The Three Ailments of Social Media

As social media becomes more and more prevalent in corporate America, I'm seeing three syndromes emerge of what I call "social media saturation." These are the result of repeated exposure and reduced resistance to many virulent strains of social media memes.

One of our many jobs at Fresh Ground is to inoculate you against these terrible afflictions. What are they, exactly?

Fishbowl Syndrome

Flickr image by xploitmeMy dad is a very patient man, and he tried for a very long time to get his ADHD son interested in fishing. I didn't inherit his love for fishing, but I do remember some of the lessons he taught me. One of them was this: "be patient, but if the fish aren't biting, or you're sick of eating the same fish day in and day out, change up." Change your bait, change your location, change your tactic -- change your lake if you have to. If you're like me and dived right in to the social media fishbowl, you'll find after a while that the water gets stale. The tools may change, but the key messages haven't changed since the publication of the Cluetrain Manifesto.

Hear a strange echo in your head? No, it's not from that bender last night -- though I'm sure it didn't help -- it's the strange acoustics you find in the social media fishbowl: the same voices echoing over and over again about this or that. Are you reading the same thing day-in and day-out? While I still do learn from the social media community out there, I'll never innovate, or create anything new, if I limit my content consumption to the 40 or 50 blogs in my RSS reader, or my 50 closest friends on Twitter.

I spoke with a good friend just yesterday evening about what conferences and events we're going to, and though I'm going to make an exception with PodCamp, I'm really starting to move out of the fishbowl. If you find yourself chatting and tweeting at an event more than actually listening and learning, your money or time was not well spent.

Shiny Object Syndrome

Let's face it: we're all a little ADHD in the social media world. We want to stay on the cutting edge, but we end up living a life of distractions. I'm Twitter's biggest fan, and just as much of a Facebook addict as the next guy, and have been found guilty of oversharing on multiple occasions -- but I try my best not to lose sight that if it's not helping me become a become a smarter person or a better businessman, I need to moderate my involvement. It's really tempting to jump on the latest and greatest social media tool simply because it's there. While I recommend reserving your personal and company names on as many services, tools and social networks are you can find, I do not recommend jumping on every social media platform that flies by your window.

My concern is not so much that there is little innovation going on -- quite the opposite in fact, and more will be coming (there's a whole week of events coming in October talking about the future of marketing). My concern is that effective use of new technology requires both dissemination and adoption, and adoption requires more than just an affinity for new technology -- it requires changing how or where you do your work. This is more of a corporate culture / change management / management consulting issue than it is a marketing or technology issue, and that's where so many of us fall short in the talent pool -- the social media world is full of marketing and technology aficionados, but not nearly as many management consultant types. How do you convince companies to change how they work in order to really get the most out of their technology investment?

We're still cutting our teeth on this at Fresh Ground, but we've got some initial successes under our belt -- it helps to be working with really smart companies who know what they don't know.

Talking Head Syndrome

One of the risks of diving head first into technology -- especially social technology -- is "talking head syndrome." My favorite example of this is a company near and dear to my heart: Home Depot. Being the owner of a condo in a very old house means I spend a fair amount of time there. A couple years ago, I found myself at my local Home Depot a day before a major snowstorm looking for shovels, car scrapers and rock salt, figuring they would all be prominently (yet strategically) placed in the store. I could not find any of the three, and tweeted about their need for better merchandising. I was very pleasantly surprised to see a reply back from @HomeDepot. It was a very nice customer touch and my opinion of Home Depot shot up quickly. But my expectations shot up as well.

When the next major storm came a month later, I was disappointed (but not terribly surprised) to find that nothing had changed -- there was no rock salt, no shovels, no car scrapers to be found. I walked away more disappointed than I was the first time around, because Home Depot's great Twitter team is growing expectations that its corporate culture and technology infrastructure simply cannot meet.

This is what "talking head syndrome" is all about -- words, not backed by action. Now they've made some great improvements in customer support since that time, but I suspect that, as an example, their centralized inventory management and supply chain software hasn't been improved to allow local store managers to respond to all the feedback they get from Twitter users about local stores. Hopefully their Twitter team is better able to get the message to their centralized purchasing team now, though. What Home Depot needs to do is change its work culture to embrace social -- no easy feat I know, but it's the only way they're going to truly live up to the expectations that @HomeDepot is setting. Nice words help, but if they're not backed by action, they can end up hurting more than helping.

I'm sure there are other symptoms of social media saturation. What have I missed?

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