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Can ‘Big Brands’ ever have real conversations with the public via Social Media?

September 25, 2013

For quite some time I have been taking it for granted that Brands will want, and plan, to have real conversations with people via a variety of Social Media.

This will never be all the interactions they have, or can have, using social media channels as an interactive platform. But it will be that sub-set of interactions which are truly worthy of being called ‘engagement’.

To that end they will have to be two way, and the Brand will have to converse in a way which involves it somehow being personal and [thus capable of being in some way] social. Some of us know that being social is not the same as using social media – but that’s a story for another day.

These are the conversations which will enable brands to learn from their customers, admirers, potential customers and critics. These conversations will support product and service development, brand strategy, and maybe even feed the ‘soul’ of the brand. Everything from small, but vital details, to big subjective perceptions. Sometimes such conversations will allow a suitably authentic brand to justify, and maintain, its position on certain things, and for this position even to be accepted and respected by customers!

So that’s where I feel it is inevitable that social media will take brands. In the case of big, so-called ‘corporate’, brands this process will engender, and then demand, major changes.

I have been able to think of only two obstacles to this shift – and I see them only slowing the process, not stopping it or ruling it out a priori. Though a combination of the two could be pretty potent.

The first is culture. There’s a widely held view, and it’s behind the response to a tweet which triggered this post today, that big brands just won’t get social media. They are so used to having the resources to shout long and hard… so used to compartmentalising and systematising the messages that they put out, and scientifically insulating the feedback data that comes in… so used to having the clout
of a big name… that they will just carry on as usual. They will use Social Media, for sure, but they will ‘optimise’ it as a push channel, or one in which ‘response’ is constrained in quanta, or where low-complexity responses are bigged up and dressed in the language of real engagement. In fact, the pessimists believe that big brands can so dominate the content and economics of social media that such behaviour could even pollute and fatally distort the medium itself. “Corporate content may be outnumbered by the long tail of
genuine comment,” they say, “but it’s the concentration and eye-catching surface of the former that will condition the
public view of what social media is”.

The second obstacle is scale. This is the thought that, even if big brands resolve to have meaningful conversations with large numbers of their customers and fans, the sheer volume will be self-defeating. That is, a person, or a homogeneous enough team of people to respond like a person, only has so much bandwidth to deal  in a human/social way, with so many other people, whilst still consistently embodying the brand. Go any further than that and you either have programmatic uniformity on the part of the brand ‘representatives’ [what
it says in the ring-binder – to borrow from Neal Stephenson] or some zombie mantra. The alternative, therefore, is to capture conversations through some kind of quanta [re-discovering pre-coded market research questions?], widgetised feedback options, or semantic analysis of huge quantities of free text – followed by the social media equivalent of ‘recorded messages’ in response to subsequent social media approaches from the public.

I preserve my smiling, optimistic, faith in the future of online brand dialogue in two ways.

Firstly I tackle those two obstacles. I think they are encumbrances, not the death knell. I believe in evolution. When brands which manage to do this are seen to derive an advantage – a degree of magnitude of advantage – and they will,,, others will have to change culture, or be displaced by those who do. [‘Corporate culture’, if it still exists, was once entirely appropriate to hierarchical industrial processes]. Also, brands which don’t know how to converse about ‘corporate affairs’ [and I don’t mean analysing social media content in order to figure out where to shore up the dyke with PR] will become increasingly vulnerable to corporate scandal – like having a weakened immune system. Coping with scale is [yes!] tough – but it just requires ingenuity, creativity and iteration. It may also mean that our understanding of what counts as, or is intuited as, discourse will change overtime. I hope big brands help to solve the problem of meaningful conversations at scale, because we’re going to need this just to talk to each other [at scale].

I also sustain my optimism by thinking – that’s a hell of a lot of interesting, rewarding, high-value work that somebody’s going to have to do over the next ten years.

You perhaps think I’m putting a lot of faith in human nature. But, when I look at where my fresh water, food, power, emergency healthcare, and that internet thing in the wall, come from. I reckon I do that every morning just by getting out of bed.

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