The original social media: From inukshuks to smart phones

Social media discussions often focus on gen-Y, acknowledging involvement of gen-X, and except for sharing funny YouTube videos, not much about boomers.  Each of the multiple, ill-defined communications channels called social media has its own characteristics and audiences.  Not using them well will linger in cyberspace for a long time.  Planning before jumping in requires careful thought and like any communications plan, must identify the target audience, the message, and how it can be delivered effectively.  With the rush to adopt social media – OMG all of our competition is on Facebook – the CIO needs to guide the discussion of what types of social media may be best suited to reach which audiences to fulfill corporate objectives.    

Social media probably started with petroglyphs and inukshuks as ways to communicate between people not physically present at the same time and place.  Jumping over invention of written language, moveable type and mass printing, snail mail, and the telegraph, today’s social media descends from the telephone in the hands of the boomer teenager.  Telephone relationships were one-to-one and an extension of direct personal contact.  The two parties knew each other and shared similar cultural backgrounds: the same town and high school (no 5 cents/minute long distance plans).  As a call couldn’t be shared by a group, sharing was by retelling, with its inherent distortions, illustrated by the children’s “telephone” game.  

With networking and home computers came email and BBS (bulletin board systems), with one-to-many relationships.  Initially the speed (1200 baud) and text-only nature of the messages limited acceptance, but distance and being part of a face-to-face social network were no longer barriers.  At the start, BBS use was computer focused – UNIX, GNU, C, etc. – but quickly broadened, sharing jokes (alt.rec.humor), or hobby related discussions (rec.hamradio).  BBS has flourished into today as internet reflectors, Yahoo™ groups, and LinkedIn discussion boards.  Like email sent to a distribution list, the audience is based solely on interest (what’s in it for me?).   Group cohesiveness and stickiness, the likelihood that members stay engaged, is greatly reduced.  

The more recent forms of social media create many-to-many relationships, increasing the audience and  further diluting the engagement of an individual to the group.  A Facebook “like” to get a $1 off coupon for a burger doesn’t necessarily imply that you love McHarveys, prefer their burgers to others, or even that you eat burgers often.  It may be transactional: a chance to save a buck on lunch.  

The corporate challenge in how to use social networking is defining the audiences and the objectives for each, and then selecting appropriate channels.  Many companies support two types of channels.  One is internal, employees-only sharing of information.  This electronic coffee pot allows knowledge transfer and idea exchange within the company’s virtual “walls,” enhancing the informal organization by making it available to all staff.  Previously, you had to know who to call.  The closed, cohesive group can improve internal communications by breaking down silos created by time zones, physical location, and management structure.  

The second set of channels is external.  Seen as the ultimate way to reach customers cheaply and effectively, Facebook, Twitter, et al offer access to an audience at very low cost, but you get what you pay for.  Those audiences may not care about your pet food or your company, but enjoy the daily cute cat cartoon (there’s an app for that).  With an open audience, the media also includes competitors gathering market intelligence, and provides a platform for those who want a forum to tell the world about your perceived and real shortcomings.  The marketing metric of 25,000 “likes” says what?  That 25,000 people are loyal users of your products and recommend them to their friends?  Or do they want the cartoon and will “unlike” the feed as soon as the clutter (your marketing messages) gets annoying?  Transactions don’t automatically make a relationship.  A customer paying bills online doesn’t mean that their bank has earned creditability to sell them house insurance.  The relationship is defined by the consumers’ needs, not a B2C transaction.  Effective use of social media requires careful analysis as to which channels and message formats are going to be effective to reach your desired audiences.  Only then is it IT’s job is to make it happen, by yesterday or sooner.  

The social media seminar ice breaker “who is wearing a wrist watch?” to identify the gen-Yers in the room is cute, but does it differentiate between those who totally integrate their mobile device into their life from those who don’t?  The wristwatch wearing gen-X and boomers also carry mobile devices.  Instead may be related to thinking style.  A mobile device displays time digitally, 08:40 (forty minutes after eight); while the wristwatch displays a pattern, Mickey’s hands are on the 8 (it’s getting to quarter to nine).  Same time, different display and thought processes.  Imagine driving a car where all information was displayed digitally, instead of with dials with numbers and an indicator needle.  Is it as intuitive to scan digital displays quickly and determine car speed, whether engine revs are appropriate, fuel remaining?  

Adjusting to an audience thinking style may mean that a 7-minute video is a great product sales tool for some, but you may prefer to speed-read text with pictures and won’t invest 7-minutes to go at their pace.  Without that choice, the message will be lost.  But if you’re trying to fix your daughter’s bicycle, a 5-minute video of how to adjust the gear derailleur may be exactly what’s needed and far more helpful than a written description with pictures.  Successful message delivery depends on what information the audience wants at the time and how it expects to receive it.

The instant anywhere availability of social media has changed how we behave, tethered to our smart phones and tablets. The mobile internet has spawned a burgeoning number of new channels for communicating with each other.  For the CIO, this proliferation of touchpoints adds additional challenges for service and support while ensuring data integrity and security.  As with any business application, social media require the direct involvement of the line of business. Where social media differ is that the technology is a pure conduit and business owner is both end-user and service operator. 

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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