Social media is not corporate media

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There’s a gold rush going on as legions of self-proclaimed experts are working with corporations to help them monetise the potential riches in exploiting social media.

I look at the links and articles that social media “experts” are sharing all day long on Twitter, Facebook, and other social networks and it all boils down to this type of message: “Here are ways to turn social media into a lucrative corporate marketing/sales channel.”

There are lots of services such as Klout that help corporations identify the people in social networks that should be targeted as part of online marketing programs. And there are hundreds of books written about how corporations can and should use social media to boost sales or profits.

But social media is not corporate media. This is a very important distinction.

Social media is useful to businesses because it offers what Shel Israel and Robert Scoble call “naked conversations” you can listen-in to customers when previously you couldn’t except through expensive market research focus groups.

But if corporations try to turn social media into a corporate sales or marketing channel then they risk losing the naked conversations, and the insight into customer behaviours — it’s no longer social media but some form of mutant corporate media.
I like the approach of the Altimeter Group, a business consulting firm founded by Charlene Li, which emphasises listening. (Please see: Altimeter Group: Dealing With Deaf Corporations… Who’s Listening?)

Listening is a rare commodity in today’s world where interruptions come every few seconds and distractions are just a click away.

Listening is important to conversations, yet most people wait to speak rather than listen to what’s being said. (There are lessons here for businesses.)

Listening to social media also preserves the authenticity of what’s being said. If people have to look over their shoulder to watch what they say or share, then it will be harder to be authentic. And if their social networks become swamped with corporate media then that will change the original nature of their communities — their involvement will be lessened.

But there is a very strong push by the legions of self-styled social media experts to persuade corporations to turn social media into a corporate sales channel — with the warning that if they don’t do it their competitors will. And their competitors certainly will.

Which means social media as we know it will be changed as corporations rush to co-opt it to their agenda.

Yes, some corporations are using a light touch but the pressure is on to do more, far more involvement, more engagement, and to intercept conversations. This will damage the fundamental integrity of social media as we know it.

Corporations will try to engage too strongly, or in inappropriate ways; they will corrupt the very influencers that they covet through poorly thought-out marketing schemes; and social media will blend into a mutant form of corporate media.

Social media will survive but not in the same forms or in the same places that we find it today. People will react by moving their conversations into less visible corners of the Internet, into private groups/networks that offer a far higher quality of social interaction, more intimate, and more importantly — sheltered from the ever vigilant and prying corporate eye.

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