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Sep 15 2009

Resistance is futile!

The ripples from my talk at last week’s CIMCIG event have yet to stop. To date, the Ustream recording has had 76 views, the SlideShare deck has had 345 views, and I’ve had some interesting emails. In one missive, the writer wonders about the relevance of social media to us construction folk:

One of my concerns is the rate of uptake of social media by businesses.  Our own research although conducted on a small scale shows a high level of resistance to social media – architects, it seems, being the exception! In the current economic climate I am finding that driving new media is like driving Miss Daisy!  Without proof of ROI nobody is willing to commit!  A bit like ‘sustainability’, unless it’s backed by legislation it’s just a marketing gimmick!  So the question is: who’s buying it?

I am not sure that it is completely a case of resistance. In many cases, it is simply a lack of awareness of the opportunities presented by social media. It is tempting for businesses, for example, particularly in a time of recession, to believe that social media could be distracting and time-wasting, as opposed to potentially opening up new and cost-effective channels of communication. By educating businesses in the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) sector, it is possible that some of this apparent resistance may be overcome.

There are also parallels with the introduction of websites, I think. In the early 1990s, it was common for companies to restrict employee access to the web on the basis that it had little relevance to business. However, it quickly became an important additional channel of communication, and now no business worth its salt is without a website, and most employees are now trusted (within policies governing acceptable internet use) to access the web at work.

We may see the same happen with some social media. Judging from feedback among some of my AEC contacts (see also Blogs, Twitter, social networking: your new business tools), LinkedIn is growing in importance as a means of professional networking, as are some AEC-oriented networks, blogs and discussion boards, and some firms are already noticing significant improvements in their website search engine performance through deployment of blogs, RSS and Twitter.

And even if firms still prefer to ignore social media, in my opinion, they should be aware of its potential to manage threats and opportunities just in case they are suddenly presented by issues – criticism in blogs, YouTube videos of employee malpractice (Domino’s) or poor customer service (United Airlinesbelow, 5.5 million view so far!), Facebook abuse of customers (Dixons/PCWorld – not Comet, as I mistakenly said in my talk last week), Flickr photos of poor health and safety, malicious rumours spread by Twitter, etc – that are best countered by prompt social media engagement.

There are also competitors out there. If your business decides “social media is not for us”, doesn’t that open up opportunities for your competitors to step into the vacuum? If you are not talking about your specialist products, services and skills, you may find others are talking about their’s and catching the eyes and ears of potential customers or their trusted influencers.

As a PR practitioner in the AEC sector, I also look at the take-up of social media by a good proportion of my AEC journalist contacts. If they are employing the tools and techniques then it is obvious that I (and therefore other businesses that want to deal with the same journalists) should be using these channels to engage with them, particularly as some existing channels (eg: magazine editorial, display advertising) are potentially diminishing in importance (the subject, incidentally, of a forthcoming CIMCIG event with International Building Press at London’s Building Centre on 15 October).

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  1. Phil Clark

    I’m getting increasingly more rosy about the social media take up in the industry Paul. Purely unscientific, but I’m finding around one new Twitter account a day that is construction or architecture related. And these are active users rather than one-post wonders. It takes time for the benefits of such communication to become apparent.

  2. Nesbit

    The trouble with “social media” is the invasion of corporate PR; the space is becoming sterile and the noise-to-signal ratio is worsening as a result.

    And if I may say, you should practice what you preach by actually engaging with your blog readers who make time to comment. Perhaps you’re spinning too many “social media” plates to keep up with it all, spreading yourself too thin?

    And that’s the problem really isn’t it…

    1. Paul

      Nesbit, You’re right – up to a point – about the invasion of corporate PR making the space sterile. First, there are still many companies where their PR or marketing teams haven’t even begun to engage with social media. Second, some that do simply use old-style “corporate speak” instead of talking personally and/or conversationally.

      I do engage with blog readers who comment, but not always through the blog. Some of my more regular commenters are people I know through personally and/or through other channels such as Twitter, and in some cases, responses are posted as Tweets.

      It can also make for a more engaging conversation if the commenter has a blog or website of their own so that you can find out more about where they are coming from. When I write comments on other people’s blogs, I always link back to my blog so that the writers know my background, experience and particular interests – so much better than an anonymous email address.

  3. Nesbit

    In these days of identity theft and snoopers, I choose to remain anon. Plus I am not promoting anything (apart from an opinion)

    The thing is, no one wants to ‘follow’ the PR/marketing peeps of the corporate world. It is their job to ‘invade’ the public space with their messages proactively, which we resent. And much like MPs and their expenses, the PR industry ‘don’t get it’.

    On the internet, the people speak. When it goes wrong, all PR peeps can do is panic retrospectively, through ‘damage limitation’. But the people can sniff the managed message.

    You seem to be advocating a change of language away from ‘corporate-speak’. The problem is the ‘personal language’ of “social media” can not be scaled by the PR industry.

    “Social media” is the domain of ‘people brands’. And few brands have a Richard Branson.

    The press release age is dying. Publications that ‘churnalise’ will die with it (and rightly so).

    “I do engage with blog readers who comment, but not always through the blog.”

    That was my (not so well made) point. “Social media” in its present form is disjointed. With each new platform/fad that comes along, extra resources are needed and that is perhaps why corporates ask, “where is the ROI?”

    How wide can we spread ourselves before it becomes diluted and unmanagable?

  4. Paul

    Hi, Nesbit (quite appreciate your desire to protect yourself from unwanted attention, BTW).

    I don’t think one should describe “the PR industry” as though it is one homogeneous mass. There are certainly some very able PR people who can do more than just ‘corporate speak’, who can talk personably with individuals who come into contact with their organisation, and help create and maintain a more ‘approachable’ social persona for their organisations. (And being in possession of a PR job title shouldn’t restrict able communicators throughout an organisation from joining the conversation – as you say, not everyone has a Richard Branson, but there are many examples of excellent brand ambassadors working in areas such as customer service, HR, and out in the public-facing world dealing direct with local residents, clients, suppliers, etc, etc).

    Indeed, as I say in a more recent post, Avoiding the ‘Glass box’, communicating is increasingly extending well beyond the PR/marketing department as social media takes hold.

    We are in the course of a transition from conventional ways of managing public relations towards ways in which organisations will need to engage with different stakeholders in a variety of different ways, through different channels, and with different people using different tones of voice.

    This, perhaps, goes some way towards answering your final point (about communication becoming disjointed and unmanageable): I expect the challenge for corporate communications will not be how to centrally manage the sheer range of conversation, but how to effectively delegate responsibilities for many of these exchanges, and how to monitor the sentiment/feedback they receive.

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