Getting old minds to meet social minds

Where can you be a farmer, café owner and member of the Mafia, all at the same time? Why, on Facebook, of course.

Where can you be a farmer, café owner and member of the Mafia, all at the same time? Why, on Facebook, of course. And where can you discuss your experience of farming, running a café and doing a job in 140 characters? Why, on Twitter, of course.

There's no denying we've entered an era of social networks.

Microblogging site Twitter, which many probably still think lacks business viability, reached 5 billion Tweets last October and has 58 million users a month globally. Facebook boasts an even bigger fanbase of 350 million users as of end-2009, from just 150 million in January 2009.

Just this week, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates joined the hordes of Tweetering Twitterers and promptly amassed a groupie of followers that currently clocks in at over 293,000, from just 50,000 hours after he signed up.

Even with those stats in mind, however, there is still strong resistance in some segments of the industry that's keeping them from tapping this increasingly social environment.

During a discussion at a Singapore tertiary institute this week, I suggested the use of social networks as a way to draw students to participate in classroom discussions. The teaching staff had lamented how they were struggling to encourage reticent students to communicate more and speak out during lessons.

My suggestion was met almost immediately with counterarguments that this would instead encourage the students to withdraw further into a virtual world devoid of real physical contact. I explained that the idea is to use social networks first as a tool to help ease the students' hesitation by providing an environment that they're familiar with, and then transition them from this virtual platform to the physical classroom environment.

But, there remained strong apprehension among the teaching staff about using social networks as integral part of the curriculum. In fact, the school has yet to use any social networking tool as a way to communicate with the student or teaching cohort.

I find this a great pity.

A survey released today by integrated marketing software vendor Alterian, 66 percent of marketeers indicated plans to invest in social media marketing over the next 12 months. According to the study, which polled 1,068 marketing professionals worldwide, 40 percent of respondents said they would move 20 percent of their traditional direct marketing budgets toward social media marketing. Some 67 percent saw social networks as increasingly important or critical to success.

Alterian's Asia-Pacific senior vice president Chris Tew dubbed 2010 the start of "the digital decade for marketing".

Whether his prediction will ring true remains to be seen but we've already witnessed brands such as furniture chain Ikea, extending its marketing strategy to include PC game The Sims. More recently, Universal Studios used social media game Mafia Wars, as a platform to promote the DVD release of its film Public Enemies.

If we decide against using social networks as a teaching aid simply because we fear the effects of a new and unfamiliar environment, we'll be sending out a generation of fresh grads without the proper skills and knowledge to put together a marketing strategy that can effectively target any audience, across any platform.

Fear inhibits the potential for improvement. Rather than shrug off new tools that have the potential to better our work processes because we're afraid it may negatively impact the business, we could instead put in place user policies and safe checks to mitigate that risk.

At the Singapore tertiary institute this week, we had a panel discussion where students were asked to Tweet their questions and views related to the topic, which were then displayed on the screen. Those who did were later invited to elaborate on their question--or opinion--during the Q&A. It triggered an engaging discussion where other students proceeded to raise their hands, physically, and ask their questions, in person.

This is a great example of how a social networking tool had helped spark an interactive dialog, which later transitioned into the physical world. Sure, there were sniggers and slight interruptions when students reacted to new Tweets that showed up on the screen. But these were minor distractions, and the benefits from the highly interactive dialog that followed far outweighed the disruptions.

With their affinity for all things Internet, today's generations are in a great position to marry new media tools with proven business practices. That's the value position they can offer to prospective employers when they're ready to join the workforce.

But they will first need a learning environment that can help them develop, not inhibit, this potential.