You would assume – since I’m the founder and CEO of a company that is selling a Social Media product, justSignal – that I’m a huge fan of “Social Media”. Perhaps I’m even a Social Media Expert. You’d assume I was going to tell you that Social Media will change everything. You’d assume that I’d tell you that Social Media will force companies to fundamentally change how they do business – they will all have to love their customers, engage them in conversation, make sure their every need is met. You’d assume that I’d be creating products that were directed at companies willing to make the culture change required to excel at Social Media – variously described as a culture of listening or a culture of engagement. You might assume any or all of those things… but you’d be wrong.
Social Media is mired in a massive hype cycle. All of the benefits are massively overstated, the value proposition is stated in only the most vague of terms and everyone is certain they know exactly what the outcome will be – the problem is, they can’t all be right. So, what is someone supposed to think, and why?
So, in an effort to clarify my position for you (and me) – I’m going to walk you through my point of view. You don’t need to like it, and you certainly are not required to agree; but I do hope this gives you some things to think about.
There is NOTHING new under the Sun
Social Media isn’t new, and the esoteric claims of value aren’t new either.
Social Media is simply an expression of the most basic of human activities – engaging and being connected to other humans. The “services” which dominate Social Media are simply tools which enable that activity. The success (or lack of success) of any of those tools can be directly related to how well they enable the fundamental human activity without adding friction that isn’t valuable.
Social Media does, however, represent a significant change (improvement?) to human engagement. That change is an echo of what the Internet has done to Shopping, Music, Journalism, and Film. Simply, Social Media is people doing what they always did: connecting, communicating, engaging in debate, participating, observing, and pontificating – with technology greatly reducing or removing the friction in distribution. Simply, Social Media is human engagement without distribution barriers.
Social Media has not fundamentally changed human behavior (nor do I believe it will). Social Media hasn’t changed my desire to be connected to smart, engaging people. It hasn’t changed the kind of people I want to be connected with. It has changed my ability to connect with people who are not geographically co-located with me. I’d have never become connected to @steelergurl because she lives in Baltimore without Social Media removing the friction in the distribution of my statements and her statements.
One result of this change in distribution is the corresponding change in consumption. While removing the friction in distribution we’ve also removed barriers to consumption. When you go to the bar with Joe to watch a football game there is massive friction in the distribution of your statements – what you say is bound by your physical location. Because of that only people in your physical location can consume those statements. However, when you tweet about the football game there is essentially no friction in the distribution of your statements. They are available to anyone who cares too consume them.
Enter the marketers and monitors
Two groups quickly realized that they could take advantage of the removal of friction in distribution and consumption; the Marketers and the Monitors. Marketers have a concept called reach:
Reach is commonly used in marketing to determine the degree of penetration into a target audience. It can be given as either a number of individuals or as a percentage.
Marketers believe that Social Media is a cost effective way to to achieve reach. That is why you see so many marketers on Twitter. They are trying to find a more cost effective way to put their message in front of the target audience.
Sadly, the marketers drive to create massive reach has – in many ways – driven the obsessive follower count fixation too many users seem plagued by. As soon as it became apparent that Social Media reach would have value – everyone wanted as many “followers” as possible.
The monitors believe that Social Media is fundamentally a way to listen for statements of interest. Those statements could be complaints about a product or service, questions about a product or service, expressions of “need” for a product or service, impressions (positive or negative) about a product or service.
Monitoring is almost always tied to some evaluation of your “brand” (personal or corporate), which has given rise to a slew of “Social Media Metrics” which attempt to derive everything from authority to engagement from statements made on Social Media. Monitoring is also the touchstone which created the most powerful Social Media rhetoric – you MUST engage, if you aren’t doing x, y and z you are doing terrible damage to your brand, Social Media will fundamentally change the way companies run, etc. The true believers preach a fundamental shift in everything from Corporate Culture to Consumer Behaviors. Companies will be forced to adopt a “culture of engagement” which is completely and utterly responsive to any and all customer needs. Consumers will no longer buy products and services based on their value – but on the level of engagement the brand has.
I spent the first 15 years of my career in Customer Support and Service organizations – both in operations and technology. I deployed, used, supported and developed CRM systems before we even called them CRM – they were ticketing systems, call logging systems or simply “the system”. When CRM (Customer Relationship Management) first emerged into the lexicon of American business I was a true believer. So much so that I was a consultant for 5 years with eLoyalty – who’s entire business was based on creating Customer Loyalty through CRM. We believed that CRM would change the way companies did business; that creating a positive relationship with customers lead directly to more sales and more customers; that any company that failed to change their culture – to become “customer centric” would fail. We were wrong.
We also believed that CRM was a marketing bonanza. The CRM system would give marketing all the information they needed to target existing customers and prospects with the right offering for them. It would allow a $5/hour phone representative to up sell and cross sell because the system would tell them what the customer should be offered – at exactly the right moment. We were wrong.
All of the rhetoric from CRM is being re-hashed by Social Media. Social Media is – in my opinion – an echo of CRM. That is why we are seeing the rise of Social CRM in the enterprise. That is why we are seeing every CRM vendor stake a claim in Social Media.
So, what do I think is the future of Social Media? Well let’s start there. I do believe there are enormous opportunities for Social Media, if you are willing to abandon the rhetoric and get realistic.
1) Social Media will NOT change corporate culture, but corporate culture will change the heck out of Social Media.
In this, Social Media will be nearly identical to CRM. CRM wasn’t technology, it was culture. Social Media is also a culture more than a technology. Businesses will not change their culture to adopt Social Media, they will leverage what they can of Social Media within the established culture. I know this because this is exactly what happened with CRM.
Businesses have established cultures for a reason. You may not like the way they interact with their customers, but that interaction is directly driven by how much you are willing to pay for the product or service that company sells. What good would your dream level of service be if the company can not be profitable delivering it? They’d go out of business, you’d have to do without the product or service – which is what you really care about.
2) When Social Media fails to deliver on the hype, experts will blame companies for “doing it wrong”.
This is, again, an echo of CRM. When early adopter companies failed to see the promised benefits from CRM the experts blamed the companies. The usual culprit was Culture – the experts told us that the companies that failed “didn’t get it” or were unwilling to “make the required cultural changes”.
3) Deriving real benefit from Social Media will be hard – there is no “purple pill”.
Part of what drives any hype cycle is the idea that a simple, low cost, low effort action can generate a massive benefit. ROI is massively overstated, the complexity and cost of executing (particularly at scale) is massively understated and the resulting disillusion is equally massive. Companies will quickly learn that deriving tangible benefit from Social Media is very difficult.
4) Companies will focus on the “low hanging fruit” – They will do what has immediate, tangible benefit.
This is, in my opinion, inevitable. CEO’s will demand some ROI on these investments – and they will take the path of least resistance to get that ROI. I don’t know what they will do, but I know it will fundamentally change what Social Media vendors make, deploy and focus on – to the abject horror of the Social Media experts. This trend will fundamentally re-make Social Media, and determine it’s fate in corporations. If – at this stage – companies can find tangible benefit Social Media will become a useful business tool.
5) Social Media will become a Customer Service/Support mechanism – and you won’t like it one bit.
Someone is going to make significant money in this category. My guess it will be Genesys – but who knows, it could be a chat vendor (LivePerson). Contact Centers will implement Social Media for support and service. Consequently they will make significant investments in semantic analysis (deciding which product/service mentions get sent to support/service) and routing/queuing technologies supporting Social Media services.
Ironically (or more realistically – naturally) the adoption of Social Media in the Contact Center will not change the quality of service. If you don’t like the support or service you get over the phone, or by email, you won’t like the support or service you get via Social Media. The logic behind this is simple, if they can’t afford to deliver the service you want over the phone, chat, or email, they can’t afford to deliver it via Social Media either. My experience tells me these companies are not evil, they are not run by nefarious evil doers who want to give you awful service, they are simply constrained by the realities of running a profitable company. Get over it.
6) Social Media usage will become ubiquitous – I remember when almost no one used email…
Because Social Media is an extension of a basic human need (connection) it will continue to grow. The only thing that can derail this is if we introduce significant friction which devalues the connection. There will be times when the spam, multi-level-marketers, and trolls will convince many that the friction is too high, and the services will face continuous pressure to deal with this friction.
On a related note, every client of these services should be focusing significant effort on the reduction of this friction.
7) Every company will make use of Social Media – Not as a change agent, but as a mechanism to do what they already need to do better and cheaper.
Vendors – to the extent they are able to create a value proposition that deals directly with the pragmatic needs of running a business, will find great success. We won’t change business, but we can make it function better using Social Media. Done well it can function better for all of it’s stakeholders (shareholders, employees and customers) – and can improve the experience delivered.
That is what I’m focused on with justSignal – using Social Media to better solve problems companies already have and are already committed to solving.
So everyday, when I sit down at my desk and try to plot the future of justSignal I remind myself of three things:
- People will engage with Social Media as long as we provide them what they want, low friction, high value connections and conversation.
- Companies will engage with Social Media (and buy my product) as long as it helps them do something they already need to do – and do it faster, better or cheaper.
- The right balance of #1 and #2 is our competitive advantage.
Am I a Social Media true believer – maybe not. Maybe I’m a Social Media pragmatist – as Robert Strohmeyer put it in his recent PCWorld article – Beware the Social Media Charlatans:
Unless you define success by the sort of loosey-goosey standards that might make your horoscope appear to actually predict the future, the real measure of any business undertaking is that it increases your profits. But in the vast majority of use cases, neither Twitter nor Facebook stands any significant chance of doing that for business users. And if you’re a small business that depends on, say, actually selling real products and services to actual paying customers, wistfully tweeting about your daily specials is almost certainly a waste of resources.
Ultimately, it’s wise to accept that time and treasure spent on social media is unlikely to reap measureable rewards for most businesses. But that hardly means it’s not worth trying. Just approach it with a modicum of reservation and take the advice of so-called experts (yes, including me) with a very large grain of salt.
What do you think? Tell me where I’ve got it wrong.