Lately, I’ve been wondering about the lack of social media enthusiasm on the part of the C-suite. While SMB owners, consultants and creative entrepreneurs have been quick to recognise the value of social media engagement, only a 5 percent of Fortune 500 CEO’s are on Twitter, with only 2,5 percent actually doing something on Twitter. Why?
Research by Marcia W. DiStaso, Tina McCorkindale en Donald K. Wright published in PR Review 37 (december 2011) provides some insight. For their research, they conducted in depth interviews with a sample of top corporate communication and PR professionals from Fortune 500 companies, PR firms and non profit organisations.
They note that although most communication employees are believers in social media, the top executives are debating some questions on social media. If you want to convince your top management to invest (more) in social media, be prepared to have an answer to these tough questions:
It’s hard for large organisations and top management to give up control over the brand. For employees, it’s easy to focus on the upside. Top management got where they are because they are keenly aware of the downside. John Paulson, the top hedge fund manager who made a killing when the subprime crisis broke, is famous for living by the creed “Take care of the downside, and the upside will take care of itself.” The participants in the study saw both internal and external threats to social media. Internally, they are afraid of:
Externally, the main concerns were:
All those fears are quite justified - if you’re a Fortune 500 company, there will be criticism, and possibly activist groups, and one of your employees is bound to behave in a way that is potentially damaging to your brand. However, the list doesn’t offer any convincing reasons not to be on social media, because these things will happen whether the brand itself is active on social media or not. Which one of the participants understood very well, because (s)he said: “The biggest social media risk is to ignore social media and to allow conversations to happen without awareness or participation.”
Several participants said their organisation expressed skepticism about the value of social media. In the social media expert community, the debate about measuring social media ROI is still raging. There are certainly no benchmarks available, no easy rules of thumb that predict how many social media campaigns you need to sell 10 % more product in Q3. Social media is not yet predictable (dare I say ‘boring’) enough for the tastes of a lot of companies.
This, too, is a matter of control. You can keep running tv ads until your money runs out, whether the audience loves it or not. But suppose you roll out an expensive campaign on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Pinterest. And the crowd hates it. If your social media campaign fails, it dies right there, on Day 1 of the campaign, on your own doorstep. Pretty embarrassing. You’ll have to convince your bosses that you took care of the downside - or keep the possible downside small: start small and scale up later.
Participants were also wondering about how to link social media to sales. I can understand how this is very important for multinational companies with fast moving inventory, with huge, finely tuned and carefully priced sales funnels. It’s not just a matter of: how will we drive sales from social media? It’s also a matter of: how do we calculate the marketing cost and return? Top management wants to know how their marketing efforts convinced people to open up their wallets at the end of the sales funnel, and which campaigns were instrumental in that.
Some participants thought their employees lacked the savvy to use social media - or to incorporate them strategically into marketing or communication objectives. This concern is closely linked to the next one:
Another unpleasant thing about social media is that every day, something changes. Facebook introduces the timeline. Google+ launches, but doesn’t allow brand pages. What’s this Pinterest thing, and why do we have to be on that too? It’s very uncomfortable to leave the control of a Fortune 500 social media presence in the hands of a few young digital natives who can keep up.
Social media is in such a state of constant turmoil that you can’t predict everything. And even stuff that was predictable will be changed somewhere in the next 12 months (will Facebook still be the number one social network twelve months from now? What’s the next big thing after Pinterest?). Social media is learn as you go, and Fortune500 companies don’t generally have a “learn as you go” mentality in place.
Top executives still grapple with some very basic questions about social media - they’re trying to see where the hype ends and the added value starts. One of them said that some people do not see “that these are simply a new set of tools rather than a quantum shift in the principles of effective communication.” What (s)he means is: we don't do fax marketing, after all. So why do we need Twitter or Facebook marketing?
Social media is immediate. Because it only takes a few seconds to compose, address and send a tweet or Facebook post, people expect an answer when they hit refresh (that’s about 1 second later). This “social immediacy” is something top management of large companies is worried about, because they realise that it will require a lot of new processes to get right.
Especially large B2C companies will inevitably end up having to provide customer service. But there’s not just customers, but also prospective buyers (marketing), journalists (PR), law makers, lobby groups, activists (public affairs and corporate communication). And we have employees on social media too, so HR needs a place at the table too.
In some regulated businesses, it’s actually forbidden to engage some stakeholders directly - pharmaceutical and healthcare, for instance, may face limits on their ability to talk to patients. And if you think about it, almost every contact between a company and a customer can have legal ramifications, but you can’t squeeze a disclaimer into a tweet, unfortunately (or rather: fortunately).
Again, I don't think that top management is convinced that every tweet will result in a class action suit. It's just a matter of hedging risk.
It's quite a list of hurdles. It's hard to find fault with any one of them individually. Still, what’s surprising about this list of questions is how very fundamental they are. It’s like the entire culture of social media is a transplant organ that is rejected because we can’t measure it, we can’t scale it, we can’t project it, we can’t budget it, our staff can’t use it strategically, it changes all the time, it doesn’t connect to our sales funnel, we can’t protect us legally and we’re too slow to use it properly.
And we’re not sure it will last long (“remember the 2000 internet bubble?”)
It’s a very instrumental view of social media: can we use it to sell? Social media is about much more than selling. It’s about employer branding. There’s 800 million people (soon one billion) on Facebook. You’d hate to miss out on all the valuable, creative people on Facebook that are looking for cool brands to work for, no?
It’s about porosity: I think we can agree that in times of crisis, it’s more than ever necessary to feel new trends coming, to anticipate the dangers that might come your way. Well, you’ll feel the tremors first on social media, because that’s just where everybody is these days.
You’ll see trends, ideas, creativity, warnings and plain old good fun. Ask yourself: how much is an idea worth? Can you budget ideas? How does creativity connect to your sales funnel? What does legal think of fun?