One of the first things any marketer, salesperson or investor considers before making a big decision is, “What is the size of the potential market?” In the case of social media, it’s every person on earth. That’s why leaders of businesses, governments, and other major organizations are seeking tools and strategies to take advantage of this latest revolution in communications.
Social media is actually not a new concept; it’s just the name we have coined for the latest form of communication. There have been other forms in the past, and the only way to fully understand the scale of the change social media currently represents and the opportunity it offers is with some historical context.
The 1st Age of Social: The Printing Press
Before the 15th-century advent of the Gutenberg’s movable type printing press, knowledge and information were controlled by an elite few. They needed both the resources to purchase handwritten manuscripts produced in limited quantities and the education to read what was often presented in Latin or Zhou Dynasty Chinese. Humanity had the social part figured out, but the medium was cumbersome, to say the least.
The printing press dramatically reduced the cost of a printed page, bringing stories and ideas to the masses. The implications of the declining cost of sharing were soon both obvious and significant. As Economist Digital Editor Tom Standage observes in his recent book on the first 2,000 years of social media, Luther’s pamphlets were to the Reformation what Facebook and Twitter were to the Arab Spring.
Governments and businesses responded with process. From the dawn of the 1st Age, everything printed on behalf of a professional organization, from the exact pantone reference for the colour in the company logo, to brand rules governing capitalization (HootSuite, for instance, will always appear with a capital “S”), was treated with the same rigour. Print is powerful, and it therefore deserves process.
The 2nd Age of Social: The Telephone
Although it was in 1876 that the first complete sentence (“Mr. Watson, I am here!”) was uttered over a telephone line by Mr. Bell, it wasn’t until the 1920s that the talking telegraph started to look like a viable business tool. Once the technology arrived in offices, systems, processes, and administration were developed that have resulted in not only a phone for every desk and household, but also a phone for every pocket and and infrastructure that lets us dial to any other phone on the planet. In other words, a platform was built.
All electronic signals need to be organized and routed. Does your company still have an internal phone system? Or is this platform now in the cloud? Either way, something somewhere is doing the equivalent of a 1920s telephone operator.
The 3rd Age of Social: Email
There was a time not that long ago when companies had a single email address for the entire organisation. This quickly moved to an email per department, to one per team, and finally one per person. Along the way, admin tools, processes, integrations and platforms were put in place to secure and simplify email so that it became a seamless part of our working day. The major shift with email is that for the first time addresses actually represented people and not places or devices. This precipitated a number of important changes, both good, and to the security-conscious, frightening. People can be emotional, people sometimes email things they shouldn’t, but regardless of their foibles, people are now the most important nodes in every network.
The 4th age of Social: Social Media
The first three Ages of social media each brought about transformative changes in the way people and organizations communicate. A successful strategy in the 4th Age, the age of social media as we now know it, will integrate all these innovations: process, platform, and people.
Social media is a mostly public form of communication, so you will need processes in place to ensure you maintain your organisation’s values externally. Every organisation or market vertical will have different needs, so you must balance empowerment and containment. Where you might prioritize containment in regulated industries, others might thrive on empowerment.
Whatever choice your organisation makes, it needs to have some very clear processes to ensure things run smoothly. How many people have the right to alter the company logo? Would you let an intern talk on behalf of the company to a global audience of millions without any training? How many people past and present know the passwords for the company social media accounts and what kind of damage could they cause? Take stock of your company and create processes that protect your brand image and assets.
All communication strategies are underpinned by a robust platform. Security is of paramount importance in the social media world. Mistakes can be damaging to the brand, share price, and bottom line.
Ensure your platform is built for a global audience. Don’t buy the equivalent of an in-house phone system only to find that you need a different system to talk to someone in Germany, China or Russia. Don’t get caught buying a platform that won’t scale to meet your long term goals. Make sure the pricing structure, support and global reach are all in line with a company wide social media strategy that takes you a long way into the future. All businesses need a secure and scalable social media platform.
Once you have the right platform in-house and processes to protect your brand externally, ensure that your people are enabled and trained. Social Media, like email before it, is a communication medium for EVERYONE in your company. It will not be limited to your PR and marketing teams. Sales, HR, Customer Support and others will all soon realise they can provide better levels of service, make more sales and save money through enabling and educating their own work force on social media.
Having everyone on board means you need admin controls in place to ensure people are who they claim to be and passwords and alerts for when they are not. Your CTO and CIO must be an integral part of your social media strategy and choice of platform or you risk providing a back door to your entire operation. The people on your team need to be trained and enabled, while decision-makers should be involved in selecting and running the platform.
In the 4th age, social media is for everyone in your business. That said, you need processes in place to ensure it runs smoothly and is still in line with your business goals. And whatever your social media strategy, you will need a single platform to support it.