In his new book, Welcome to the Fifth Estate, Geoff Livingston explains that social media has in a few years moved from the margins to a place among the larger media mix. It’s no longer “new media,” he says, but instead the Fifth Estate. In the book, Livingston offers guidance on how to build a successful, sustainable social media program. Here’s an excerpt.—Michael Sebastian, managing editor,
The first social media issue organizations must consider is negative commenting, a result of the open, transparent dialog on the Internet. “What if they publicly say our product doesn’t work?” “How can they question whether their donations are being used in Africa? We are spending the money appropriately!” This fear seems endemic in an American “change-averse” business culture accustomed to controlling its brands through traditional print and broadcast messages.
With the rise of social networks, consumer trust in traditional media forms has declined dramatically. The public no longer believes as much in reporters now that there are alternative voices available to read and verify contemporary television and newspaper stories. With more choices and much more content, consumers’ media use patterns have shifted. Social media users are no longer beholden to one voice (often influenced by corporate marketing and PR machines) or to a limited network of contacts. It is peer-to-peer marketing at its finest, turbocharged by the viral nature of what Doc Searls calls today’s Live Web.
A world of experiences lies at consumers’ fingertips, and many simply search to find relevant information. When they use online search engines, social media sources often are listed as top content choices. Google PageRank technology rewards content that generates conversational links. This phenomenon challenges organizational outreach efforts, disrupting traditional Web marketing campaigns. On April 16, 2007, BusinessWeek
wrote, “Trashing brands online can also be high theater.” Respected content brands such as Fast Company
launch campaigns like the Influencer Project, and then find themselves lampooned within 24 hours. Millions of people watch this theater—then join in and pile on. Is it any wonder companies fear losing control of the message?
The Origin of Brands author Laura Ries said: “As quickly and as easily as PR can build a brand, PR can take a brand down. Negative PR is incredibly damaging. And with the growth of new media, mainly the Internet, it can happen faster than ever. Look no further than Don Imus, JetBlue for proof of this fact ... non-famous people or brands can be annihilated by even mild scandals. If you’re not famous, you seldom get a second chance.”
How far will the pendulum swing? Nonprofits and businesses alike increasingly find themselves forced to communicate with their customers in the social media forms they prefer. Instead of organizations trying to find customers or donors, now organizations are trying to play catch-up with their stakeholders. For every socially engaged LIVESTRONG, there are 10 American Cancer Societies that fear the real negative whiplash an online conversation can bring.
To date, most organizational social media efforts have been limited to content publishing—like simple Twitter or Facebook updates—with mediocre results and a lack of conversations. Organizations hear about how companies and online influencers participate in social media channels and have dynamic results, then look at their own efforts and feel like they have been sold snake oil. Or worse, they see negative whiplash and are afraid to risk real engagement. As a result, there have been increasing conversations from publications like Newsweek
about a possible social media bubble similar to the venture capital dot-com bubble of the late 20th century.
This fear represents a tragedy. Organizations that leverage social media intelligently as an integrated part of their overall communications program have great things to gain, including positive relationships with loyal community members and brand advocates, better communications, new buyers or donors who consider the organization part of their communities, significant movements towards innovation or social change, increased brand loyalty and much, much more.
One of the original and most respected marketing bloggers, Toby Bloomberg, provided these insights:
Social media is more than a passive website strategy. The most beneficial aspect is the ability to engage directly with customers and other stakeholders. Social media opens the doors for businesses to listen to the unfiltered voices of their customers and to track those conversations. Social media also provides opportunities for the people within the company to join those conversations and talk directly to customers. Taking an active role in creating a dialogue with customers about issues that they care about, at the same moment they care about those concerns, is the heart of new media marketing.
I have seen this phenomenon over and over again with brands small and large, such as Ford Motor Company’s meteoric rise to online popularity (thanks to a social media team led by Scott Monty) or the amazing work The Humane Society of the United States has done integrating social media as a core part of its advocacy and fundraising efforts.
Startup brands also dominate the social Web like storied brands, from measuring tool Radian6’s prominence among bloggers and social media communications to social media darling Charity: Water’s rise to become a favorite cause amongst the Twitter community, and the ensuing donations the cause received. There are many other examples of social media enabling organizations to create valuable relationships with critical stakeholders.
This creates a big problem for corporate marketers and PR practitioners who are used to playing by the old rules and using defined methods of engagement with customers and the media. Before they could issue whatever content they wanted and it was usually accepted, communication, for the most part, could be controlled. Media are now beyond control, and content is being created by millions. Finally, organizational cultures—in the business and nonprofit sectors—revolve around stand-alone silos barred from intra department or external engagement as larger networked, transparent conversations. The new equation creates hard cultural challenges for the corporate world.
With each passing day, the gap between outdated tactics and now’s marketing needs widens. In 2007 when Now Is Gone
was published, traditional nonprofits and companies could afford to sit on the sideline. Today, most have barren social media beachheads, publishing links and are talking with no one. Their presence is ineffective. The situation becomes more demanding as their efforts to communicate the old way fail.
It’s incumbent upon organizations to learn the new social media world, not just from a theoretical level, but also as community participants. Without social media, our ability to effectively do business is incomplete. The social media revolution’s impact on organizations’ communications demands our professional attention.
To reach these new audiences, executives and marketing professionals must steer their organizations skillfully. To do so will require a new approach, a different mindset—one that will not only dictate the way social media is used, but also create new principles for communicating in general. Authenticity, personality and transparency—buzzwords long associated with the rise of social media—turn into new internal challenges, constantly standing as the primary pathways to increased online successes.
You can buy a copy of
Welcome to the Fifth Estate at Amazon.
All Rights Reserved by Geoff Livingston