Friday, April 24, 2009

Social Media isn't a "Discussion," It's a Party

The following is a slightly updated and edited version of a blog post from June 2008. I'm on a brief vacation, and I thought you might find this article just as interesting today as a year ago.

Social Media is often likened to a conversation where marketers "seek to be part of the discussion" or "engage consumers one-to-one." This conversation analogy--which emphasizes the one-to-one over the one-to-many--may neglect important aspects that differentiate Social Media from other forms of communication. If marketers and brands think of themselves not as joining "the discussion" but instead "the party," it may help set the appropriate tone for engaging in Social Media.

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.

The analogies that liken Social Media to a private discussion are widespread but incorrect. 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.

As brands enter the Social Media "party," they must not make the mistake of thinking they are guests of honor; in fact, the truth 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 walked through the door.

The value of the party metaphor becomes even more apparent when you think of the distributed nature of Social Media. It's a big party--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 won't encourage others to pay attention but instead to leave (and to take with them a very poor impression of you).

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: The line between the private and the professional is at best thin and at worst nonexistent. Whether it's the Social Media professional who insulted his client's hometown or the job candidate who lost an offer from Cisco due to an ill-advised tweet, there are plenty of personal topics and observations that should be carefully considered before they are uttered.
  • "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 listening and covering ground. And, perhaps most importantly, while it's fair for a brand to talk about itself or advance it's own agenda, this has to be done with respect for and in balance with an interest in others. Any professional and successful sales person will tell you that parties are a great place to prospect for opportunities, but being obsessively self centered, graceless, and annoying can do far more damage than good.
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 individual 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.
  • Realize that the party is going 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 coming to the party or do you intend to sit at home with your ears burning?


Cullen O'Brien said...

Thanks for re-posting this, Augie. I really liked the metaphor of brands participating in social media is like attending a party last summer, and I like it even more a year later. It makes social media "etiquette" (good and bad!) for brands easier to understand and explain to others.

Anonymous said...


I agree with you here, but I would add that it's not just one party but many. Each network - and each subnetwork w/in it - is it's own little party. Just like real life, different parties have different characteristics, purposes etc. all defined by the people who attend, what brings them together and a little chance. Some of them do look more like discussions than parties because they're smaller and more sedate. Others look like raucous frat parties! Social media isn't any one "thing" it's a bunch of interlocking networked interactions. Anyway, small refinement on an excellent point. Have a great vacation!

Augie Ray said...

Cullen and dtheus, Thanks for the comments! dtheus, you make good points about Social Media being MANY parties; thanks for contributing!