We’ve just held our annual event, Smart Social London, in which we bring together social leaders from some of the world’s largest brands, thought leaders who are internationally recognised and our own Spredfast team. In welcoming everyone to the event I made a few observations that I wanted to share more widely.
I’ve worked in digital made for over 20 years and in social media for over a decade and notwithstanding two bubbles and subsequent corrections (yes, younger readers look up 2000) this has to be the most interesting time to be in this industry. I am almost tempted to use the word ‘interesting’; in the manner of the proverbial Chinese curse ‘May you live in interesting times’, because what we’re facing is a crisis of trust and one that is critical at many levels.
At a societal level we’re asking ourselves; is social media even good for us? With fake news, election rigging, reports of increased isolation and narcissism we’re asking ourselves do we even want this as a part of our society?
At a business level, as marketing budgets are restricted and digital advertising faces constant issues of transparency and accountability, social media is also being questioned. The big societal questions aside there are questions around the efficacy and ethics of social as a marketing channel.
And finally, because of these two macro trends I believe there are many in our industry who are asking themselves “Can I actually trust this as discipline or an industry to build my career on?
Looking at the first question of the societal challenges of social it’s worth remembering that social media is relatively young as an industry. Facebook itself is only 14 years old; an adolescent really. If you’re honest with yourself, how many adolescents do you know who have their shit sorted out? Adolescence is typically a period of ones life to work through things like morals, life mission and testing the guard-rails you adopt to achieve that mission. It’s hardly typified by mature thoughtful behaviour. As a society we tend to make allowances for adolescents to work through these central questions, often within safe environments and with guidance to avoid undesirable outcomes.
Unfortunately for this particular adolescent their ‘coming of age’ is being played out on a global stage and is happening very fast. The consequences of their missteps have far reaching implications and the need to grow up is very immediate and real. For any of you who has a teen in their life you’ll know this scenario is anathema; they hate doing anything that’s not on their terms and to their own timeline.
It is however the very public nature of this process that gives me cause for optimism. If you consider the two main protagonists in this debate; the platforms and the regulators, both have our interests as their central concerns and both need to deliver on those interests.
From the point of view of the platforms we are all central to their existence as individual users. How we want to connect and engage with our families, friends, brands and causes is a central focus for them. On top of that those who attended our conference and more than likely the readers of this post are also central to the platforms’ concerns as advertisers. As advertisers, your needs in terms of how trust is maintained and how the effectiveness and accuracy of connections between brands and audiences is ensured is a key concern on which the very life blood of the platforms depends.
All of us are also central to the focus of those on the other side of the conversation; the regulators. As voters in representative democracies the regulators’ foremost concern for us must be to maintain the integrity of our communications and electoral systems. Beyond that, as citizens the regulators must work to ensure our more general demands for privacy and transparency are upheld.
Given the focus of both protagonists and the public nature of the conversations it’s incumbent on all of us to have our views heard, as advertisers, as users and as voters. This is by no means an easy dialogue. Within each of us individually there is the potential for conflict of interests as a user who wants privacy to be upheld to the highest standard and at the same time as marketers requiring as much accurate data as possible to ensure we’re providing the right audiences with then most useful content and offers.
It’s clear that these sorts of conflicts are also top of mind for businesses. Frequently I am challenged with questions like ‘What’s the value of social for my business?’ ‘What kind of ROI can I expect from social?’ My fear is that questions like this completely miss the point of social media. Imagine reframing it by acknowledging that the social platforms are the world’s largest collection of our customers, prospects and employees. We can then rephrase these questions as addressing key business challenges;
- What is the value of my customers to my business: of understanding their needs and views of my products and services?
- What is the return on investing in my prospects; of knowing what they’d potentially buy and how they’d buy it?
- What is the value of harnessing my employee’s advocacy: of having them speak accurately and enthusiastically about our company and its values?
Once you frame the question in these terms the answers become self evident, but we rarely do.
One of the things that has become clear to me in my work with brands both at agencies and at Spredfast is that to lead social within a traditionally structured business frequently means to take on the role of an agent provocateur. You have to adopt the Fabian maxim of ‘educate, agitate and organise’, forming dark alliances with whomever will aide you in your mission in whatever part of the company you can find them. Operate under the cover of dark. Steal your opportunities as fate makes them available. Wear a ski mask.
Consider the way that businesses are typically structured. Operational silos make it difficult to create the real-time seamless internal connections that are required to engage in conversation on social. Corporate comms picks up a message that needs a response from product who need it signed off by legal before it goes to marketing to produce a response that will be distributed by the customer care team. Oh, and in a way that is timely, on brand, appropriate to social and legally compliant…
The same challenges are presented by the traditional business models that pit region against region, wholesale against retail, market against central. The sorts of operational concerns that drive a matrix structured multi-national are the kinds of friction that make social commerce an organisational minefield.
Finally, if we look at the marketing departments that are so frequently tasked with overseeing social media we’re very often looking at a legacy way of thinking that is the antithesis of social. A conversation on social that unfolds exponentially in scale over time stands in stark contrast to the sledgehammer of broadcast media. In many ways I feel that the joining of the words ‘social’ and ‘media’ was the most unhelpful linguistic combination possible. It puts a ‘media’ or ‘messaging’ emphasis on what should be seen as a participatory environment. Of course that participation can happen at scale, but marketers who grew up on broadcast media are hooked on advertising like a junkie on smack. The ‘media’ appellation serves to reinforce the reductive approach to social that it should be for hammering people over the head at scale with the same messages they’re ignoring on TV and in print advertising.
All of this could be seen to call into question the wisdom of our career choices in social media. However, despite the societal and commercial challenges I am still bullish on our chosen career paths. Any group inside an organisation that can answer the key business challenges of what will my customers buy, how will they buy them and how can I answer their complaints when they found fault, is always going to have a seat at the table. A seat that that will increasingly get closer to the top of the organisation.
As social sorts out its growing pains, as we mature as an industry and a discipline we will see it spread across organisations either as a source of data or as a functional role. As trust is reestablished both brands and consumers will put trust in the connections they can make on social platforms. As the value of social data becomes clearer to businesses who are reorganising for the age of digital, those who can both harness that value and make it available to their organisation to solve key business challenges will become central to its success. In the same way that we now see chief digital officers take board level positions we will see those who can harness social elevated to key business roles.
These are clearly non-trivial issues, but they are central to the promise that digital once held of democratising access to information and the promise of social to level the playing field of human connections. Economic reasons aside there is still a great deal of good to be gained if we can grow beyond adolescence to fulfil the promise of the young idealistic visionary adult that many of us imagined in the late 90s.