In the Social Media Barnyard

After several years of holding social media conferences, publishing books and unleashing thousands of social media consultants on the world, we are an industry that does not command respect as a business discipline.  73% of CEO’s think marketers lack business credibility, and most CMOs are sadly under-prepared to leverage social media as a platform.   In the past 5 years, hundreds of millions of consumers have shifted a significant amount of their time to social media-based activities.  And yet business leaders don’t see how that will affect their bottom line, or what they should do about it.

Here’s why.  This what the social media industry looks like to people outside of the bubble:

social media buzzwords and the focus on personal branding are undermining the credibility of the social media industry.
The rooster and the hens get social.

1. The Hens:  too many words, not enough action.

I attended a conference this week that included a panel on social commerce.  Of the five people involved in the panel, only one panelist had any idea what social commerce actually means, and how it’s different from e-commerce or social marketing in general.  (Hint:  friends + shopping cart.)

Of course we need new words to describe new things and new behaviors.  But we need to stop swarming the latest shiny new thing or chattering about the latest buzzword without really taking the trouble to understand it in context.

More importantly, we need to understand that some of the words and behaviors we’re describing are not really all that new.  There have always been “influencers.”   It’s just that today, you can be an influencer without owning a printing press, an org chart or an army.

So don’t just pull a Klout score.  Do the hard work.  If anyone can be a potential influencer, how does that create new opportunities for your business?  How does it change the way you define customer segments? What is the impact on how you approach PR or customer service?  This is not easy, but it’s fun and exciting and it needs to be done if we as an industry are ever going to have any influence.

2. The Rooster and the Battle of the Brands

In an important article published in Forbes this week, Jennifer Leggio recalls a time when “there was true community” on Twitter — before lists, scoring and influence models — and when “businesses would demonstrate an earnestness and candor that endeared customers to the brands.”  Of course the market had to mature and evolve.  But why have we lost that sense of wonder and delight and unlimited possibilities?  And where along the way did we fail to gain respect for the importance of what we were doing?  When did it stop being real?

Jennifer’s Forbes article is titled “The Battle for Social Media Authenticity,” and it’s the first time I’ve seen a general business publication question the rise of personal brands, “those who have branded themselves as part of their business.”  She interviews Geoff Livingston and Brian Solis;  Geoff believes that “the pursuit of personal branding has severely tarnished social media as a whole.”

Yes, companies are made up of people.  Social media restores the ability for customers to feel they are dealing with real people, even when they are interacting with large multi-national brands, as Maddie Grant and Jamie Notter describe in their terrific new book.  Do this right, and it builds loyalty, turns your customers into your best sales people, and increases revenue.

But where we go wrong is when we mistake the personal brand for the brand of the product or service that the customer is buying.  Yes, it’s cool that I can get on Quora and compare hip hop one-liners with Foursquare founder Dennis Crowley.  But the fact that Crowley is cool or “authentic” is not what has created 14 million Foursquare users.  The fact that he’s smart, creative, hard-working and a good leader of people are a heck more relevant.  And when I check in, it’s with the Foursquare brand, not with someone’s personal brand.

And what in the name of Old Macdonald are we trying to accomplish by going to conferences to hear from a Celebrity CMO?  How is any CEO or customer in their right mind going to take that seriously?

Out of the Barnyard

The social media revolution is going to happen in spite of the buzzwords and the gurus.  After all, our customers are the ones who are really in charge, and they’re charging full speed ahead.

But if we become a little more thoughtful about it, we can be far better prepared to take advantage of it and guide our companies or clients through the changes that are happening.  Don’t use a buzzword when you can use a plain, simple word instead.  Question popular concepts (influence, engagement, ROI) until you’ve formed your own understanding of what they mean and how they relate to your business and your customers.  Don’t use an infographic where a simple chart will do.  Read the case studies and the research.  Spend time with the people who are actually making realtime business happen, not just the people who are writing the books or giving the keynotes.

Most importantly, don’t be intimidated by the big words or the famous names.  They’re just the roosters and hens in your barnyard.  It’s your business, and you know far more about your customers and how to use social media to create real business benefits than they do.