M-A-M™: Understanding Social Media

In Technology by J Michel Metz4 Comments

Way back in 1993 I started my doctoral dissertation on what was then known as “Computer Mediated Communication.” Nowadays it’s better known as “Social Media,” and even though I may have been 15 years too early with Web 2.0, before Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or MySpace, human nature hasn’t changed at all.

Suddenly, I’ve been speaking more about my doctoral dissertation in the past month than I have in the past decade. The fascinating thing is that the same questions come up over and over again – the same ones that came up 15 years ago:

  • Everyone’s talking about <Technology>. Does it actually work? How does it work?
  • How can <Technology> make me money?
  • Should I use <Technology> or <Alternative Technology>?

Insert any number of new tech in between the brackets – email, chat rooms, Twitter, Fan Pages, etc. – and you’ll begin to understand that the questions aren’t really changing at all, only the tech.

As I said, I was a bit ahead of the curve. In 1997, when I completed my Ph.D, Mosaic and Navigator were the new kids on the block. I was still explaining what email was to my students, as well as to faculty. As difficult as it is to understand now with the @ symbol present on every advertisement, business card, byline and corporate identity, there was actually a time when people simply didn’t know what email and the web truly meant.

A short anecdote: upon starting my PhD program one of the old-time newspaper faculty confronted me in the orientation for new graduate students. Immediately he challenged me: “I don’t see what’s ‘Mass Communication’ about the Internet. It’s a Fad. Newspapers will always be around, and this electronic thingy will run its course.” I told him that we should have this conversation in 15 years and see which one of us had hitched to the right wagon.

There are fads within electronic social media, it’s true. This is what causes C-level execs the greatest headache and heartache. No one wants to place all their chips on a bet that’s never going to come in, but at the same time no one wants to miss the boat.

The key to understanding how social media can help you (or your company), is to understand how people use it, as well as why.

The most important finding from my doctoral research was that people will gravitate to their preferred method of communication naturally and without coercion or persuasion. These means of communication are cultural in nature, and often this is the form of the clashes when companies merge. For instance, when HP and Compaq merged, the corporate cultures were difficult to assimilate because, in part, one company preferred email while the other preferred using the telephone.

“Didn’t you get my email?”

“Yes, I called you back. Didn’t you get my message?”

As a result, this fundamental misalignment of cultures means that even within the existing HP culture there are still those who do not affiliate themselves as HP, but rather Compaq (and even DEC!).

This means that you can’t simply create a corporate Twitter account or a Facebook Fan Page for your company and then force your intended audience to meet you there. This may sound like a no-brainer, but I’m pretty sure you’ve already thought of several examples in your head of companies who have done just that.

The second thing to remember is that online cultures are structured, in part, by the programs that are used to facilitate the communication. On the one hand this may seem intuitive, and yet on the other it may seem a bit convoluted. I’ll try to explain in order to clarify.

Suppose you have a Facebook account, a LinkedIn account, and a Twitter account. Now, think about the people you associate with on each of these accounts. Most people that I’ve spoken with have separated out the connections on these systems because of (legitimate) concerns about the content that is shared across them.

The software programs behind-the-scenes for each of these sites provide an infrastructure of communication that are incorporated into different cultures. For instance, LinkedIn facilitates a business-communication environment, and its plug-ins assist in that. The individual’s profile is structured like a resume (CV) and the methods of communication – what is allowed, permitted, and disallowed – is relatively strict.

Facebook, on the other hand, is far more fast and loose in what is permissible. It is possible to peruse friend’s friend lists – often several levels deep – and extend communication to those multiple degrees of freedom. LinkedIn severely restricts such communication and as a result is not perceived as “open” as Facebook.

Facebook’s Fan Pages, to that end, are puzzling. On the one hand, companies that are looking to create a stronger affiliation with individuals should be commended for attempting to look where their target audience is. On the other hand, most companies are just doing it wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong!

Take a look at QLogic’s Facebook Fan page, for instance. It’s a repository for press releases, and nearly all of its 118 (at the time of writing) “fans” are current or past employees, mandated to join. Who exactly is this page for? What contributions are fans supposed to be making? What kind of culture can be generated through a long line of “Read This” postings?

Now take a look at Ford Motor Company’s Fan page. With 60k+ fans it is a congregation place for, well, fans. Ford understands something that QLogic does not: in order to engender affiliation there must be something to affiliate with. Participants to the page have a sense of social ownership that is simply not permitted in QLogic’s fan page.

When people affiliate themselves with a company, which is precisely what Fan Pages are designed to do, they will necessarily take control over that social ownership out of the hands of the company. This requires that a CEO or CMO or VP of Sales must accept that they will lose control over the content. My advice (backed up by doctoral research): If you can’t stand the heat, don’t jump into the furnace.

Twitter, of course, is the current rage, and is promoted as being the end-all, be-all of B2B communication. Need a job? Get on Twitter! Need an employee? Get on Twitter! Sitting in an airport? Get on Twitter!

I believe that, intuitively, people understand that Twitter (in-and-of-itself) cannot find you a job, an employee, or get you on your flight faster – and they are correct.

Twitter, like LinkedIn and Facebook, provides a methodology for affiliation, a means of communication that works with people who are already geared towards that type of communication. Twitter is useful in reaching out to that audience already, but it is something that takes a lot of time to build a quality audience, rather than just broadcasting into the ether.

To the point that Twitter can help generate discussion and conversation (or interest), it can be a very successful business tool. It is a hybrid of Facebook and LinkedIn, when used for business purposes. It is the out-of-control, instant socialization of corporate identity, with all the risks and rewards attached.

This blog post will be twittered upon its completion, for instance. The six followers I have will most likely ignore it. 🙂 However, should one person see the advertisement of this post useful or salient, s/he may forward the link along to someone who may also be interested.

To that end, I may wind up getting a few additional followers on Twitter, or subscribers to this blog. The content may encourage participation, questions, dialogue. This, in turn may attract attention to some of the other posts, where the same process will occur at some point.

In other words, this process is not new. In fact, neither Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or WordPress are the mitigating factors in my success or failure: it is my consistency and follow-through that determines whether or not people wish to affiliate with me (or, if I were a company, with my corporate identity).

These new technologies are additional toolbelt items. The risk companies have is that they see a new hammer and suddenly everything becomes a nail. Regrettably, you cannot build a house with only a hammer, and in order to allow social media to work for you (or your company), you must learn how to understand each tool’s strengths and weaknesses, and how they work together.

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M-A-M™ and Yes, M-A-M™ Copyright 1999-2010 J Michel Metz, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.


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