And We Wonder Why They Laugh

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by: Jonathan Salem Baskin

I’m having a hard time keeping a straight face as I read some of the latest commentary on the utility and measurement of social media.

It’s not that the folks doing the commenting aren’t really smart and well-intentioned. Rather, it’s just that I can’t help but be reminded of participants at a UFO conference, presenting detailed analyses of smudged photos and heartfelt abductee testimonies. The sincerity of evangelists doesn’t make their conclusions any more true, or believable.

What came out of last week’s Web 2.0 lovefest in San Francisco jibes with the blather reported concurrently in a few other blog posts (here and here, for instance): if I may summarize, the three things you need to know about social media are that it’s so:

  1. Important that it will change everything
  2. Broad that it includes anything, and
  3. Profound that nothing can measure it

And we wonder why the other execs in the C-suite laugh when we leave the room?

I find it fascinating that businesses are facing what could be an existential threat: consumers are harder to find, more difficult to convince, and nearly impossible to keep loyal, and all of the tools on which they depended to sell things — the contrived inventions of branding, matched with the controlled avenues of distribution (both information and actual product supply) — are either free and/or invalid.

The very premise of why people buy is changing, from what was once based on an aspirational set desires, to a series of known needs. The current economic meltdown is a symptom of this shift, which has implications for business far beyond the immediacy of Facebook friends, Twitter posts, and anything else that passes for online community. 

And the answer to this dilemma is to change everything, include everything, and measure nothing? 

This is what’s underneath most of the supposed social media to-do lists coming mostly from vendors who want companies to spend money on it. It’s what fuels the glib references to "successes" at companies like Wal-Mart and Dell, even though there’s no evidence that said successes actually succeeded at anything (except enriching those vendors who believe, with good reason, that it’s a good idea).

Young people waste time sending one another notes. I get it. The behavior is nothing new, even if the enabling technology certainly is. Marketers have always had to figure out how to sell to preoccupied, judgmental, fickle consumers, whether those targets wore bobby socks or tattoos. This Brave New Future of ours looks like all the other brave new futures that businesses have had to understand and overcome. 

Only you wouldn’t know that from all the nonsense coming from the folks who want to sell social media.

Worse, marketers have always had a hard time getting everybody else in the C-suite to take us seriously. Our metrics for awareness and intention have often verged toward the imprecise and spiritual, just as the measures used throughout the organization have usually been statistical, and very, very tangible. Companies have consistent, proven tools to cast operations on a spreadsheet, and we’ve often done no better than to get a line or two reserved for the intangibles or other vagaries of brand value. 

And now we want them to throw all of it out and remake the enterprise based on our unique insight into the cosmic importance of social media. And we wonder why they laugh.

I think we need an alternative approach to what is clearly an intriguing technology and cultural phenomenon. Perhaps the starting premise shouldn’t be that social media works, but rather that it — like any other tool — might not, necessarily, unless we’ve first identified a purpose(s) and the commensurate metrics. Maybe social media isn’t going to change the world, or the entire enterprise…at least not yet. 

What if we agreed instead to tell our fellows that we all need to understand three things about social media? It’s so:

  1. Possibly useful, whether in marketing, or any other corporate function
  2. Focused, in that it needs a clear set of deliverables to become "real"
  3. Tangible, so it is used to accomplish specific purposes that "make sense"

The definition of what makes people insane is that their minds can’t keep out the endless wash of thoughts that occur to everyone; I think, similarly, our approach to keep extending and broadening the definitions and uses for social media has rendered lots of what we say (and do) kinda crazy. 

Also, since our compatriots in the enterprise are looking to us to figure out how to help sell stuff, our preoccupation with repeatedly trying to ignore them…and change the goals instead…brings us to the other definition of insanity (i.e. doing the same thing again and again, in expectation of a different result).

And we wonder why they laugh.

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