Asking the Right Questions About Social Media

Have you noticed there are a bunch of polls and research reports that ask questions such as, "Do you read blogs?" or "Do you use social media?" or "Do you go to video- sharing sites?" The resulting data often show rather small use compared to the use of other online services such as search engines or email.

For example, a ThirdAge/JWT Boom study revealed that people older than 40 have not embraced social networking or blogs despite being heavy users of other online services. And according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, only 48% of internet users have been to video-sharing sites such as YouTube.

From the perspective of the value of social media in an organization’s overall marketing and communications efforts, this data is misleading and dangerous. Unfortunately, this data is (mis)used by social media-resistant executives to justify sticking exclusively to the communications methods that worked decades ago, such as telephone support hotlines, image advertising, direct mail, and the Yellow Pages. I frequently hear CEOs, CFOs, and VPs of marketing say things like: "See, social media is not really that important, so we won’t do it here. It is a waste of time." Others say: "I don’t read blogs, so how important could they be?"

This data misses three tremendously important points for businesspeople to understand.

First, when asked, "Do you read blogs?" or "Do you use social media?" many people answer, "No." However, practically everyone uses a search engine to find information, and the search results frequently include blog posts, YouTube videos, or other social media content. So even though people may report "no" when asked if they use social media, nearly everyone has clicked through to a blog or other social media content through search results. Many people who reach blogs via search don’t even know they are on a blog. It’s kind of like asking: Do you like dihydrogen monoxide? Well, yeah, I drink water every day. Heavy user, in fact.

Second, videos, blogs, forums, and other tools of social media are frequently integrated into company websites. For example, a terrific video could be hosted by YouTube and embedded into a company’s online media room. This valuable content would not be counted in these sorts of surveys because users did not go to the YouTube site directly to view it; they may not even realize they were viewing "user-generated content" (aka social media).

The third reason social media use reports are misleading is that when people who are not regular users of social media ask their network (friends, colleagues, family members) for advice, say about a product or service they might be interested in, they often do it via email. People ask questions such as, "What’s the best baby stroller to buy?" Frequently, the answer that comes back from the friend, colleague, or family member includes URLs to companies and their products on social media sites. Your trusted friend might send you a link and say something like, "Check out this stroller." That link may include a link to a blog post or a site with an embedded video. Again, the person asking for advice probably didn’t even know he or she was reading a blog or viewing a video-sharing site. And guess what? They don’t care. They were just looking for information about a baby stroller.

My main point here is that the many companies I see that are still reluctant to jump into social media—those that still cling to the exclusive use of offline methods of communications—shouldn’t rely on all of the data that they see. Use social media data with caution. Don’t let your bosses diminish the hidden value of social media as search engine fodder and as a valuable type of information that people share with their network.

What’s really happening with the resistance to social media at companies is that the idea of customers and employees spreading "marketing messages" for an organization via blogs, forums, chat rooms, and other social media sites such as YouTube scares many marketers, corporate communications people, and company executives to death. For decades, companies have figured out ways to control their messaging, typically by clamming up and not saying much—except, that is, for a handful of authorized and highly trained spokespeople, such as the public relations director and the CEO. Companies have used one-way communications, mostly advertising and press releases, to issue formal announcements and have generally forbidden rank-and-file employees from saying anything at all. So they use this data as a convenient excuse to do nothing in the social media sphere.