It seems like just yesterday that social media was the new kid on the block: shiny, disruptive and full of promise. Now it has matured and presents an entirely different reality for business. How do we best manage its opportunity and risk?
The way we use social media in our lives, the purpose it serves and the meaning it offers us have gone through immense change. Where it was once an exciting add-on, it is now part of our regular process. Where it was once a source of surprise and delight, it is now a source of information.
Social media’s ordinariness and its place in our routine of life offer it an entirely new level of power.
“From a psychological angle, what has changed is how embedded social media has become in our day-to-day routines, our rhythms and how we’ve become so attached to it,” says Dr Nora Koslowski, associate director – leadership research at leadership development consultancy Maximus, who, as a research academic, has investigated the human relationship with technology.
“Social media has become a lot more foundational to how we go about our private lives and our work,” she says. “It has become a lot more integrated.”
Max Doyle, founder and managing director of social media marketing agency Hello Social, agrees that the usage and meaning of social media have changed dramatically. While many believe that trust issues and major scandals, such as the Cambridge Analytica event, have led to masses of members abandoning Facebook and other platforms, he says nothing could be further from the truth.
“People were outraged for a week,” he says. “Then they went back to what they were doing beforehand.”
The Cambridge Analytica scandal had no effect on the business of social media, Doyle says. In fact, the use of Facebook has increased in every global market apart from Canada and the US, where it has plateaued. According to Statista, the number of active Facebook users worldwide has grown from just over two billion in Q2 2017 to just over 2.41 billion in Q2 2019.
What has changed is the way we use social media, and this has nothing to do with specific events or short-term trends.
“Social media, and particularly Facebook, was originally all about me and my friends and my family,” Doyle says.
“I would post stuff and they would see it and they’d comment, like, share and interact. Then people got over that, so Facebook started to introduce a lot more news. It wasn’t just about your friends and family anymore.
“Today, it’s obvious – of course you get news on Facebook! Five years ago you didn’t. That has been a really big shift with the algorithm and the types of content that Facebook is promoting.”
The tethered self: always on, always available
One other change that influences the power of social media is the way we now interact with technology, Koslowski says. She refers to the concept of the “tethered self”, a term coined by psychology researcher Professor Sherry Turkle at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“This notion of tethered self relates to the fact that, because of technology, devices and social media, we’re always on and we’re always available,” Koslowski says.
“It means there’s no disconnected self any more. There’s no self that is unencumbered and that doesn’t have to worry. We’re always connected to other worlds. That means we’re always available for interactions, but we’re never truly there, in the present.”
“We’re always connected to other worlds. That means we’re always available for interactions, but we’re never truly there, in the present.” Dr Nora Koslowski, Maximus
Koslowski’s own research has revealed another, more upsetting fact about our use of technology. She describes it as the level of “technological permeability” we allow in our lives.
We naturally permit different levels of permeability, or connection via technology, depending on our situation. Sadly, we typically allow greater permeability at home than at work. If we’re having dinner with our family and the boss rings or emails, we feel we should respond. However, if we’re having a meeting with our boss and a friend or family member rings, we feel we are not permitted to answer.
What does any of this have to do with social media and business? When organisational managers think about the policies they might set around social media, Koslowski says, they typically focus on how they can ensure nobody posts anything that does not align with the brand persona, and nobody communicates anything that might land the business in hot water.
“These things are very important,” she says, “but it is just as important to have a conversation that goes beyond legal and business considerations and that recognises the issues at stake are not just of that nature.
“We are redrawing some fundamental boundaries. We’re needing to consider some very human factors such as intimacy and solitude. Social media connects you with people and worlds that you don’t necessarily have access to in real life, but it’s connection at a distance.”
Organisations will need to begin to consider the human angle of technology and social media to understand the impact on the people who have to live with an organisation’s policies and, more broadly, its culture around the use of technology, Koslowski says.
That culture often comes from how those at the top model their behaviours. Does the boss check their phone during meetings and send late-night emails to staff? Or do they model better behaviour, using technology for its many benefits, and then switching off after 6pm?
Back to basics
Of course, all of this means nothing if a business does not already have the basics in place. In this case, “the basics” means a rock-solid social media policy.
Too many companies don’t put enough time or effort into ensuring their policy is well thought out, suitable for their culture and well communicated, says Elizabeth Espinosa, past president of The Law Society of New South Wales.
“Please, please, please have a social media policy,” Espinosa says.
“Think about your framework and document the framework. Understand that the social media relationship is between the business and the public, and also between your employees and the business and the public.”
Begin by developing a clear understanding of the strategic intent of social media for your business, she says. What is its purpose? Is it to engage with clients, to alert customers to new products, to seek feedback on ideas?
Then include every part of the social media process in the policy, from ensuring the business owns the brand’s social media registration, rather than a staff member signing up on the platform in the company’s name, to checking who owns copyright over content and IP once it has been published on the social media platform.
If the social media platform owns your IP once it is published, it’s wiser to simply use social media to direct people to the content on the company’s website.
The policy should outline clearly what staff members can and cannot do in the name of your business on the organisation’s pages, and also on their own personal pages. This information should be regularly communicated to all staff members.
“There was a recent case where an employee made damaging statements on social media and eventually the termination of that employee’s employment was upheld by the court, not because of what they said, but because they disobeyed a reasonable direction,” Espinosa says.
“That company demonstrated that it had developed, and communicated, a good social media policy.”
It is reasonable in certain circumstances to ask people who regularly make statements on their private social media pages to use a disclaimer, she says. “It might say, ‘Any opinion I express is my own and not that of my employer’.”
The most successful businesses engage their staff in the development of the social media policy, Espinosa says. There is no such thing as a one size fits all. Every business communicates in different ways. Open up the discussion to staff and keep them engaged in the conversation.
“Remember, social media is just another place for people to interact,” she says.
“Your ethical practices, the way you communicate and basic courtesies should all stay the same. They should be no different to what you’d expect in any other social situation.”
Hello Social founder Max Doyle offers his top tips for successful use of social media in business.
Invest in social media advertising. Without it, nobody will see your content.
Monitor and respond to comments.
Use social! If your target market is making purchase decisions on social, it needs to be an important part of your brand strategy.
Have patience – this stuff doesn’t happen overnight!
Don’t always chase the shiny object. Just because you hear about something new, such as influencer marketing or TikTok, doesn’t mean it is a good channel for you.
Don’t underestimate the power of social media. It can help your brand enormously, but it can also damage it if it’s not managed properly.
Don’t expect a clear revenue attribution. People might see your brand on Facebook and then walk into your store/office and make a purchase or become a client. There is not necessarily a way to track that back to social media.
Don’t just give the social media management role to a Gen Y person thinking they know how it works. It is a specific skill that requires training and experience.