Why What Works in Social Media Isn’t Working for Corporations

Grace McDunnough has a great post titled “What Works in Second Life.”   I can hear the frustration shouting in her head.  A recent piece (registration required) in Forbes got her to thinking:

“that there *must* be a simple way to look at what works in a synchronous relationship space, virtual or otherwise, and to put that into the context of why some corporations are truly failing in this space.”

Grace boils down the secret sauce into three ingredients: dialogueinteraction andengagement and she summarizes it into this formula:

The new market is DIALOGUE, the new currency is INTERACTION and the exchange rate is variable, based on ENGAGEMENT.

What’s so confounding is that the concepts she pitches  (and is oh, so right-on about) are all over the PR and marketing literature today.  Every industry trade mag has its clarion articles, every PR blogger and marketing or communications conference talks (and talks and talks) about engagement, interaction and dialogue.  It is all over agency websites and if I see another study on the need for “engagement” I think I might hurt myself.   I almost can’t stand these words anymore.  To a large degree they have simply lost their meaning and become nearly empty in marketing circles, they are so over-used.

Organizations are struggling and mostly failing in virtual spaces (I include all of social media here, in addition to virtual worlds).

At the core, the answer is organizations are not humans, even though they depend completely on humans. The concepts of dialogue, interaction and engagement are human activities.  Humans engage in them to learn, love, be accepted and to grow.  Organizations depend on these characteristics in us to survive in the marketplace, yet they don’t posses them.

With uber-connectivity, humans are self-organizing and re-self-organizing with intense speed and flexibility.  They look to each other for information, knowledge, goods and connection. Through this lens they are demanding that organizations, who provide large amounts of all four of these things, participate using the same social “capital” since they are engaged in the same social activities we humans are uber-doing.   Mainstream media has felt this first and most publicly.  They are adapting.

But the vast majority of organizations aren’t (yet) attuned.  Organizations do “tactic” but people do “human activity.”

Here is why I believe it is so hard for them to ‘get’ these concepts.

Dialogue:  People’s jobs depend on good news and smooth sailing.  Keeping the ship afloat and avoiding the waves.  Dialogue in the marketplace is challenging, disrupting and requires constant change and sometimes bad news.  A deep, deep systemic shift in defining what brings value to the organization has to happen in order for dialogue to be a corporate value.

Interaction:  Organizations are strictly hierarchical.  They are shaped like pyramids (inverted or otherwise).   The points where interaction can happen are extremely limited.  Not so with humans – our five senses make us interactive machines.  There is literally no mechanism for the organization to handle interaction – there is no “place” in the vast majority  of them for it.  It isn’t built into a modern corporate DNA structure.

In addition, interaction requires resources (leading into the engagement problem, next).  The age of The Web (and automation in general) moved organizations to cutting human resources in favor of technology, self-service, and driving down the “cost per interaction/transaction.”  Indeed, these are the very appeal of the web! The great listening loop that Aloft accomplished in Second Life (and that Grace references) is most often a lonely initiative, by a small band of corporate outlaws. Interaction is not a core corporate strategy for most.

Interaction requires organizational – well, reorganization.

Engagement:  I’ve come to avidly dislike this word.  Funny how in the English language this means both a “bond” and a “conflict.”

Either way, strong emotions, yes?  Yes. “Engagement” is qualitative, not quantitative.  But organizations live and breathe by numbers. Bonuses and promotions are based on the numbers, not on the quality of customer connections.  People in organizations get behind initiatives that will show numbers.  It is in their natural self-interest.

There is generally no mechanism – and not enough human resources – to be accountable for the quality of a connection point.  Thus building it into corporate strategies and operational value is difficult if not impossible.

In response, marketers who see the sociological shifts and demands of empowered, connected people, are now scrambling to quantify engagement.  There is a race on to define the “engagement model.”

For the “new paradigm of engagement,” agencies and organizations are redefining the meaning of “engagement” so that it really means “transaction” – just not in the monetary sense. So we’re left counting “engagements:  how many visits, how many virtual t-shirts, how many clicks on an object, how many mentions on a blog, how much time spent on a sim, how many links, how many positive versus negative comments in the “conversation.”

As I underscored during a recent luncheon keynote presentation about where all this “social media stuff is going,” we, collectively, are challenging even the most venerable institutions, in the most core industries of our society, with collective initiatives like Zopa and ProsperOpenCoursewareAction Network and Ripple,World Community Grid, and Wikipedia.

When these initiatives grow to nearing critical mass (like the web itself did) and “we” begin to challenge “the organization” in the markeplace then Grace’s formula will yield a result.  Only when organizations deeply understand they are being held accountable vis-a-vis the emotional connection of “quality time” with the employee or the customer will human engagement be their goal – and one of their yardsticks for success.

Originally published at my blog, Business Communicators of Second Life, 2007

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