Social Media – How CAN it Work as a Corporate Communications Tool?

Anyone who’s bothered to read the opinions and examples that I’ve posted here (and if you have, thank you – thank you so very much) will know what my stance is on the social media phenomenon and how it relates to corporate communications and this business we call ‘spin’. For those who’ve not bothered to keep up with my musings, bimblings and meanderings (booooooo – and there are so MANY of you), I’ll precis here. Stick with me, it’s important as context for what will come later.

In brief, I’m of the considered opinion that what we’re seeing – in terms of the unseemly bandwagon-jumping, the social media marketing industry that has grown up to satisfy the ever-expanding need for a social media ‘fix’ and the lemming-like rush by brands, companies and organisations to grab a piece of the social media tartlet (so much tastier and more rewarding that the sausage and mash of traditional communication) – is nothing more, or less, that a repeat of the dotcom boom of the late 2oth/early 21st centuries. No matter how you look at it, because of its very nature, because of the enormity of choice, because of the way people interact with it, the internet is never going to be an terribly effective or truly measurable marketing tool.

There. I’ve said it. And guess what – I’ve not been struck by lightning and the door hasn’t been smashed in by the black-suited and be-sunglassed Social Media Police. Mind you, hedging my bets, I will caveat the big statement by saying – as I have so often – don’t ignore social media and the internet. In a traditional communications campaign – presuming all the resource you need and a perfect world – you don’t ignore weekly freesheets just because they don’t have the reach of a national newspaper or radio station. In fact, in certain instances, weekly freesheets deliver the sort of audience that larger media outlets won’t deliver. But – and it’s a big but – you’ve got to want to reach that audience and that audience has to deliver value back to you. Otherwise it’s not worth it.

Social media is exactly like that. If you’ve got the time and the resource – and let’s not forget that making use of social media is incredibly labour intensive and thus costly in comparison to other forms of communication – and you’ve got, most importantly, the need, then social media will deliver you stuff. Obviously. There wouldn’t be all this hype if it hadn’t delivered to someone, somewhere, something worthwhile.

I had a chat with an ex-colleague who is making a living out of providing content for t’internet recently, and for a period of at least half-an-hour, I thought I’d made a big mistake. Not only were his arguments for social media as a comms/marketing tool coherent and compelling, he also had some big corporate examples – one particularly – of how the use of social media (in this case Twitter) had delivered big monetary value to said big corporate. When I got home (after a great deal of beer, I’m afraid), in a Carrie Bradshaw moment, I started thinking about the instances in which the use of social media has delivered value to brands, companies and organisations, and whether there’s a formula or a pattern to be perceived.

Was I, in effect, wrong or – more palatable to me – were there specific circumstances that triggered results from social media, circumstances that cannot be simply ‘turned on’ by a corporate communications team and thus cannot really be harnessed? Does the Emperor have a fantastic designer suit in his wardrobe, or is he simply walking through a room full of falling handkerchiefs? (OK, that may be a metaphor too far.)

Something that aided the thought process was a question posted recently on LinkedIn, which was “Can Twitter ever be used successfully as a brand management tool?” At the risk of being seen to manipulate things to suit my own arguments, I’d suggest substituting ‘Twitter’ for the more generic ‘social media’. That’s the beauty of a blog – I can do whatever I want.

There were, as you’d expect, loads of answers. Some yes, some no, some puppyishly positive, some demonically negative. What there were, however, were examples, which I’ll list here, and I’ll also add the example provided to me by my ex-colleague (see above if you’ve been so enthralled by the last para that you’ve forgotten what went before). So – in no particular order:

“CCN is using Twitter to prove it is the news leader in timely deliver”(sic)

“Pres Obama is using it to prove that he and his admin are the most relevantly connected politicans on the planet”

“A variety of Hollywood personalities are using it to build and maintain their brands”

“The famous Los Angeles BBQ Taco Truck is alive and well because of Twitter!”

“Just started a Twitter account for a music-sharing site – now have 1,000 followers”

“(Big American Computer Company) addressed their famous customer service issues on Twitter – an extra $xxm orders were received on the back of it”

On the face of it – all good and, in some cases, high profile uses of Twitter to achieve an end for a brand, company, organisation or proposition. But. And there’s always a but. In each case, there’s a reason why they’ve been successful and they’re not reasons that you just ‘turn on’ to make your brand more social media-friendly.

CNN is a media outlet already and people are used to accessing CNN for their news – therefore getting users to sign up for CNN ‘tweets’ is hardly a triumph of new media marketing. It could be said that CNN must have big issues if it needs to use Twitter to promote itself.

Barack Obama – he’s the most powerful man in the world! Of course people are going to try and be friends with him on Facebook!

Ditto Hollywood personalities. As a crass example, if George Clooney, or Scarlet Johansson are on Twitter, they’re going to have followers. Go figure.

The famous BBQ Taco Truck (whatever that is) and a music-sharing site – these are things that push social media buttons – everyone wants music (especially for free or for cheap) and everyone wants tacos (well, within reason). What I’m saying is that both of these examples are pushing against an open door – they’re things that people want and if you have these things and cannot get followers then you should retire. Now.

The (Big American Computer Company) example is, however, interesting, and here’s where I leave you for today. This company were sitting on a crisis. Their customer service was shocking and customers were up in arms. At this point, they had a choice, do nothing, or open a dialogue. Their customers were ready and prepared to engage in dialogue, so the door was already open. Yes, they could have got it wrong, but that would have been a display of communications stupidity so vast that they would have deserved everything they got. What they did was invest, spend time, maintain regular and open dialogue, monitor responses and issue prompt and sensible feedback. They turned things around, they got extra orders. (Now that their crisis has been ‘resolved’ mind, it would be interesting to see how many people are still following their Tweets.)

Of course, for every good example of crisis management through social media (and this is the first I’ve heard of) there’s a poor example. I think I need only say ‘Dominos Pizza’ and ‘YouTube video’.

So, for social media to be a success, you need to be a brand, company or organisation that people know about and want to engage with (and the only way to achieve that is through traditional media channels) or you need to have a big problem and be prepared to front it up and engage in open dialogue with your audiences. Which might, of course, backfire.

But I see a business opportunity. Recommending crisis scenarios to big companies. Bear with me. If you have, for example, a deodorant brand, you could STAGE a crisis. Say you release a few cans of deodorant that, instead of smelling like lemongrass and patchouli (like it says on the label), smell of distilled rancid skunk. Massive customer furore, multimedia press coverage – and the perfect opportunity to create a Twitter account to ‘apologise’ and ‘explain’ to your customers.

Genius. Only it might, of course, go horribly wrong……………….

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Filed under Evaluation, External Communications, Social Media

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