Social Networking Doesn’t Matter
02/21/2011 1 Comment
In a controversial article for the Harvard Business Review, Nicholas Carr wrote that information technology (IT) doesn’t matter. To grossly summarize, the article claims that IT’s ubiquity diminishes its strategic value as a competitive advantage so that IT has become a commodity input. Carr makes the point that IT is an infrastructural technology – a technology that increases operational efficiency through sharing and general adoption. Unlike a proprietary technology, infrastructural technology does not allow any individual company to accrue the benefits of the technology, although infrastructural technologies in their early stages may act like proprietary technologies because of high initial costs of adoption and, thus, a barrier to entry.
Recently, I’ve heard many people, including friends, colleagues, and the friendly and collegial strangers I follow on Twitter, complain about difficulties of managing multiple social networks. The increasing tide of concern led me to suspect that Carr’s reasoning about IT may also apply to social networks. Increasingly, merely a presence on a social network does not render a business competitive. However, an absence from one of the major networks (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn) can be equally damaging because such a presence is in many ways an expected element of the marketing strategy. As social networks become essential infrastructural components of the marketing landscape, it is no longer enough to redundantly post press releases across different social networking platforms (read this Fast Company article for reasons not to link your Facebook to your Twitter account, for example).
According to Carr, overspending is one of the dangers of adopting broad IT practices to keep up with competitors rather than doing so strategically. The only way to leverage IT so that it becomes a proprietary technology is to have superior insights into its use. The same caution should apply to social networking strategies – it’s possible to spend inordinate amounts of money on social network marketing expertise, but this alone does not necessarily lead to successful outcomes. Thus, before creating a presence on social networks, it pays to consider how the strategy will fit into your broader marketing mix and, indeed, whether it reaches your target demographic at all and whether there is an opportunity to use social networks to your advantage, perhaps to reinforce your brand, help you build a community, or gather consumer intelligence.
Brand consistency can be a challenge with fragmentation across different social networks, as well as online and offline campaigns. While social networks can reinforce your brand and your message, they can also dilute its value if consumers see your company in a different light through your social networking activities than they do offline. In some cases, social networking may fragment your user base across different sites rather than bring them together around a common message, particularly since each social networking site reaches a different demographic. The first step, therefore, is to ask whether a presence is warranted on all social networks, or whether you should selectively target the networks that are aligned with your brand. For example, many musicians use MySpace whereas many professionals are more likely to be found on LinkedIn or Ecademy. You may not need a corporate presence on Facebook or Twitter if your business services other businesses rather than individual consumers.
In addition to reinforcing your brand, you can also use social networks to more deeply involve your community. By aggregating passionate consumers and potential customers, you can encourage brand loyalty, entice customers to make subsequent purchases from your company, and help your customers feel like they are part of a broader network in which they can find like-minded individuals. Your customers may band together around challenges that are common to your consumer demographics, but beyond just your product. The question, of course, is how to engage your committing, particularly given the aforementioned fragmentation. The strategy should derive, once again, from your audience and what you hope to achieve by building a community.
With a great opportunity to build an online community also comes a great responsibility. The costs of deploying social network marketing strategies include costs of monitoring the community. Unfortunately, social networks can also be forums for dissatisfied customers and detractors to very publicly voice their objections. The issue of control over communication about your brand is very serious, as is the issue of how the situation is handled. Some companies limit comments on their social networks, which leads some people to question how open and honest the companies are to creating communities. On the other hand, some companies monitor the interactions closely and remove dissenting opinions. In this case, monitoring costs can rise quickly and customers may wonder if the communication on social networks is honest (should negative customer feedback be removed from the site or should policing be limited to expletive remarks, for example?).
Apart from encouraging your customers to form a community around your products and their common interests, you can also tap into the collective intelligence of your consumer base to better understand their needs. This is somewhat different than building a community. Using social networks to gather consumer intelligence and crowdsource solutions requires additional planning. You may choose to actively solicit feedback with surveys and questions about what your customers (or the general public) would like your company to provide. For example, LinkedIn offers a Answers feature that allows you to post inquiries to LinkedIn users – a very active community of professionals. Alternatively, you may choose to monitor social networks for your name, as well as the mentions of your competitors, to understand how your consumers perceive your product and what they may need. Twitter is a network particularly rife with opportunities for gathering consumer reactions, so you may wish to use Twitter search to check for tweets mentioning your products, your competitors, or your industry. You may come across comments from consumers who are either very excited or very disappointed with a particular product because customers who don’t have a strong sentiment either way may not post their thoughts. However, social media can be a great gauge for how you and your competitors are perceived in the marketplace.
As they have evolved, social networks have become an essential part of the marketing mix and, increasingly, an infrastructure technology. Thus, social networks present many opportunities for understanding your existing and potential customers, crowdsourcing, reinforcing your brand, and building a passionate user community. However, simply having a social networking presence can be costly and is simply not enough. And so, now that social networking doesn’t matter, we have to be even more aware of its impact.