Social Media Week: The Integration Dilemma

Social Media Week - which just concluded - highlighted the tension between those who wanted to contain social media to certain parts of businesses, and those who want it to utterly transform the cultural landscape.

For those of us who have been in this social media game for a decade or more (not that it was yet called social media back then…), it seems faintly staggering that we've reached a point where there can be an international Social Media Week, with events held in cities worldwide. I spent time between liveblogging the sessions I attended watching both the local (London, in my case) and international hashtags. And it pretty quickly became apparent that there were two very different themes at play in the events happening worldwide, based on the messages and discussions flowing past.

In one camp, you had social media as marketing or PR. A large number of these events were driven by agencies making a play for that sort of business – selling social media to companies as a sort of marketing “bolt-on” to a largely traditional set of business processes. That's not to say there wasn't a lot of interesting, innovative stuff being talked about. It just seemed to have an in-built equation of social media with marketing – and I think that's doing social tools a massive disservice. It's like thinking that the telephone can only be use for making sales calls…

At the other end of the scale, you had people pondering the enterprise and societal consequences of the rise of these tools, and the impact on our culture of truly integrating social tools into our social structures (be they governmental, business or personal). These were fascinating discussion, if sometimes somewhat theoretical rather than practical. You'll forgive me if I quote from my own liveblog of one of the Like Minds events, where this conflict was touched upon:

We’re turning social media into a “thing” – it’s the thingification of social media. It becomes sellable, marketable, something people have to do. But what I see is the web becoming part people’s lives, and encroaching into their workplaces.

That was based on Euan Semple's talk during the Like Minds Social Business Immersive. He was alluding to the very struggle I was seeing played out in the events across the world; the clash between the “thingification” of social media, where it's neatly packaged up and sold as a set of marketing services, and the transformational use of social media, where the whole enterprise is changed utterly by its existence.

Alan Patrick picked up on some of these themes in a post on Broadstuff:

However, our work has also found two other rather more subtle factors:
(i) One of the impacts of Social Media is that the customer service reputation is now a major part of the buying process. c 90% of all buyers go online before buying now, and a bad service reputation is quite a big part of the buying decision (We have researched this for clients – its is a major purchase driver, especially for higher cost/longer duration deals)
(ii) It is fairly well known that if there is a disconnect between the Company Spiel and reality, it is found out much faster, goes farther with social media, and is harder to manipulate. It is also now possible, by tracking the datastream, to understand which disconnects matter most, and understand it early. So far so good – now here is the kicker. More and more customers know this, and are becoming familiar with it, so they expect far more rapid action – and many more of your customers work in customer service in some form or another, or know someone who does, so are becoming far more savvy. And they are getting more clued up about privacy issues too.

The compartmentalisation of social into marketing is inherently doomed: customers will quickly see through the veneer of a company that hasn't truly embraced the changes than these new technologies bring.

My intuition – and I can't claim much more than that here – is that we're seeing multiple forces at work here. For sure, at one end you have the fast buck merchants looking to make something off the latest big thing. At the other end, you have the digital utopians, who think we're coasting towards some sort of paradisiacal era of mass communication. And, somewhere in the middle, you have people bringing the personal experiences from their own use of social media to their working lives, being mixed with corporate experimentation with both good and poor results – but experience and learning either way.

If we accept the idea that we're pushing towards the post digital state that's the themes of this year's conference, then the “thingification” process is either a  dead end, or a rather pointless diversion on the road, one that restricts you from seeing the possibilities outlines in point (ii) that Alan makes above. Experimentation, analysis, interaction and more experimentation is the process that fully integrates social media into our lives and our businesses. The business transformation is harder work – and Alan makes that point towards the end of his post – and requires a robust technological and structural underpinning – but, in the end, is a necessary change for companies to transition fulling into the digital age, and thus be ready for the post-digital era.