Saturday, February 14, 2009

Have you really thought through that social media thing?

As I'm going through job openings, I'm seeing a trend: a rough-and-tumble, take-no-prisoners race toward social media. This isn't a surprise. I could see this coming for some time now as Facebook and Twitter have been racking up the user numbers and corporate leaders started looking at their web analytics and whining "Me, too! I want 10 million users on my site, too!"

Ummmm... why?

That question usually earns me a steely glare or a kick under the table from the person who brought me into the room, so I smile and hold my tongue. I almost never get a direct answer. Mostly I get a lot of business double-talk that boils down to these reasons:

1. If 10 million people looking at my home page that at least 1% will do what I tell them to do and then go out recruit 10 million more people to come to my home page.

That's kind of a big assumption. I don't know what kind of people you hang out with, but in my experience, human behavior isn't that predictable. People get on web sites for very different reasons. Despite being immersed in the Web for a decade, it wasn't until my job demanded it that I really started expanding my Facebook network beyond family. How many other people like me are on Facebook and other social networks? Wouldn't it be funny if it was the same 10 million people* on all the networks out there being paid to sell a product or idea to each other?

When I was in my college business classes, I was taught to do a detailed identification and analysis of an audience -- people who really want what I'm selling -- and then tailor a message to them. To assume that everyone wants or needs what I have is being lazy. It would have earned me a failing grade and, likely, some public ridicule in class.

When did that change? When did the default assumption become that everyone who uses the Internet must buy my widget or participate in my ideals in order for the web presence to become successful?

2. Because everyone else is doing it and I don't want my organization left behind.

Is that a reason? Oh, please. A web site is expensive enough to properly build and manage, do you really want to start adding on a bunch of other web sites?

Running a web site -- even with a team of people -- is not a 9-to-5 job. You need to be ready to answer an email or a forum post at any time because the expectation for a web site is immediate feedback. You need to moderate any content that is going on to your site. The software requires licensing fees. The servers constantly need to be upgraded. Customization requires specialists. Changing organizational or technical needs have to be translated into detailed specifications. This all takes time and money -- a lot of it.

Now layer on to that the work required to maintain an active and respected presence on another social network. To become any more than a shell of a participant, you need to spend hours reviewing and adding content. You need to establish human relationships with other people on the community. It takes time. There are no shortcuts to this. Either commit the resources to doing it right, or go back to the basics of audience identification and messaging.

...And be ready to find out they aren't on the Facebook to find out about your product.

3. Because my organization is (or I, personally, am) is better than Facebook and deserve bigger numbers.

This may seem like a caricature, but I've heard it more than once. It's been couched in prettier words, but basically it comes down to the same thing: a pissing contest. (See #2)

I do believe that participation in social media is a valuable tool for talking to your audience if it is done right. I hope that I get to do this in the next job I get. I don't, however, think it is the magic bullet to getting the world to buy your mousetrap in the next fiscal quarter. It needs time and resources and you had best be sure that you have the proper expectations about the return on your investment.

I haven't watched South Park since my child was old enough to repeat what she heard on TV, but a friend told me about an episode that rang disturbingly true. It's called the "Underpants Gnomes". While most of the episode is about the inherent evil (and inherent lack of evil) of large corporations like Starbucks, there is a running joke about little gnomes that come into a boy's bedroom in the dead of night to steal his underpants out of his drawer. Once found out, a gnome takes the boys to his secret tree, within which are many gnomes adding to a massive pile of underpants.

Why are the gnomes stealing underpants? It's their business plan, of course.

Phase 1 is to collect 10 million underpants. They are a little fuzzy on phase 2, but phase 3 is to make lots of money.

In my humble opinion, if your Internet strategy can be summed up by a secondary running joke on South Park, you need to ask yourself some hard questions.

*I'm totally pulling this 10 million number out of the air.

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