Why social is broken and how we can fix it: Q&A with Caleb Gardner

Caleb Gardner

Caleb Gardner

You may or may not know who Caleb Gardner is, but he’s got a lot to say and is articulate when he says it. Many more people now do know who he is after a post he wrote on Medium went somewhat viral on LinkedIn early last week. That, and he manages the content team that runs the third largest Twitter account in the world. We grabbed him for a quick interview to see why he thinks social is so broken…

Memeburn: You recently wrote “The Social Media Industry Is Broken—And It’s Our Fault” — talk about what drove you to write this in the first place?

Caleb Gardner: Mainly it was frustration. I’ve worked in social media in one form or another, from consulting with Fortune 500 companies on the agency side to the startup world to nonprofits, and I’ve been getting increasingly frustrated with how social is being sold short by those who are managing it. It’s become less about engagement and adding value to people’s lives and more about how we can trick people into talking more about us than our competitors. In a lot of ways, the industry has lost the vision for social’s potential.

MB: Why did we get it so wrong?

CG: Those of us who were social media evangelists wanted legitimacy. So we allowed for short-sighted tactics to become a strategy. Instead of using social to push back on closed corporate cultures, we allowed social to adapt to the closed cultures. And it shows.

I count myself among the people who got it wrong — I’m just as guilty as anyone of letting clients and colleagues who didn’t understand the full implications of what social media demands of a business put it into a box. I spent years trying to figure out how social metrics could fit into traditional marketing metrics. But I’ve finally come to realise that that is the wrong approach altogether.

MB: Can we fix it?

CG: Absolutely. There are already companies who have done a better job of integrating social media into the company itself, not just into marketing. We just need to make their stories louder than the ones getting all of the attention, which tend to be focused on vanity metrics and “big wins” instead of real value.

MB: What should brands be doing?

CG: The main thing I would challenge brands to do now is to think, “How would we do social media differently if it wasn’t in marketing?” If your social team physically couldn’t sit in your marketing or PR departments, where would they go? Would they sit in customer service? Would you create a space all their own? This is a mental exercise that could get people thinking more about how social can change their company than trying to fit it into established boxes.

MB: What should individuals do differently?

CG: Most people reward bad brand behavior on social with indifference. We can start calling them out directly, and voting with our wallets for the ones doing it right.

MB: What’s your secret sauce when it comes to social? Now do you apply it in your job?

CG: Social is done best when it is slow, deliberate, and accountable to goals. I’m lucky that I’m at an organisation that values social media enough to put resources behind it so it can be that way, but that is not how the industry is set up to be right now. Everything is about how to move faster with less quality content.

MB: When you think about content publishing tools like Buffer are they a help, a hindrance or just misused?

CG: Buffer is one of those tools that makes you able to move faster and share more — and that’s a good thing for personal accounts (I use Buffer), or for smaller businesses that have less time to devote to sharing good content. But it makes me nervous for brands because it doesn’t allow for extra editorial oversight when things are published, and that’s how mistakes are made.

I’m also very uncomfortable with how Buffer and other tools like Klout are now making “content suggestions” with easy add or share buttons, skipping right over the most important part of curating good content: actually reading what you’re sharing.

Image: BenSpark (via Flickr)

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