As I have previously observed, there are a lot of Cs in social media (content, collaboration, community, conversation, consultant etc. etc.). However, I now think we are in a position to decide which of all these words is the most important – and I hope that that 2014 will be the year we come to recognise the all-conquering importance of the Connection word.
A couple of weeks ago I was at the #SocialAtScale event organised by Sprinklr – an enterprise platform that, perhaps more than many others out there, is all about connecting disparate streams of social media activity (Jeremy, correct me if I am wrong). This event was essentially a discussion about where a number companies are ‘at’ when it comes to managing social media. The stand-out example for me was Microsoft (a Sprinklr client, who were also co-hosting the event). Microsoft, of course, has a long history of involvement in social media and has probably been the bravest in de-centralising their approach: basically just telling people to get out there and get on with it. I rather liked this bravery. But it now appears that Microsoft is looking to tame the chaos somewhat and re-assert some element of control, one of the reasons it has turned to Sprinklr.
The new Microsoft approach to social was outlined by Georgina Lewis, who talked about rationalising the numbers of channels and platforms and the mantra “hashtags not handles” (incidentally, this is a mantra which I heartily endorse, not just from the control perspective, but because a hashtag is a space, and a handle is a place – and social media is much more about spaces than places). However, I couldn’t escape the feeling that this was an approach that was primarily about controlling the output, based on the assumption that uncontrolled output was likely to involve inefficiencies or confusion. So I asked Georgina about how listening (input) factored into the process and she candidly admitted that the balance had swung in favour of output and that one of the things Microsoft now needed look at was how to re-calibrate the approach, so that incoming gets more attention.
And this seemed to highlight an important issue. We tend to see these things as separate concepts: input versus output, listening versus talking. I think this is a hangover from the time when we had a clear division between producers of content and consumers of content. But the interesting thing about the social space, if we choose to examine it properly, is that it is not characterised by production or consumption – it is characterised by connection. The main game that is happening out there in social space, is not one of consumers ‘engaging’ with brands on the back of content – it is consumers (or citizens) connecting with each other, often in ways which allow them to change the terms of their relationships with brands (or governments). There is also a massive opportunity, just finally starting to be realised, for people within organisations to make more effective connections with each other – and thus start to transform the way that businesses operate.
For example, take something like TripAdvisor – a classic example of a specialised community of connection. Now while there are people within this community who are sharing information, they are not really defined as producers of content. This is not how they define their role in this community – they just simply have something to say that they think others might be interested in. Neither are the people who read their reviews defined as being consumers of content, or listeners – they are basically there because they want to connect with someone who has already had first-hand experience of something they want to know about. They also want access to a process that delivers to them transparency: something that blows away any fiction that suppliers (brands) within this space might want to construct. People are not producers or consumers – they are participants and they have different roles within the community, depending on their needs at different times. And Google, just to attach some sense of importance to this, is really the biggest community of connection of them all.
Steve Denning, at Forbes, has just published a great article which looks at the idea of radical transparency and the blowing away of fictions. He makes the point that fictions within corporate life are ultimately costly and inefficient, albeit they have become highly prevalent in recent years (the Age of Bull as he calls it). Of course, marketing is a world of fiction – something we also touched on at the event (see this post by Neville Hobson). We construct this thing called ‘the brand world’ into which consumers are expected to be ‘immersed’ and where we will then ‘engage’ with them. Now while this brand world can exist within the hot-house of owned or controlled media channels, expose this to the radical transparency of the world of the connected consumer – and it gets blown away. In fact, there are two specific fictions that get blown away here. The first is any fiction associated with over-promise (there can be no gap between promise and delivery). The second is any fiction associated with brand importance – the idea that consumers actually give a damn. Neville highlighted a report from Havas which concluded that “most people worldwide would not care if more than 73% of brands disappeared tomorrow”.
Does this really matter? It only really matters if we try and take the hot-house flower of traditional marketing and hope it will thrive in chilly environment of the connected consumer. If we abandon this idea, there is actually a huge amount of value we can extract from the world of the connected consumer if we choose to become connected to them (as distinct from trying to become engaged to them – they don’t want a marriage).
This really is my mission for 2014 – to help organisations create value from more effective connection to their consumers or customers. This isn’t going to be something that will revolve around a tool, but it will revolve around creating a process that allows the tools to be used effectively. At the moment, it seems to me, there is a vast pool of intelligence out there that consumers are offering – real-time information about what they want and what they think. Yet there is no process to collate and channel this information back into an organisation – so that the organisation can start to respond to it effectively. In fact, very few are even aware of this opportunity, so intent are they pumping out content, and creating engagement.
There is some interesting stuff starting to happen – for example within the market research and analysis space (check-out Digital MR or Replise for example), things are also happening in the customer service space as well as the monitoring and crisis management space – but these are still operating as silos and the threads are not being connected; crucially not in a way which allows this information to establish the necessary connections within the business itself. I think there is a real opportunity to put two things together here – the creation of communities of connection within organisations and then feeding into these communities the intelligence that comes from creating more effective connections with customers or consumers.
And creating these communities is what I am going to be doing in 2014.