Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Social Media Conversation Needs a Refresh

I attended Eye for Travel’s excellent “Social Media Strategies for Travel” (#smtravel11) last week in San Francisco. What a great event! @Susantravels was a deeply knowledgeable moderator, the speakers were great, and the networking events were at just the right level. I’m very happy that I was able to attend. After listening to (and participating in) so many informative/creative/ inspiring discussions, I’m coming away with a revelation: Social Media is hitting its first point of maturity, and, with that, the dialog of practicing social media is starting to get stale.

I know: We don’t usually see the phrase “social media” and “stale” in the same sentence, but I’ve gone and said it anyway. Here’s why: For the past two to four years, practitioners of social media have operated as a sort of cognoscenti society where the attendees “get it” and they have to figure out how to do their good work in organizations that, by and large, “don’t get it.” Based on my experiences, this “us and them” context seems to have three general effects on the Social Media Community:
  • The underlying context of many social media discussions assumes limited budgets, confused or uninterested management, and immediate needs to prove ROI. 
  • The social media community, while vibrant in its own right, often has its blinders on with regards to interactions with other, non-marketing or customer service teams in their organizations.
  • This relatively insular community has been swept up in shiny object syndrome. This is understandable: it's hard work keeping pace with the innovations, creativity, and new platforms that are cropping up on a weekly basis. And don’t forget the unprecedented adoption rates of social media at large.
Despite the excellent and even passionate exchange of ideas at #smtravel11, I believe that these old patterns were as alive and pervasive as ever. The patterns persist, however, despite the fact that there are increasingly fewer executives who outright reject social media platforms. It has happened quickly, but the majority of executives today understand (to some degree) the general roles social media now plays in the marketplace, and there is no shortage of evidence that social media spending is on the rise. (Any recent survey from Marketing Sherpa, for example, will back these claims.)

So, if the executives are now also drinking the social media kool-aid, the conversation needs to evolve. Today, practitioners of Social Media need a broader skill set and a higher vantage point if they are to mature and incorporate their work into larger organizational efforts. In essence, it’s becoming time to leave the kids table and sit with the grown-ups. In support of this “new conversation” here’s where I believe the conversation needs to grow in the next 12 months:
  • Back-to-basics focus on objectives: A focus on “engagement” is simply insufficient. Are we seeking to diminish phonecalls? Grow lifetime value? Increase sales through evangelists? A sobering look at objectives brings relevance to the larger organization and identifies the right metrics. It also puts the following bullets in context…
  • Interdepartmental use of social media: This concept was originally championed in The Groundswell and The Cluetrain Manifesto (among others), but still has been embraced by only the most forward-thinking of organizations. Social Media should inform R&D, HR, crowd-sourced customer support, organizational improvement, and more. The focus does not always have to be on customer-facing commerce.
  • A broader understanding of how social media can work in concert with “traditional” channels: The marketplace is rife with examples of social media efforts cannibalizing the traffic of traditional channels that (currently) have far more opportunities for conversion. As stated above, social media must break out of the silo and work in more informed partnership with other channels.
  • A new focus on the process of social media: We see so many great social media ideas at these events, but they leave a lot of open questions for me: Are these campaigns scalable or repeatable? How many FTE’s does it take to support these efforts today? How many would it take a year from now? These are just some of the questions that need to be addressed in a more formal manner, along with better recommendations for roles & responsibilities descriptions and business workflow definition…
I am not suggesting that these topics should replace our typical conversations regarding the latest and greatest features and campaigns. We will always need and enjoy those discussions – in fact we will enjoy them much more than discussions about business workflows! But, even if my points are notably less shiny than talking about, say, Hipmunk, they are critical for any serious discussion of social media’s future. Social Media is a rapidly expanding field. Those practitioners who are successful in switching gears and addressing these points will be the ones who best serve their organizations, as well as their own careers. So let’s get the conversation started!