The 'Social Media' Quality Problem: What a Racket

Gary & the Hornets Oskar Weiner US TV Commercial, 1967While it is highly desirable to stimulate dialog between business units, individuals, partners and of course customers in order to encourage cross pollination and capture ideas collaboratively, there is a parallel challenge of the quality and quantity of information.

Gary & the Hornets Oskar Weiner US TV Commercial, 1967

While it is highly desirable to stimulate dialog between business units, individuals, partners and of course customers in order to encourage cross pollination and capture ideas collaboratively, there is a parallel challenge of the quality and quantity of information.

Tammy Erickson's 'Across the Ages' blog on Harvard Business Publishing has another good post this month titled 'When to Keep Your Mouth Shut':

The pilot on tonight's flight just came on with an important announcement: we have enough fuel to get to Boston.

Hmmm. I probably was assuming that before he mentioned it. Is this something I really want to have brought to my attention? Is this something I need to hear?

I started to imagine all the other situations in which I really would not appreciate an announcement. How about a nurse who assured you that the syringe she's about to stick in your arm has never been used before? Or a waitress who mentioned that she washed her hands before she made your sandwich? Again, really something I prefer you not call to my attention....

The type of banter seen in text messaging, twitter and wikis/forums can often 'say too much'  in a business context, either not adding any value or worst case sowing doubt.

The problem of clutter is well known to anyone using email: in the early days that messaging medium was effective, but its immediacy rapidly got wiped out by spam and sloppy usage. One of the reasons for the rapid growth of Twitter has been brevity and effective connectivity by early adopters. That platform is now struggling with the network effect of celebrity follower races and clever 'below the line' promotional uptake of tweetups and contextual connectivity with consumers.

For every appropriate usage of 'social media' by marketing practitioners there are dozens of clumsy amateurs cluttering the channel. Nothing new here: most advertising has historically been creatively terrible for a variety of reasons. The sad history of email marketing creativity should be a warning for 'social media marketing expert' wannabe's, as this article in Marketing Sherpa entitled 'Majority of Marketers Believe No Experience is Needed to be a Social Media Expert' portends. (Thanks to @itsinsider for this link).

Marketing Sherpa essentially says two-thirds of marketers who work for organizations that haven't used any form of social media marketing consider themselves “very knowledgeable” or “somewhat knowledgeable” about this emerging field. This unproven ability and overconfidence can doom social media initiatives to failure and produce a flood of mediocrity that clogs the pipes....not unlike the legions of past advertising clients who feel because they have consumed a lifetime of marketing messages they are somehow marketers themselves.

Sites like Clickz and research focused MarketingSherpa have been round the block through the entire online advertising era from the earliest marketing emails and banner ads and know a thing or two about this world.

The Marketing Sherpa 'Ecommerce Benchmark Report' (excerpt downloadable here, full report $197) is well worth consuming if you have aspirations to understanding the world of guaranteeing delivery of messages to multiple millions of eyeballs and then measuring effectiveness metrics.

The chart below (titled 'Social Media is Here, But… Low-Cost Traffic Sources Compared") from this report shows how large companies rate the effectiveness of social tactics. (Separately, large companies are shown to be more in tune with these tactics than smaller ones, obviously tactics vary by organization and need).

The metrics challenge of measuring click throughs - banner ads, like their brethren print display ads and TV spots are branding efforts and not below the line direct response devices - are hugely challenging for 'social media' campaigns. there aren't any industry wide analytics yet to measure effectiveness, although companies like Radian6 are making giant strides. The network effect of effective campaigns is clearly huge but largely anecdotal at this point. (The same issue is true for Enterprise 2.0).

While 'social' marketing campaigns are effective they are still a rounding error in size compared to the huge volume SEO (search engine optimization) and email marketing campaigns. Mass online usage is still very much defined by search and email.

There's no question that word of mouth is absolutely the best form of advertising. My point here is that quality and relevance defines effective propagation.

I'm talking about 'social media' advertising and PR in this post today because the signal to noise ratio by those attempting to stoke up marketing buzz around this has a big impact on perceptions of internal collaboration.

The ways in which companies operate internally, the way knowledge and information is shared and collaborated on, is very different to attention getting 'viral campaigns' and 'any publicity is good publicity' larger than life, attention grabbing actions.

Many of the current marketing attempts at being experiential in interactions with followers on Twitter etc have all the authenticity of the '60's US TV 'Oskar Mayer Weiner' spot at the top of this post. There are periods when mass media has totally lost touch with reality and credibility - strip mining anything of cultural value to sell product and thus debasing it.  (Michael Jackson losing control of the Beatles back catalog is a good example - their songs are now appearing in commercials and films).

We appear to be in danger, worst case scenario, of this happening with online marketing. For every 'Social Media' Gary Vanderchuk there are many TV infomercial Tony Littles...

While this type of activity may be effective product marketing in some cases, it is a world away from the fundamentally different proposition of doing more with less by organizing around Enterprise 2.0 style tools.

As Andrew Conry-Murray succinctly writes in his excellent piece 'Can Enterprise Social Networking Pay Off' piece, the business value of 'social networking' or Enterprise 2.0, includes:

• Bridging geographical and organizational information divisions by moving conversations out of email and hallways and into shared spaces such as blogs and wikis

• Providing business value by letting people add context to information stores, which helps others identify what’s useful to them and makes search results more relevant, and

• Helping people find and connect with co-workers through user profiles, expert search, and social graphs that provide a visual map of an employee’s connections with co-workers.

These core values are in danger of being overshadowed by the tsunamai of 'social media' noise which is another discipline entirely, to put it tactfully...