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Social media - Over-hyped or under-used?

Parity Solutions (Social Media Portal) - 30 June 2009

Social media - Over-hyped or under-used?

With several high profile social media campaigns in the public domain, Simon Wayne, managing director of Parity Solutions discusses the impact upon organisations and consumers

From the moment Barak Obama made use of social networking in his presidential campaign, it became strikingly clear to all that social media had left the ranks of tech fad and had been widely accepted by the public as a mainstream communications tool.Photograph of imon Wayne, managing director of Parity Solutions

The rapid growth of social networking sites and their use in high-profile marketing and communications campaigns has been phenomenal. Earlier this year, the US Food and Drugs Administration used social media to deploy public safety information about product recalls, while brands including Adidas to T-Mobile spent more of their advertising budget on viral campaigns.

The explosion of the Twittersphere and growth of corporate blogs just goes to show that social media can be successfully used for business purposes. Clearly, this isn’t a passing fad.

Testing the temperature

Parity recently commissioned independent research into social networking trends and adoption rates. The study showed a fifth of us consider social media as a useful business tool. What was surprising, however, is that only a tenth of us actually use it.

Half of all respondents still preferred company email as the best way to share information on a large scale, while less than one per cent of respondents viewed corporate blogs and wikis as an effective communications method. So cutting through the hype, our research discovered that people’s actual reactions to social networking for business are decidedly cooler than we’re often led to believe.

The research suggested that many organisations are simply paying lip service to the trend, with very few making use of its full potential. Two thirds of respondents were found to have a corporate intranet, but only 17 per cent had an online discussion forum; just 14 per cent had a corporate blog. It seems that while the means is often there, it is seldom used to full effect.

The fear factor

Middle managers tend to feel most positively about social networking, but when it comes to the higher echelons of British business, it’s seen as little more than ‘socialising’ – a way for employees to procrastinate and waste valuable company time. Perhaps the likes of Facebook and Twitter, while bringing social networking to the masses, have actually done more harm than good in terms of how it perceived in a corporate sense.

Aside from its perceived lack of value, some people are concerned that social networking tools can also do actual damage to a company. Many worry that sensitive information could be leaked accidentally or maliciously, with no means of drawing it back in once it’s in the public domain. Others are wary of encouraging active participation in social media because they view it as an uncontrolled, uncensored outlet for corporate gossip and are concerned that employees could use it to the detriment of the organisation.

Yet what they are forgetting here is the potential this very method has to spread positive news and opinion – because it is used so widely, it has become a very effective tool for getting messages into the public domain. Furthermore, since it is an informal communications method, information exchanged through it is often seen as a more trusted, genuine source. Mike Freer, the Leader of Barnet Council is a great advocate of this – he has been using social media tools for over two years and strongly believes in the use of the ‘authentic voice’ rather than ‘ghost messaging.’

Reaping the rewards

In many cases, the hype around social media is destroying its real effectiveness. A fear of its power, and lack of understanding about how to harness it, is holding companies back and preventing them from reaping the full benefits. Senior management needs to engage with their workforce, however, and social media should be considered as a useful tool for doing so with today’s generation of digital natives.

Unless there is a paradigm shift in the attitude of senior management, UK organisations risk losing the race to successful deployment of social media tools before it has even begun.

As the recession bites, budgets are being cut left, right and centre. Work processes and workforce collaboration need not suffer; social media can actually help organisations combat these cutbacks by facilitating the direct transmission of information to wide audiences with relatively small overheads. For example:

  • Webinars could be introduced to replace face-to-face meetings, so reducing travel costs
  • Podcasts could be used in marketing campaigns or to replace staff training sessions
  • Corporate news and announcements could be discussed through Twitter
  • LinkedIn could be used for recruitment purposes and job advertisements

Adopting new processes and implementing change is difficult in any organisation.  Change must, and will, happen. At the moment, the social media revolution is rising from the bottom up, with the younger generations of the workforce making it an underlying element of their professional processes and work patterns. Senior management on the other hand is more resistant to it. Wary of the hype surrounding social media and the ease with which it has become a trend, they are failing to harness its business potential.

Social media can be adopted and deployed by any company, large or small, for internal and external use. To ensure its success, senior management should engage with other members of staff to understand the way in which they use social media, this could  help them tailor their corporate messages to suit the social media landscape and language.

As long as organisations invest time in planning their social media strategy and seek guidance on how best to deploy it, the technology will finally live up to the hype.

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