What does a 9th century Zen saying have to do with the current state of social media? When the Zen master Linji said, "If you meet Buddha on the road, kill him," it was meant as a warning not to confuse the messenger with the actual message itself. Those who became fixated on the intermediary lost the deeper meaning.
Unfortunately, today's "social media" conversation is all too often like the Buddha on the road. Instead of discussing the profound impact the phenomena is having within businesses, society and brands, the conversation is often focused on setting up a Twitter account or the next "viral video" -- tempting eye candy that shifts the attention away from the transformative nature of this emerging form of human communication. It can be argued that the term "social media" itself is stunting the potential of the very force it is trying to describe and, hence, has outlived its usefulness.
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To test the hypothesis, my consultancy, Converseon, utilized its proprietary Conversation Mining technology to capture and report on the online conversation regarding the term "social media" itself. The accompanying word cloud captures the actual current lexicon surrounding the term and found it, perhaps unsurprisingly, highly tactical. The larger the word, the greater the volume.
The conversation is dominated by technologies and platforms. Perhaps not surprisingly the primary words are "Facebook" and "Twitter." Not far behind are a range of tactics and pithy statements (ideally fewer than 140 characters). This is not a strategic conversation. It is, frankly, reflective of a relatively immature discussion.
Still not convinced? Here's another test. Next time you're trying to convince a C-suite executive about why to invest in social media, try to describe it by using the words in the word cloud. Bonus points if the conversation lasts more than three minutes. As one large west-coast brand recently said, "as soon as I mention the term social media, wallets close."
That's because the C-suite doesn't necessarily care about "social media." But through education, executives will care deeply about what social media can do. Indeed, social media's power is profound and can strongly impact a wide range of use cases within brands, including risk management, media, product life cycle management, customer care, HR, market research, and innovation.
Social media is driving greater collaboration and forcing organizations to reexamine their business processes so they can be agile enough to react to the real-time social intelligence being infused into the organization. The primary value of social media doesn't come from the tactics or the technologies -- many of which are transitory -- but from infusing its value across the enterprise to drive real and sustainable business advantage. And the examples of its power are tangible.
HP, for example, said that it saved $10 million in call center costs by infusing social listening into customer service. Procter & Gamble reported that nearly half of its innovation is coming from outside the company through forms of social engagement, like its InnoCentive initiative. IBM is infusing ongoing real-time social intelligence across the organization for myriad use cases. This is about business redesign.
It is also about the application of the social sciences. In our view, social media is about the evolution of human communication. Cultural anthropology, sociology, psychology, and linguistics matter in marketing again. Concepts like "social framing," whereby individuals often perceive issues through the prism of their friends, are starting to help us rethink the way we communicate and the ways people gather, act, and synthesize information. Rethinking social organization through social media is beginning to have a transformative impact on governments and businesses.
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