The internet is awash these days in social media specifics. It’s a little bit like someone telling you about a new city by describing the cracks in the sidewalk outside his door–you just don’t get the whole picture. To use a well-worn but apt metaphor–are you missing the forest for the trees?
As leaders in business (and really, if you’re not striving to be that, what are you striving for?), what we really want is to understand the principles at work so that we can manage effectively and anticipate change. That means not getting too bogged down in the details. They matter…but not that much. If you’ve been around the block a few times, you know that widely accepted best practices quickly become antiquated cliches or worse.
So what are some of the principles that guide the smartest in social media and help them transcend the everyday? Here are a few. Please add yours in the comments–would love to hear!
- Particular tools are ephemera. If history is a guide, Facebook will not endure, at least not in its current form. Where is Friendster today (once among the most popular)? Nominal costs of switching networks and technologies mean that today’s Facebook is likely to be tomorrow’s forgotten memory. (The change also has to do with the “fashionization” of networks—we seem to get a new one every couple of seasons.) Once upon a time, the opportunity to put a computer on our own desktop was a remarkable development. Today, we are in the midst of a mobile revolution that is sweeping the globe. Twenty years from now (if we’re lucky and we have that long), something new is certain to change the equation yet again. As a result, we must seek out insights and approaches that will hold true independent of the particular tools available to us. Adaptability and the ability to learn quickly are the strengths of the future. Whenever you get heavily invested in a platform or “industry,” it’s time to start thinking about how that commitment makes you vulnerable (see the strategy item below).
- “Business,” “personal,” “profit,” “organization,” “independent” and many other terms we have known to this point are increasingly meaningless. We’ve spent a lot of time in recent years bandying about terms. We could talk about “social business,” for instance, but where would that leave today’s nonprofit or NGO, which is increasingly operating as a business? And it makes less sense to speak of “employment” in an age in which movement between organizations is the norm and individuals are increasingly in charge of determining their own fates. We’re in the midst of a rewiring of global culture. Let’s quit worrying about calling it “social media” and worry about getting on with using it. We also encourage you not to read the term as limiting, for, in fact, media have always been “social” to some extent. You could write a letter to the editor that the newspaper might respond to, and you could call into your favorite radio talk show. And “media” aren’t all we’re talking about, either. Is Google Docs “media”? It’s definitely social; the broadcast may be to a more limited circle, but where does one draw the line? Rather than draw an artificial delineation, I encourage you to think in the broadest possible terms. What is “profit” when friendships matter as much as finances? What if there were a market for reputation? Reject definitions and axioms. Don’t take anyone’s word for it.
- Strategy wins. Strategy is a paradox, prone to black swans and VUCA, but wisdom, experience, and the ability to execute are ultimately what triumphs. That’s why business leaders focus on principles and ideas–to ensure that resources are aligned on emerging challenges and opportunities. You must always be learning, foraging, gathering, guessing. You will constantly be performing just beyond the limits of your comfort zone, kind of like a race-car driver. You’ll have to be vigilant constantly, on guard for changes on the social media horizon. Your strategic plan will evolve by the day. Social media accelerate network change, meaning your chops in strategy will have to be first-rate.
- Social is social, whether it’s online or “IRL.” We are cultural animals. Individuals may be able to accomplish amazing things, but the basic platform of our lives—our technology, our food—everything—requires others working in concert to achieve. Understanding group dynamics in light of these new technologies will only increase in value. We’re learning that humans are hardwired to be social, and it’s time to build on our strengths. This is a counterintuitive point, and we’re starting to see half-joking “snob” movements among the digerati telling us that we should limit our connectedness. Here, I take the Dalai Lama’s position—I always want more friends. Yes, many may not be “strong” connections, but every friendship begins as a weak connection. Moreover, the most social player wins. You may be more social by developing deeper connections, or you may take a more expansive view of social networks than your competitor. And yet as tools facilitate deeper connections, faster rewiring of networks, and the ability to maintain conversations with larger numbers of people, “outsocializing” the competition will matter more and more.
- The medium is the message. Social media necessitate a social message. This is one of the hardest points for all of us to get, as it’s 180 degrees from the way most of us learned to market, which used the communications equivalent of shotguns to snag the largest possible number of people. As Seth Godin says, “The question of the internet is who, not how many” (Seth’s forte, incidentally, is precisely principles of the kind we’re talking about here). We are all intertwined now. Say that to yourself a few dozen times and really think about it. The days of push are truly gone forever–even when people choose push, it will be predicated on pull.
- You must be you. The first rule, your prime directive, is: Be interesting. There are, and always will be, no formulas for being authentic. To be social means to wade into the mess, to make mistakes, to learn, and to be genuine in the process. It means not copying, not accepting “rules” as gospel, not ever feeling you’ve “figured it out.” Being authentic means not going for the biggest audience–it means aiming for your audience.
What would you add to the list? How do you keep your head out of the grass? Thanks as always for reading.
[Flickr photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/sbeebe/]