The danger of understanding social media through the lens of old media

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

British Telecom Trimphone

Back when I started training journalists in blogging (which must be close on seven years ago now…) I noted a tendency for them to try and understand blogging in terms of concepts they already knew. They looked at blogs. They realised that virtually all blogs were written in a personal voice. What kind of journalism is written in a personal voice? Opinion columns. Ergo, blogs are opinion columns.

They then went on to write 500 word opinion pieces on a blog three times a week, and wondered why no-one came to read them. Blogging, of course, wasn’t just opinion columns. It’s a new style of publishing which has a distinct, personal voice. The much-neglected term “personal publishing” captured that brilliantly, I think. Those journalists identified the right characteristic of blogging, but they went on to misapply it.

As I look around the corporate social media world of today, I wonder if the same thing isn’t happening there, too. Companies are looking at social media, understanding that it is in some way important, but are trying to understand it through the lens of the old. “Social media is about connecting with people. Ergo, it’s marketing.” And I think that’s a mistaken assumption and one that prevents companies from truly grasping the power of these new social tools.

Let’s substitute another communications medium into that sentence from above:

“The telephone is about connecting with people. Ergo, it’s marketing.”

That’s nonsensical to modern eyes. Everyone in a business has a telephone and is expected to use it to communicate with their colleagues, clients, suppliers and partners. But telephones were heavily regulated and controlled when they were first introduced into businesses, and only became  ubiquitous over time as people realised their worth to the whole business.

So, we have at least two transitional stages:

  1. Try to understand new medium through lens of the old
  2. Restrict new medium to certain departments

Here’s my thesis: companies that manage the transition in such a way that they avoid stage one completely and pass as swiftly as possible through stage two into more useful models, will be the ones that gain competitive advantage. And it’s not like I’m the first to articulate this: the Altimeter Group have been producing research on this for a while.

So: here’s my question. Why are so many companies in the UK hung up on equating social media completely with marketing? Sure, it’s a great marketing tool. But that’s not all it is.

[Hat-tip: Neville Hobson]

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.