With all the writing that has swirled around social media in recent years, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and also to assume that all the good, stimulating, provocative questions have already been asked. Yet judging from last week’s Critical Issues Forum, the discussion around social media is far from stale. Panelists, facilitators, and audience-members alike raised an impressive array of burning questions surrounding the use of Facebook, Twitter and the like by companies. These issues touched on the strategic and the theoretical; on political life as well as business implications. Taken together, they represent a coherent agenda for how to think creatively about social media for the next six to twelve months.
Question #1: Does Social Media’s Impact Portend A True Social Revolution? The revolutions now roiling the Middle East would seem to suggest that something fundamental has shifted, and as former White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs pointed out, we don’t yet know how it will all shake out, nor do we understand the true significance of movements like the Occupy Wall Street. As far as marketing strategy goes, we might wonder, as our moderator, Babson College President Len Schlesinger, did, whether social media represents a paradigm shift or simply a new tool that can be applied to existing assumptions and practices. Haven’t businesses on a fundamental level always tried to mobilize networks of people? What’s really new or different? As panelist Maryam Banikarim, CMO at Gannett, pointed out, Iranian revolutionaries in 1979 used cassette tapes to mobilize networks against the Shah. Does social media really build lasting community, or does it merely create loose ties that don’t matter much?
Question #2: How Best Can Organizations Provide Consumers with New Value Using Social Media? One revolutionary shift credited to social media is the empowerment of consumers. As both Gibbs and Mashable founder Pete Cashmore intimated, customers are now in control. Noted Gibbs: “You have to be willing to give something of value, and you have to put in the requisite time, energy and resources.” But what is this value? Is it new information? Privileged access? A sense of community? An ability to define the brand? All of the above? None of the above?
Question #3: How Do You Keep Social Media Conversations Relevant Beyond the Core? Forum participants pointed to media fragmentation as well as the increased polarization of audiences as persistent trends. Bill Bishop, in his 2008 book The Big Sort, observed the tendency of individuals to consort intellectually on the web with like-minded individuals. At the extreme, we are increasingly dividing ourselves into micro-groups of one, with each of us immersed in a bubble defined by our own pre-existing tastes and predilections. How do organizations transcend this fragmentation enough to mobilize disparate groups to take action on behalf of brands?
Question #4: How Actively Should Brands Become Part of the Dialogue? A spirited discussion broke out during the Forum about how and when brands should engage. As some participants observed, social media allows marketers to step back a little when bad news arises around the brand, since community members will often step in to defend the brand. Good stewardship becomes a matter of trusting the social media process and the goodwill the brand has bought among the community. Yet sometimes, brands do need to respond. When is this? And how can brands best prevent unintended messaging via social media when internal communications leak out?
Question #5: What Does Social Media Do for the CFO? New technologies are exciting, and the value of social media to an organization seems intuitively clear, but it’s still up to marketers to prove social media’s tangible worth in dollars and cents. As some panelists pointed out, there are occasions when the impact of social media is quantifiable. The Council is working to improve the quantification of results around engagement.
Question #6: Is Social Media Relevant for Regulated Industries? An audience member raised this one, and we think it’s important. As our panelists noted, organizations in regulated industries can use social media to mobilize stakeholders, if not by addressing criticisms in the same way as other companies, than by at least allowing consumers a forum to air their opinions and feel like they are being heard.
Question #7: Where Do We Draw The Line Regarding Privacy? More data and transparency offers wonderful opportunities to marketers, but it also raises privacy concerns. As Mashable’s Cashmore noted, “We’ll never abandon all of technology because of privacy concerns. There will always be a line and we need to be firm about it, since technology companies tend to favor a lessening of privacy. We need to define norms.” What will they be? This will be a collective enterprise.”
Question #8: What Does the Future Hold for Social Media? This, of course, is the burning question. Our panelists came through with a range of thoughts, with most seeming to agree that social media will be even more tightly woven into business strategy and consumer experience. As one panelist noted, “It will be just called ‘media,’ not ‘social media.’”
Any good professor will tell you that it’s not so much the answers that matter to a field of inquiry, but the questions. Dead fields generate boring questions. Lively and evolving fields, where opportunities for creativity abound, occasion controversy and wonder. As last week’s Forum suggests, social media remains lively and evolving as fast as ever.