If you want find the front line on the debate over social media and its impact on marketing and public relations, two posts from late last week are worth reading. The first is a post on Chris Brogan’s blog about “Bob”, an enthusiastic employee at a Fortune 500 who ran afoul of his superiors by engaging customers online in the wake of a direct mail campaign. The post is interesting, but the ensuing debate in the comment thread provides a fascinating look at a number of fault lines companies face over social media–management vs. staff, innovation vs. resistance to change, control vs. collaboration–it’s a veritable cornucopia of management challenges.
I don’t want to rehash the whole discussion here, but I would suggest reading the thread if you’re a marketing manager. It’s a perfect case study on why every company needs an explicit social media policy. Without one, critical decisions over customer engagement that may impact everything from brand equity to employee moral will be left to the kind of petty internal politics that stifle innovation. Whether your policy is a lock-down on social media–which I certainly wouldn’t advocate–or a liberal policy that encourages employees to get involved, there’s really no excuse for allowing a void over social media policy to persist.
The second post worth reading is one by Charles Cooper at CNET, which is a rather dismissive post of a panel held by Horn Group asking whether Social Media is killing PR. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to make it to the event, so I can’t give a first hand account of the debate, but Cooper’s derision is a good view onto another of the social media fault lines, dividing the true believers from the status quo.
As a tool for communications, social media obviously is of keen interest to public relations types. But let’s dispense with the nonsense about it being a paradigm changer. Maybe that day will arrive, but to date, the cheerleaders have overstated the results.
I had to laugh out loud when I read that. As someone who has worked in corporate marketing for 15 years, as someone who has run agencies serving some of the world’s biggest brands, I’ve worked with many Fortune 500 and Global 2000 marketing executives who have felt the impact of social media first hand, and are struggling mightily to adapt. I’ve seen a major telecom provider lose the loyalty of its developer network to a competitor’s wildly successful forum. I’ve seen one of the world’s biggest consumer electronics manufacturers blow their biggest product launch in years because they ignored consumer dialog that clearly pointed in a different direction. I’ve seen one of the world’s biggest software makers struggle to manage a marketing operation fragmented by aggressive consumer engagement. And I’ve watched one of the world’s biggest automakers leverage consumer engagement to drive product development decisions that delighted their customers.
This is nonsense? Was the wildfire of social media backlash against the pricing of the iPhone, and Apple’s initial lame response, nonsense? How about the social media initiatives leveraged by Barack Obama and netroots progressives to defeat Hillary Clinton’s vaunted PR machinery–led by none other than the head of one of the world’s biggest PR agencies? All nonsense, I’m sure.
Cooper’s dismissive denial of the significance of social media, and of those who have “drunk the Kool-Aid”, is based on a tellingly narrow view of social media’s domain–as if social media represents an upstart movement of arrogant whippersnappers wanting to seize the throne of Media Influence. He derides the bleating PR masses who have bought into this illusion.
What’s more, they are scared stiff of antagonizing the “influencers.” Especially when one or another bloviator from the blogosphere wakes up on the wrong side of the bed and issues a fatwa. But does a relatively small circle of (mostly California-based) bloggers still command the same influence it did a year ago?
The answer is “No”, but not because the A-Listers are losing influence as social media broadens, though that’s probably true. The answer is “No” because the influence of A-Listers was only a phenomenon within the echo chamber of early adopters and media personalities afraid they might lose their status and influence to mere “bloggers”. The real story is the day-to-day dialog among millions of ordinary people in little corners of the internet where they influence the brand impressions and purchase behavior of their peers. Like the 65,000 cyclists that frequent a mountain biker’s forum to share experiences with equipment, warranties and customer service. Or the 91,000 members of a hair dresser’s forum that share information about products and brands, as well as tips and techniques.
These are the real influencers, and the real driving force behind social media, and why it matters significantly to marketers as well as PR folks. Instead of putting the Horn Group’s panel into this broader context, Cooper dismisses the influence of A-Listers and then lauds the influence of one of his mainstream media peers:
Then the predictably prescient Kara Swisher from The Wall Street Journal‘s All Things Digital cut to the core question which–I believe–outweighs all others: If the message is empty, why bother? There is little point in trying to push a lame product or marketing idea. That’s a message some sales and marketing departments don’t want to hear. But in the end, doesn’t everything come back to value?
Again, the answer is “No”, not because value isn’t important, but because there is a long and messy process of discovering and defining value–a process in which good PR plays a role by interacting with, and understanding, the market. Social media is a game changer in this respect, because today, marketers have the opportunity to listen to customers like never before–not through focus groups or surveys, but through real engagement and active listening. Whether PR folks take that opportunity to broaden their focus and listen to consumers, instead of focusing solely on “influencing the influencers”, is a fault line that Cooper nicely illuminates.
One last nit. Cooper is dismissive of Jeremiah Owyang in a way I want to call out.
As I listened to the panelists debate the question, I began to fidget as Forrester Research’s Jeremiah Oywang offered a marketing-heavy spiel on the central role social media should occupy in any effective PR strategy. Oywang is earnest about this stuff so I can’t come down too hard, and yes, social media has its place. Still, it sounded like so much gobbledygook to me.
If saying “Owyang is earnest about gobbledygook” is not coming down too hard, I’d hate to see what Cooper really thinks. The reason not to come down too hard on Owyang is not because he’s “earnest”, but because he’s a professional. Owyang spends more time every day with a larger group of marketing executives and marketing practitioners than anyone I know; he’s one of the hardest working analysts in social or mainstream media. Maybe he didn’t lay things out in a way that Cooper understood, or maybe Cooper isn’t a position to want to understand what Owyang has to say. Owyang wrote his own post about the event. You be the judge.