Media hype notwithstanding, social media is still a novelty to many professionals, especially those in leadership positions. Rather than viewing them as a radical departure from traditional communication approaches, however, it’s better to think of them as “new tools for doing old things” and to remember that digital technologies are facilitators and enablers, not an end unto themselves. As the Digital Era progresses, best practices for managing social media as a utility are emerging. These best practices include focusing on the strategic as well as the tactical, effectively managing human capital resources, and managing Digital Era risks.
“What is social media?” A few years ago I was almost invariably asked that question whenever I brought the subject up. These days people don’t ask, but that doesn’t mean their understanding has evolved significantly. In spite of all the media hype, social media is still a novelty to many professionals, especially those in leadership positions.
Since founding the Social Media in Organizations (SMinOrgs) Community in 2009, I have dedicated myself to educating people about the applications and implications of new digital technologies for individuals and organizations of all types. For example:
- Part 1 of the Social Media Primer (What is this Fire of Which You Speak?) offers a conceptual hierarchy of social media and related constructs, as well as historical context to enable folks to put what appear to be revolutionary technologies in perspective. The update to Parts 1 and 2 of the Primer (Revisiting the Fire and the Juggernaut) expands the conceptual hierarchy and provides even more historical context.
- Social Media: Does “New Tools for Doing Old Things” Mean “Old Wine in New Bottles”? provides an explanation of the origins and meaning of the SMinOrgs tagline, in terms of both its original intent and beyond.
- 10 Digital Era Truths reminds readers – especially technology hold outs – of Digital Era truths that individuals, organizations, and communities must accept and (eventually) embrace.
The theme behind these posts and others is that rather than thinking of them as some kind of radical departure, using digital forms of communication should be viewed as an extension and new manifestation of what humans have been doing almost as long as we’ve been on the planet. Although technology, its uses, and our understanding have evolved and matured, our underlying motivations have not. It is as true in the Digital Era as it was in previous eras: technologies are facilitators and enablers, not an end unto themselves.
Putting social media in perspective as “new tools for doing old things” doesn’t mean we should think of it as “just” anything, however. I see lots of social media advocates do that, and though their intentions are generally good (they’re trying to demystify technology and make people less fearful), they’re misguided. New digital technologies, especially social media, aren’t “just” anything. They’re extremely powerful, with the ability to facilitate profound change and wreak significant havoc. From natural disasters to political upheaval to marketing successes and PR failures, there are countless stories of the strength and effectiveness of digital social networks, including the damage they can cause to both individuals and organizations.
Relative to more traditional forms of communication, the stakes in cyberspace are significantly higher because:
- Almost every individual and organization has a digital brand and reputation, whether they want one or not. Even those that choose not to have an active digital presence themselves can’t prevent other people from talking about them in cyberspace.
- Digital communications are virtually unlimited by time and space, and their potential reach is far greater.
- Digitally shared items can go viral extremely quickly, with virtually no warning. It’s difficult – if not impossible – to predict what might trigger a viral response.
Because it is both powerful and potentially dangerous, it probably makes more sense to think about social media as a set of utilities rather than a set of tools. Their ease of use and perceived safety features (e.g., privacy settings) can lull us into a false sense of security, but we should never underestimate them. In other words,
Saying social media is “just” a communications tool is like saying
a nuclear power plant is “just” a way to turn on the lights
Best Practices in Effective Management
As the Digital Era progresses, and we continue to realize that social media is neither a fad nor a novelty, best practices for managing social media as a utility are emerging. These best practices include:
Focusing on the strategic as well as the tactical. For more details, check out the following:
- Social Media Primer Part 7: The SAPLING Approach to Leveraging Social Media
- Social Media Engagement: 7 Rules for Working Smart, not Just Hard
- Social Media Engagement: 5 Guiding Principles
Effectively managing human capital resources, which means assigning the right people to do the work and providing ongoing support to maximize effectiveness. Sound human capital practices recognize the following realities:
- Free doesn’t mean it doesn’t cost anything. Specific platforms and tools may be free or extremely low-cost, but human beings are still the engines that make them run. The 10/90 rule applies: for every $10 invested in technology, $90 should be invested in people.
- Content trumps technology. Because the reasons for using specific tools and platforms are more important than the tools/platforms themselves, it’s more important to identify and assign people who are strong on content and can learn the technology rather than vice versa. It’s tempting to assume the technology is more important and to seek out digital natives to staff social media jobs, but they will often lack the ability to put their efforts into proper organizational perspective and may not have the skills, experience and wisdom to judge and respond to specific scenarios appropriately.
- Social media activity doesn’t equate to social media expertise. Being an avid user of one or more social media platforms/tools doesn’t mean a person has any real understanding of the applications and implications of new digital technologies. Enthusiasm and specific technical proficiency should never be confused with the ability to develop, implement, and manage an effective social strategy.
For a deeper dive into human capital management considerations, check out:
- Social Media Primer Part 6: Human Capital Management Challenges
- Social Media Experts: Yes, They Exist. Yes, You Should Hire Them. But Do Your Due Diligence.
- Social Media Education and Training: Where We Are. Where We’re Going.
Managing Digital Era risks by:
- Updating all policies and contracts to reflect new forms of communication and collaboration
- Creating a social media policy
- Implementing social media and community management guidelines
- Crafting a sound governance structure for managing digital properties and activities (both internal and external)
- Developing a crisis management plan
- Training employees and managers about their relative rights and responsibilities
For more on risk management, check out:
- Social Media Policies: Necessary but not Sufficient
- Social Media Data "Ownership": Recommendations for Employers
- You Can’t Say That… Can You? Managing Comments in Online Communities
- More Nominees for the Digital Hall of Shame... And How to Avoid Becoming One Yourself
Sound like a lot of work? It is! Anyone who tells you otherwise is being irresponsible. But if social media enables us to meet our goals and objectives more efficiently and effectively than more traditional approaches – and increasingly it will – then it’s worth the investment. It’s important to remember that social media and digital technologies shouldn’t simply be layered on top of existing practices, they must be integrated with them. And like other utilities, they should be viewed as an engine or power source for how things can be done rather than what should be done. The sooner we recognize the value of digitally enhancing all elements of organizational operations, including the social aspects, the sooner we’ll reap the benefits of doing so.
Upcoming posts will focus on Communication and Engagement Rules, as well as Time and Information Management. I’m also working on a Lessons from Successful Digital Communities post, a couple Social Media Buyer’s Guides and two follow-ups to my post on LinkedIn Profiles. Please subscribe to the blog to be sure you’re notified when future posts are published.