It’s been about 7 years since pioneer brands like KFC, Coca-Cola & Blockbuster (cough) first formally arrived into the social media space. Since then, this sometimes awkward relationship continues to evolve, to where over 75% of Fortune 500 companies are on at least one major social media channel. Some excel, others fail abysmally but even more tend to exist in that space between mediocrity and just bad enough to go unnoticed. And while there’s been no shortage of advice on effective engagement, it often ignores one very fundamental truth:
Social media was never supposed to be about brands or businesses.
It was always about people. Regular, everyday individuals connecting, collaborating & empowering one another from every corner of the planet. Remember The Cluetrain Manifesto? Or Naked Conversations? It’s the total democratization of everything. Think about it – social is the only media powered by the very same people who consume it. They write the scripts, tell the stories and dictate the rules to a large extent, leaving platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc. to bend and adapt accordingly (or else). But rarely is that glaringly simple truth a part of the industry narrative. Instead the focus is on what brands need to be doing in the communities they’ve imposed themselves onto. But who said these communities needed brands to begin with?
From conquests to co-conspirators
I often hear the “cocktail party” metaphor that likens brands in the social space to that annoying, uninvited guest who only wants to talk about himself. But I take it a step further and liken it to a virtual colonialism of sorts. We (the colonizers) have invaded this perfectly sovereign nation with the idea that we could make it better just by virtue of being there. We ignored local the customs, traditions and norms and attempted to force our own archaic sensibilities on the natives. At best we’ve been tolerated and at worst, we’ve been sent packing, back to wherever it is we came from.
But imagine if brands adjusted that perspective. Instead of viewing our fans as potential acquisitions, we viewed them as people, or even collaborators? Instead of treating the next social platform du jour as another opportunity to invade, we view it as an opportunity to listen, learn and ultimately, if it makes sense, offer meaningful contributions that respect the local, cultural norms. It’s from that kind of trust and humility that the most powerful of partnerships can be formed.
So how do we reconcile the practical realities of the business world, with all these lofty aspirations of what should have been? How does the average organization even begin to mobilize such a seemingly seismic shift?
Lead with the people who make what you do possible. Who are they? What do they struggle with? What are they passionate about? Dig beyond the rigid confines of demographics, as real human beings are infinitely more complex. The information is out there – it’s up to us to grab it.
Where are they? Yes Facebook may indeed be equivalent to the third largest country in the world but do YOUR users actively engage there? And if they do, can you cut through the noise in a meaningful enough way and offer something of substance? Something that might not have anything to do with promoting your product or service? If the answer is no, you have no business being there. Evaluate channels based on their capacity to better serve your audience vs. another opportunity to invade.
What are they seeking? We have more insight than ever before into what people want but for some reason, most of it gets ignored. Tap into the wealth of information and discover how to make yourself useful – through your existing business and beyond.
Finally, seek to serve, not sell. Whether a single content item, a mobile application or branded community, ask yourself: Does this have the capacity to add meaningful value or is it just more clutter? Is this an experience I might welcome or is it merely another hurdle? If it wasn’t inspired by your audience, it doesn’t matter where you put it, it’s just another thoughtless ad.
The bottom line is we aren’t in charge anymore. From perceptions of our brands to the products & processes behind them, we are increasingly held to standards defined outside of our organization’s walls. Ultimately, it’s those companies who are most willing to listen, adapt and scale to serve, who will help shape tomorrow’s definition of modern business.