Social Media Challenges & Opportunties 2011

Over the past year I have personally struggled with how social media, and its adoption by organizations large and small, has not met several of my expectations. When I first envisioned what has now become Social Media Club, I saw it as potentially becoming the home for cutting edge management thinking, the return to 'real marketing' and the best chance for organizations to realize and respect the humanity within it. That it would be a chance for organizations to treat their most valuable assets, not only as if they really were the most valuable assets, but also as human beings instead of cogs in the machine. While this is true in many corners of the business world, and more so in the non-profit sector, it's not as universal as I had once hoped.

As social media exploded across the mass market, being touted in television commercials, in situation comedy's and across the marketing/communications services industry as the next big opportunity, things changed, not always for the best. Not only did we suffer through the self-egrandizing d-bags who mistakenly believe they are the greatest thing since sliced bread, but real professionals have also had to battle self proclaimed social media experts. This was further exacerbated by the ease with which anyone can publish and the increasing noise around social media, especially from those who have provided no valuable new insights, but only repeated what they read on someone else’s blog as if it were their original thinking.

As we now begin to enter the late majority phase of Geoffrey Moore's Chasm model, it's an important time for us all, as social media professionals, to pause and reflect on what is happening, on where we've been, on why things turned out like they did, and on where we want to be headed.

Self Proclaimed Experts

As the number of people trying to figure out social media has become smaller then the number of people who either ‘get it’ or don’t care to participate, some professionals have taken to drastically discounting their rates or worse, over promising and under delivering. This creates a short term challenge to the entire industry, and makes it harder for those who offer real value and operate in an ethical manner to make a good living doing what they love.

We’ve all laughed about the story of those who reached Twitterati status, only to believe they had become experts by simply winning the game. But with no real business experience and no ability to adapt the knowledge they had to new client challenges, they merely perpetuated the negative opinion of the industry and demonstrated their ability to clone… a pile of manure.

Many have dismissed these detractors, thinking that the market will figure this out over time. However, with no one able to stamp a scarlett letter on such people without forever bearing the stain themselves (witness our problems last year in Virginia Beach and the subsequent attacks we endured by a known astro-turfer who has since repented) – it is not only difficult to call out bad behaviour and bad actors, but to do so was an enormous waste of time and energy with potentially disastorous economic consequences.

Bifurcation of Social Media

One of the biggest challenges for social media which I witnessed over the last year, was the bifurcation of social media into its two halves – the social component and the media one. The social component deals with support, relationships and conversations, while the media component is about reach, broadcast potential and social media as just another channel in the marketing mix. This has been partciularly evident by the number of Social Media Managers who have been sharing that the objectives for social media by senior management is merely to get more followers. Of course, as I stated in my post The Time Has Come For Holistic Business Strategy, social media was supposed to be about the unification of these things – about looking at the whole of the system, not just one of its parts in isolation.

The challenge here being that the people with the flexible budgets (and the bigger ones) aren't those in the emerging practice area of social media, they are the ones in the advertising department. As with the adoption of most technological innovations, the people with the money are the one's who get to set the course for the road ahead. One need to only look back at the success of the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty and more recently the Old Spice Social Media Campaign. In the case of Old Spice, its success, according to Wieden + Kennedy executives, was that they worked closely across multiple departments – bringing in tv talent, ad folks, social media strategists and others to build what I think of as a holistic campaign with multiple positive outcomes. They are, in short, the real deal when it comes to integrated marketing strategy.

A lot of social media purists believe that social media is only about the personal, or what I like to call the "TAO of Social Media: Transparency, Authencity and Openness". They refuse to accept that traditional business objectives have any place in the new world order. I used to reference people who held such hard and fast perspectives as digital utopians, but these sorts of conversations aren't as prevalent these days and I seldom have to argue for the practical approach. While I have held many such aspirations for transforming the heart of business and encouraging sustainable socioeconomic conditions (glass is half full), I am at the end of the day, a bit more practical in my approach… most of the time.

Social Media In Its Own Silo

More troubling, but as a byproduct of the above challenge, is that social media has become regarded as its own line on the master to do list, just another box to be checked as my corporate friends have told me. Where I had hoped social media would be the great unifier and the place where holistic business strategy would take hold, it has instead become largely relegated to its own silo. There are a lot of contributing factors that have put social media in this place within the organization, including those mentioned above, but none so powerful as the status quo.

Given the state of the world in which social media has risen to prominence, and the power it puts in the hands of all individuals, without discrimination for purity of purpose, there could be only one outcome. As Shel Israel reminded me several years ago, "we tend to overestimate the power of things to change in the short term, and underestimate the ability of change over the long term." The silo walls are strong, they have been built up over a long period of time – but more importantly they have been built by people still residing within them, who have a vested interest in seeing them persist… or at least they perceive it's in their interest for them to continue.

A More Positive Outlook

Don't get me wrong, things have changed a great deal over the last few years. We have almost made it through an entire technology adoption cycle in only about four years, something the advent of the Web took over six to do. More importantly, more people, perhaps like you, realize what could be and how fast change could happen if we only embrace the possibilities. Or more importantly, the market, and the people within it, are demanding that organizations adapt and behave in more accountable ways… in smarter ways.

Earlier this year, people were wondering when it would be necessary for all companies to provide customer support through Twitter, or if it were necessary at all. Now it's taken as a given in most corners of the business world. Who knows what will be accepted as commonplace next year… maybe it will be having a truly integrated marketing strategy instead of just paying it lip service. Maybe it will be holistic business strategy, or maybe it will be social media strategists in charge of large corporate marketing departments.

One thing is certain, the power of the individual, armed with the technology of Web 2.0 ++ and the methodologies of interaction provided by social media, is immense and growing. The other thing that is certain, is that more and more people are becoming aware of the challenges and what we can do to solve for social media's shortcomings, as we did with Lunch4Good last year and as the community of dialog practitioners are doing today.

So I have more then hope for our future, I have an undeterred spirit. We will figure it out, we will understand that it doesn't all have to be about putting the ME in Social Media, but that instead, we can understand that we need to consider the impacts of our actions on the broader socioeconomic ecosystem in which we live, not just the "ego-system".

Join this Conversation, IRL in San Francisco

These are the sorts of issues I want to talk about on Tuesday night at the Social Media Club San Francisco meeting that will feature a panel I am moderating with Shel Israel, Sol Lipman, Harry McCracken and Augie Ray. If you live in San Francisco, or nearby, why not come out and join us to talk about Social Media Trends 2011, and join some real industry leaders as they share their insights, and you can share your own.

Read Shel's post on 5 Social Media Trends for 2011.

Join this Conversation Here

It would be great to hear your thoughts and opinions on this post, please comment below and let's explore how we can solve for some of the challenges social media faces and talk about where we would like to take social media together, as a community of professionals.