Fear seems to be ruling the day lately. Take what has increasingly been referred to as “the current economic situation”: As Paul Krugman explains in The Return of Depression Economics, a recession by definition is the perception of a group of people that they should slow down their spending. In other words, fear is a self-fulfilling prophecy that comes about as the result of how we think about the world. Much the same kind of fear seems to be holding many organizations back these days when it comes to their efforts in the digital realm.
We all know the rebuttals when it comes time to discuss social media: “That’s just for kids.” “Why would I care what someone had for breakfast?” “This is just a fad.” Most insidious of all is a kind of creeping fear that just seems to be the modern version of the “seven words that killed the business”: We never did it that way before.
This post isn’t intended to persuade you of the ubiquity of social media in our age or its value. The point isn’t that half a billion people are using Facebook or that 50 percent of them check in on any given day or that each of them spends an average of 55 minutes on the site when they do or that Facebook is just one of thousands of ways people are using social media. The ubiquity of social media is already beyond question. The point here is that social media are just one more way to communicate with whomever you might need to communicate with and that if you stop thinking of social media as something scary, you may find huge new opportunities.
Every communication tool was new at some point. In The History of the Telephone (1910), for instance, Herbert N. Casson, notes that the phone was initially widely considered to be a “scientific toy”:
People who talked for the first time into a telephone box had a sort of stage fright. They felt foolish. To do so seemed an absurd performance, especially when they had to shout at the top of their voices. Plainly, whatever of convenience there might be in this new contrivance was far outweighed by the loss of personal dignity; and very few men had sufficient imagination to picture the telephone as a part of the machinery of their daily work.
Again, this was written in 1910, when it was already obvious that the telephone would endure. People fretted that the phone would mean people wouldn’t want to meet in person anymore (sound familiar?). People disliked that others always had access to them (sound familiar?). People thought it was silly (sound familiar?). Etc. and so forth. I saw this kind of fear in action personally at an organization that didn’t have voicemail — in the mid-’90s — because the organization apparently believed that voicemail was impersonal and off-putting. We were an organization dependent on information and connectivity, and we only worked during the day (as did the receptionist). The outside world just thought we were nuts.
It’s hard to say how much we lost over the years as the result of that unilateral decision not to answer the phone at all for half the day. (Many work-arounds were devised, incidentally–mainly in the form of good-old cassette-tape-based answering machines on individual lines.) The world expected voicemail and we didn’t have it. We were scared to take a chance, scared to roll with the times. Fear is natural but counterproductive, especially when you want to keep up with the competition. Your competition is already involved in social media, though. Just take a look at what the Fortune 100 are doing in social media. Try to look at them as your well-funded R&D department, leading the way for you in best business practices. They see your future, and it’s in social media. It’s one of the first rules of public relations: speak to your audience in ways it likes to be spoken to, which includes utilizing the channels it uses to receive information. The question becomes, then: How do we conquer this fear and get over our inertia? Here are some tips:
- Be strategic. Any effort you undertake should fit into your strategy–and social media realistically may or may not be a part of it. (Increasingly few situations aren’t right for social media in some way, shape or form, but that’s for another post.) The point is: If you’re strategic, you can’t go wrong, as least as far as tactics like social media go. Mapping your efforts to your strategy will help ensure that you budget time and resources effectively and that whatever you’re doing is in service of your goals. This is an essential management function, something that every business owner or organizational leader is at least intuitively familiar with.
- Understand your fear. We have all kinds of reasons to fear things, but most come down to not understanding whatever it is we’re scared of. Look in detail at your fear. Spend some time seeing what it is you think might happen if you delve into social media. Perhaps there are things you can plan for, or you may find that some of your fears are ungrounded. In any case, knowledge is power. At the very least, you’ll know precisely why you’re choosing not to utilize social media. Be realistic. Look at the facts. Make your decision based on information rather than emotion.
- Imagine the worst case. What’s going to happen if you take part and it doesn’t work? Probably, you’ll just stop. That’s hardly the end of the world. Dip a toe in and see what happens.
- Awareness. If you see the scale and speed of the transformation, you’ll see the urgency of getting involved. Stay up with sites like Mashable.com and Marcana.com. Be aware that consumers are talking about you whether you take part in the conversation or not. At the very least, you’ll be on top of new possibilities that are constantly emerging. Perhaps your industry hasn’t yet found an application for social media–but if it does, you’ll at least want to be current. So watch.
- Monitor and observe before becoming active. “Lurk” for a while (register and watch without contributing). You’ll see if it’s right for you and will very quickly learn to avoid any major mistakes. This is an excellent and underutilized way to test the waters.
- Just do it. Imagine you were a salesperson who was determined to create the perfect pitch before trying it on the world. It makes no sense. You learn by doing. Will you make mistakes? Sure–just as you do when you’re meeting face-to-face. That’s how you learn to do it better. The only way to learn to play a game is by … playing it.
The question of social media is no longer if but how. You can lead, keep up or be swept away. Be scared if you want, but it makes about as much sense as being scared to use your telephone. How have you overcome the fear of the unknown in social media? How have you seen this in action?
Will Reichard, MBA, is the president of CrossCut Communications, LLC, a full-service social media, public relations and marketing consultancy based in Albuquerque, New Mexico.