Social Media - bringing people together
Social Media - bringing people together

Social media appears to be growing up.  The Financial Times ran a special report on Digital Business this week with a lead headline that said it all, “Business starts to take Web 2.0 tools seriously”.  Jessica Twentyman’s article highlighted how, “far from being frivolous distractions, social networking tools can help streamline processes”.

Certainly social media has had an image problem since it was born.  Days didn’t go by without reports of people being caught out and embarrassed by what people posted on YouTube, Facebook, Bebo and MySpace.  Naturally this only tarnished and held back the potential of social media amongst business decision makers who had the power to harness this new form of communication.  Some employers went as far as banning staff from using social media tools in and out of office time.  Their concern was that what their employees got up to out of office hours could damage the reputation and image of their business. I know of one top law firm that has banned employees from using social sites.

But while some businesses were paranoid in the early days about the damage to their reputation by the out-of-office activities of their employees others were busy finding ways to use social media to further develop their brands.  These businesses were keen to enter into a dialogue with the public, working to make them customers.  And this is not an easy exercise as the general public is more cynical than ever before.

Rightly so, business wants to see how “Enterprise 2.0 could deliver real business benefits”.  Translating this corporate-speak into plain English, this means finding how social media can help increase sales.

But there is another cultural problem, currently too many companies in Britain and around the world still see the internet as an add-on to their business models.  Stubborn scepticism amongst businesses leaders, who do not understand the purpose or reason for entering into a dialogue with the public, prevents them for investing into this not so new communication tool and channel.

The equally sad truth is that too many large communications consultancies also see social media as an add-on to the communications plans that they develop for clients.  I have on too many occasions the “we’ll develop a Facebook page for you” only to see nothing new or engaging.  Equally, the blogs that have developed for clients lack real dialogue between the business and the consumer, let it be b2b or b2c.

At a recent P2PR meet in London a number of us agreed that there is a lack of upward education from communications consultancies to clients about the potential of social media.  Having Facebook, YouTube or MySpace pages just isn’t enough.  Even setting up a Twitter account doesn’t make the difference while these are add-ons to clients communication strategies and campaigns.

Social media is about listening to the public and entering into a dialogue with them.  And these dialogues have to be regular, refreshing and rewarding.  It is about making the client a friend of the consumer and working to helping them become a close friend, who celebrates with you the relationship that you have with them.  And how many of us hate it when we don’t hear from friends for some time.  The same applies to social media in business, dialogues have to be constant and creative, bringing in your customers into the business and making them feel part of the experience.  This is how you develop loyalty, or, saying it in corporate-speak ‘brand-loyalty’, which is what all businesses strive for.

Social media is changing.  It is growing up and it needs to be at the centre of communications planning, to develop the brand and protect the company.  This obviously has a cost, but the rewards are for the long-term. Businesses decision makers might think that they can only invest in social media if the metrics tell them that their interaction with clients leads to increase sales, the thinking that has driven adverting for decades.  Well, social media can be measured and communications consultancies can no longer get away with not offering this service to clients.

Wired's front cover

And as social media grows up, we should be aware that the technology is moving our communication thinking forward, ahead of the game.  While in Hong Kong in January this year I picked up a copy of Wired magazine, which lead with “Inside the GPS Revolution” an insight into how mobile smart phone technology is transforming how users “make connections and interact with the world.”  And these interactions are not just with friends but with businesses as well.  One of their reviews was for Shop-Savvy, a tool that will help you scan a barcode with a phonecam ad tells you how much the product not just costs online but in shops nearby.  It can also pull up reviews to make sure you are not skimping a little too much.

The technology is here.  It is driving business decision-making and driving pricing.  Shouldn’t we be bringing in social media into the centre of communications planning?  Is having a branded Facebook page enough?

Adidas's Facebook page

I’ll tell you something, I’m on Facebook and I am a fan of Adidas.  I signed up to their Facebook page some time ago, hoping to get updates from the company.  I didn’t get anything.  There was little dialogue from them, until I got a message telling me how they’d had a ‘secret party and I could see the ‘cool’ pictures of what looked like a celebrity bash somewhere.  Erm, I signed up online so that I could be one of the first.  That message they sent didn’t bring me in to the brand and it did not make me feel closer.  It was not the social media experience that consumers should be subjected to.  Adidas, in my mind, doesn’t get it right.  Will the rest of business understand it?

It is up to us PR and communications consultants to champion social media.  Communication helps and in these challenging times we have to be creative and use new tools for us and the benefit of our clients.

The Government yesterday released its interim Digital Britain report.  No surprises on the content of the Green Paper– broadband for all, improving how television content is distributed online and cracking down on illegal file sharing.

The disappointing aspect about the interim report is that for a fast changing industry its recommendations are already outdated, so working to get every household on a minimum 2Mbs line by 2012 will be like having a 56Kbs dial-up account today.

The report ignores the fact that bandwidth is already running out in Britain, especially as the BBC’s iPlayer continues to prove that people want to watch television (for live or recorded content) online.  Other broadcasters such as ITV and Channel 4 are readying themselves for the launch of their own content online, a partnership that also includes the BBC.

Recent figures, which I put in my last post on Digital Britain, confirm that shoppers are shunning the high-street for the improved prices that the net offers.

Lord Carter may say that while 2Mbs is the minimum speed that he wants everybody to have, speeds of up to 100Mbs will be available.  Good point, but high speeds will be there at a cost, a substantial cost, which will put consumers and businesses off from these packages.  Not just that, but he leaves the option open for an indirect tax on net users to counter online copyright piracy.

The Government said that it wanted to spend its way out of the current recession by investing in public sector development – new schools, hospitals, etc.  What it should have done through this interim report is commit itself to upgrading Britain’s bandwidth.  Doing this would send a clear signal to business that the internet can be used as a further channel through which it can do business.  It would also enhance the creativity that makes Britain a leader worldwide in the media, communications and creative industries.

I ask the question, now that we know where the Government wants Britain to be in 2012, where will Asia Pacific and the rest of Europe be?

This report wants a lot, but makes no recommendation on how these ‘wants’ should be met.  It offers no strategy and no solution.  It is a typical politcal report with no direction or ambition.  Exactly what you would expect.