along and banged into rocks, and you need to expect that you’ll end up with as much water inside your vessel as outside.

Let me beach the kayak and unpack the metaphor… social media is as much about what comes into your organization as what goes out. The whole question of “owning” social media was really a question of who should get to do the talking. In reality, what happened by trying to shape who “owned” social media is that social media has turned the tables and come to own pieces of the organization (but usually not the pieces it wants to own, which is really a lose-lose case for everyone).

I saw this shift most clearly when working with the customer support function for a major telecom company. The complaints about this company in social media were so prevalent¬† that they almost completely invalidated any sort of PR or advertising that the company would try; after all, who are you going to believe, people like you who are using the phone, or the people trying to sell you the phone? So in response to this daily barrage of negative “media”, the organization put together a task force of call center folks dedicated to responding to customer complaints via twitter.

Talk about applying a band-aid to stop the bleeding from a cannon wound. Not only did this approach do nothing to address the core flaws in the products and services that were driving people to complain, but it was implemented rapidly under duress without any real prior definition of intended objectives or performance measurements.

In this case, the voices in social media were trying to reach engineering, and management, where the core issues that were effecting them could actually be addressed, but instead of allowing these insights to flow where they should, the organization decided to damn then up behind some low level support people so as not to disturb business as usual throughout the rest of the organization.

So back to the Tao of how social media should weave into your organization – the key is to recognize that you’re riding the rapids. Everybody in the boat needs to work together to make sure it gets to where you want it to go, but not everyone is going to do the same thing. Where you wind up, and how you get there, has as much to do with the way the river flows as with the way you paddle. You need to be cognizant not just of where you want to take the boat, but also of where the currents are flowing.

Social Media is about putting out messages and accessing targeted influencer networks to shape perceptions and behaviors¬† – but that is only one manifestation. It is also about hearing messages, and about learning about the people who drive your business, and about letting information flow to and from the right places at the right times. Put simply, is about being social, and come on, we all know how that’s supposed to be done. Doing it just means undoing the isolation from real people, their interests and their issues that the higher levels of most businesses seem to have managed to cultivate when they could rely on advertising and PR to control the message and automatic phone support to keep the hordes at bay. That has to change.