Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Importance of Analogies: Social Media isn't a "Discussion"

Social Media is often likened to a conversation where marketers "seek to be part of the discussion" or "wish to engage consumers one-to-one." Alas, this analogy is wrong and may neglect important aspects that differentiate Social Media from other forms of communication.

Marketers didn't need social media to have a discussion with consumers. Email, which has been a primary online activity for over a decade, has always allowed for one-to-one discussions with consumers. Nor did we need technology to enable one-to-one contact; before email, consumers and brands used the telephone and snail mail to engage in discussions. (I still vividly remember when, in response to a letter I'd written for a school project, Dole Foods sent a packet stuffed with brochures, labels, and coupons. That was one-to-one and, since I still recall my excitement at the treasure trove I'd received some 35 years later, it was also experiential.)

The analogies that liken Social Media to a private discussion are widespread but incorrect (and I've been guilty of using them, myself). A more appropriate simile is that Social Media is like a party already underway. Groups of people are gathered, they have existing networks of relationships, and they are already talking.

And brands should not make the mistake of thinking they are guests of honor at the party; in fact, it may be exactly the opposite. Nielsen's recent "Trust in Advertising" report reveals that consumers are 30% or more likely to believe recommendations from other consumers than they are information provided by brands on Web sites, on TV, on the radio, in magazines, and in every other medium except newspaper. So, don't expect partygoers to stop and pay attention just because your brand is in attendance.

The accuracy of the party metaphor becomes even more apparent when you think of the distributed nature of social media. People are talking about your brand on Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and YouTube, not to mention on hundred or thousands of blogs. You can no more control the many discussions underway across the Internet than you can command the floor at a large party. Sure, you can try to shout, but that will encourage others not to pay attention but to leave (and to take with them a very poor impression of you).

So if social media is a party and "joining the discussion" is the incorrect analogy, how might we frame a brand's place in social media? Perhaps "entering the fray" is a better way to think of it.

You might wonder if all this focus on analogies is an intellectual exercise without purpose, but here's why it matters: Once you perceive social media not as individual discussions but as a never-ending and constantly-shifting party, you can begin to appreciate what it takes to succeed. The following tips are derived from party etiquette sites such as those found here and here:
  • "Determine what your goals are." Is there a better tip for a smashing party experience or for success in Social Media?
  • "Extend your hand and introduce yourself to unfamiliar guests." Be sure to introduce yourself, and be honest. Let others know you represent or are working for a company or brand.
  • "Keep conversations away from sex, politics and religion." I'm sure this needs not be said when interacting with others on behalf of your brand, but this tip can also be interpreted more broadly: Set rules and be sure everyone speaking for your brand knows the topics that are in and out of bounds.
  • "If attending a cocktail party in a private home, treat household staff with dignity and respect. There are to be no personal or special requests from you to the staff." Do not treat bloggers or bulletin board moderators with anything but professional courtesy. You may not see them as "official" members of the media, but you should treat them with as much care and deference as you would a reporter or editor.
  • "By all means, converse. But don't dominate all conversations; be a good listener, too." If you attempt to control the conversation on blogs and boards, others will ignore or complain about you. And don't interrupt--when joining a discussion that is underway, do so respectfully and in a way that enhances the discussion for everyone and not just yourself.
  • "Smile, mingle and converse." A successful party is one where you circulate, seek out others, and engage people throughout the room. Your Social Media policy should require the same commitment to covering ground.
Those party etiquette tips are helpful, but since your brand's goal in social media is to protect and enhance your reputation and not simply to be entertained, I'd offer the following additional ideas for your consideration:
  • If you are unwelcome in a discussion, leave. Your brand has every right to combat incorrect information, but engaging in a flame war with an unreasonable, bull-headed, and biased invidual won't yield results. If you find yourself unwelcome in a discussion, excuse yourself and find a more welcoming corner of the Social Media party (but continue to monitor the discussion and jump back in if damaging and erroneous gossip is being spread).
  • Simply being at the party isn't what impresses others; it is how you behave, the personality and mood you convey, and the respect you show for others that will alter perceptions.
  • No one likes a selfish and self-obsessed party guest. Participate with a goal of providing value to other participants rather than focusing on your needs and goals, and you'll be much more likely to enhance your brand.
  • Realize that the party will go on with or without you. If you want to know what is being said, or better yet influence others' opinions of you, you have to get dressed and show up.
The invitations are out, the table is set, and the guests have arrived. Are you entering the fray or sitting at home with your ears burning?

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