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Truly Tackling "Social Media" Will Require a Deep Shift in Corporate Logic

I've consistently seen conjecture, and occasionally even numbers, to back up the point that recessions drive innovation. In particular, one of the oft-repeated "truths" is that a down economy clears us of outmoded thinking as companies are forced to become leaner and more creative to stay alive. I'm sure that's the case in many respects. However, equally as "true" is the often deep-seeded inability of corporate infrastructure to adapt. This "resistant" ability of corporations to make change has, on the positive end, helped many companies weather economic tides, keeping their brands alive and employment for a vast majority of their workers. Yet, perhaps more often, that "solidness" has stalled innovation and created deep-seeded inefficiency.

The University of Michigan's Amanda Lotz has made a convincing argument that every transformation for the media industries has come from some outside force, as companies often hold to logics long past the point they actually make sense. Arbitrary rules such as "seasons" or the nature of how advertising is bought and sold, once standardized, becomes "the way things are" until something absolutely forces a change, whether the VCR or online video or any number of "disruptions" initially forced on media companies in the past few decades. Sadly, this nature of fighting change until there's no alternative course is not particular to the media industries, who are perhaps much quicker to innovate than many other sectors.

This resistance is particularly apparent as we watch a growing number of companies realize that "social media" or "digital communication" is becoming a reality they now must accept. Brands inevitably have sought at first to address the "issue" in piecemeal fashion, with a series of one-off initiatives that often treat online communication as another platform for a particular marketing message. However, as brands start to realize their role as direct storyteller in an era where audiences can come "straight to the source" rather than going to the media or an advertisement to learn about a brand, that scattered approach breaks down, and brands have to find a deeper strategy that provides a sustainable and long-term response to these changes in how we communicate.

Indeed, brands looking at "social media" as simply a new conduit to push out its messages are really missing the point. As Peppercom's Ed Moed points out, the need for an integrated response to digital communication may provide the "Trojan horse" for a more fundamental rewiring of the communication of corporations. This new platform which is print and broadcast and a carrier for one-on-one conversation challenges the medium-specific approach corporate communication and marketing (not to mention sales, customer service, research and development, and other key divisions) have taken for decades. Most fundamental of all is how digital communication forces a brand to see, perhaps for the first time, the true nature of how "marketing" spreads. It's always been the case that a brand's worth is ultimately in the hands of the audience, who share word and experiences with one another. Today, the Internet provides a textual "trail" of those interactions, meaning brands can no longer ignore the key role the audience plays in distributing and interpreting marketing.

In the future, brands are going to increasingly have to look at their content as fodder provided to the audience in a landscape where we all must acknowledge that it is the audience that ultimately does the spreading. Media coverage, marketing messages, a "social media presence"...all are conduits to provide material for the audience. For any of these "offerings" to truly gain resonance, however, marketers must say the "serenity prayer." You put messages out there, but you ultimately can't control how people will use or interpret them. Instead, you have to listen. Listen to audiences before you put messages out, so you'll understand what they are talking about, what type of content they need...and want. Listen to audiences after your message goes out, to see how it's received. And bring that knowledge to bear on your next round of communication. This doesn't mean only listening to what a vocal minority says online and doing whatever they say, but it does mean taking advantage of listening to the often influential voices now talking about a brand, or the issues that company thinks about.

Grant McCracken defines this process as ultimately creating "a living, breathing corporation" in his new book, Chief Culture Officer . I had the pleasure of being interviewed for the book, and of speaking on a panel with Grant about "The ROI of ROFL" at MIT's Futures of Entertainment 4 . Grant's point is that brands are expected to breathe culture into our lives through their marketing messages and material, but that they haven't been so good at inhaling culture. I proposed that brands are actually on respirators, that the "breathing in" process is mechanical, controlled...perhaps on life support.

In partnership with the ARFsam ford

Sam Ford is a research affiliate with MIT's Convergence Culture Consortium and Director of Digital Strategy for Peppercom, a PR agency, in their Manhattan office. Ford was previously the Consortium's project manager and part of the team who launched the project in 2005. He holds a Master of Science degree in Comparative Media Studies from MIT (2007) and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Western Kentucky University (2005), where he majored in English (writing), news/editorial journalism, mass communication, and communication studies, with a minor in film studies. Ford has taught courses on professional journalism, pro wrestling, and soap operas at MIT and WKU and has published work on these and other areas of U.S. popular culture and television. His work focuses on media audiences and immersive story worlds. Ford has also worked as a professional journalist, winning a Kentucky Press Association award for his work with The Greenville Leader-News and publishing a weekly column entitled "From Beaver Dam to Brooklyn" in The Ohio County Times-News. He also blogs for Peppercom's PepperDigital. Follow him on Twitter @Sam_Ford.


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  • Sam Ford

    Oh, David, I think very much that brands will continue to exhale culture and need to. My hope would be that, to again build on Grant McCracken's analogy of "a living, breathing corporation" that brands that listen more deeply to the culture that's happening all around them--not just what people are saying to them, but what people are saying more broadly that might spark new ideas for the corporation--that this process of breathing culture in will make the quality of what is then exhaled from brands all the more compelling.

    To your point, I've made the argument elsewhere (in Rick Liebling's ebook "Everyone Is Illuminated" at that the problem with crowdsourcing is ultimately if creators rely only on what the audience has to say. We don't want people to just simply poll the audience on everything, to not exhale anything interesting. The Henry Ford quote is a great example here. But obviously the reason that Ford's invention worked was that it spoke to the real needs of people and addressed issues they knew they had but that they didn't know how to fix.

    Thanks for the thoughts, David!

  • David M. Kasprzak

    An interesting perspective, highlighted by the last paragraph: That brands now need to be "breathing in" culture, rather than exhaling it.

    It would be hard to argue against the utility of Social Media for spreading brand awareness and communicating marketing messages. Nonetheless, many companies have yet to embrace it. As you point out, these late adopters and laggards will find themselves grudgingly doing the bare minimum to demonstrate a social media presence.

    The innovators, however, are breathing it in. By tapping into the conversations that are occurring across Social Media space, those at the forefront of social media strategy are using these conversations to drive not just their message, but their product and service offerings as well.

    I don't think it's necessarily a case of branding being on the respirator. As the saying goes, Companies only know how to provide what they already provide, customers only know how to ask for what they already receive. Or, as Henry Ford indicated - if he'd asked what people wanted, they would have told him to make a better horse. People will always look to media messages for "information" on what products are best to buy, or newest, or both. As such, brands will continue to exhale culture.

    Companies that cross the chasm and adopt the inhalation of culture, however, will have the advantage of making their messages much more focused and potent.