Communications is not based upon technology
It’s surprising how much, even in 2014, I talk about this. To friends. To colleagues. And now, in blog posts.
I’ve had the
good fortune wanderlust to work in three public relations/public affairs agencies, one international corporation that is about to be the largest IPO in history as well as two stints in the federal government – and a few other gigs. I’ve been doing “online” since 1997, when Mark Zuckerberg was 13 years old.
“Back in the day” (my kids make the Grandpa Simpson voice when I use that expression), when I got started doing online public affairs, the cutting edge technology was the ability to enter your zip code and then generate an email to your elected representative. On your 36000 baud modem. Technology could NEVER get better than this, right?
Well, now there are countless publishing platforms in the hands of anyone (outside of China and other Communist countries) like WordPress, Facebook or Twitter in which you can spark communication with others. Or entertain them. Or influence them. Or, as I have often done in the past, piss them off.
But even since 1997 in an industry where the only constant is change, there is one thing that has not, and never will change: you have to be a good communicator first, and a technologist second.
Why good communications skills matter
If you aspire to be a social media expert, at the heart of what you will do is communication. You’ll have one or more intended audiences, one or a set of messages, channels through which you will send these, and hopefully a way to measure the success of your efforts. Period. Full stop.
Disappointingly, what I still find is that many organizations (and scarily, employers looking to hire social media “experts”) are focus on is the wrong thing: the bright, shiny social media platforms.
I can’t tell you how many times I have heard, usually from senior management who have just read a Wall Street Journal piece on the topic, “WE NEED TWITTER/FACEBOOK/PINTEREST“!” That’s great. But a nicely done Facebook page is not going to help you achieve what you ultimately want to do, which is to use the channel to convey your (again, hopefully) carefully crafted message. A social media plan chock full of tactics that are not first rooted in a communications strategy is like putting lipstick on a pig.
How this hurts companies
Far too often, when people within organizations get starry-eyed at the prospect of using a popular social media platform to disseminate critical messages, bad things happen, like:
- Hiring a “guru.” If a company (or a dumb-ass boss) becomes fixated on a piece of technology, they will likely hire someone who is expert in the technology, not in communications. I think that we are, for the most part, moving past the era of companies hiring hipsters with soul patches who show up at work in pajamas and are hired based upon the number of Facebook fans they have, but if you fixate on wrong things, like pure use of the tools, you’ll miss the mark in hiring the right person to help you get your messages across.
- A revolving door. If you are, in fact, a communicator who happens to be good at social media and are instructed (as I have been) to launch a platform that you know is doomed to failure because it just doesn’t fit, this is demoralizing. And sooner or later, when it fails (and it will), where will the blame land? Squarely on your desk. This drives good, strategic thinkers out the door and results in a social media “brain drain.” You’ll lose good, smart people.
- Overestimating the impact of social media. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that your company fixates on a platform, your are good at communicating and connecting with your audience and you DO manage to generate a healthy number of Facebook and Twitter followers. Good for you. But what does this mean in terms of achieving communications objectives? Usually, a lot of big numbers are good to present to management, but recent survey have shown two stark realities about these “big” numbers:
- SocialFlow conducted a study between April 1 and July 31 analyzing 1.6m organic posts from Twitter, Facebook and Google+. Shockingly, they discovered that 99% of organic social posts create almost no engagement. So amassing big numbers of fans does not mean that they will think, act on, or pass on the information that you push out via your social media channels.
- Again, in another recent study conducted by Brightedge revealed that what’s old is new again: Google will drive more traffic to your web site than Facebook. They found that organic search drives 51% Of traffic, social only 5%.
Does all of this mean that you should abandon ship and ditch all of your social media programs? Hell, no. It’s just important to a) keep this in mind when you are really thinking about your “large” audiences on Facebook and b) be very careful about the way that you communicate what success is to management (NOTE: you should have determined what “success” is BEFORE you launched your communications initiative). I’ve written about good measurement many times before, but it still continues to be an issue in social media.
For more than 100 years, communications professionals have been placing ads in newspapers, billboards at the side of highways, and now, content on social media platforms. But what was true 100 years ago is still true today: the ad, billboard or Like is not the important part of your communications or outreach efforts; these are just channels. The important part is crafting a good message and choosing the best tool to get it to the people you want to reach.
What is old is new again. Hopefully.
Image credit: Fitz Crittle Photography, via Flick Commons