Notes of caution and notes of hope

Stephen Baker writes an interesting piece over on Business Week sounding a note of caution about social media snake oil (and publishes some paragraphs that didn’t make the final cut on his own blog). The comments take Baker to task about the case studies he selects, but I think the point he makes still stands: It’s very easy to become a well-known name in social media regardless of your actual knowledge and experience, and quite a different thing to achieve results.

The problem of social media carpetbaggers is something I’ve mentioned before, but it’s a topic worth revisiting regularly because it’s not one that’s going away. People can be suspicious of consultants at the best of times and now that the job title “social media consultant” draws the same reaction as “estate agent” or “used car salesman”, it’s clear that the carpetbaggers are having a strong and negative impact on the perception of social media.

Therein lies the problem. Social tools can be incredibly powerful, but they have to be used well to stand even the slightest chance of success. If you have a crappy email client, you just have to learn to live with it. A crappy social media project is not only something that people can reject out of hand, it’s also likely that when it fails it is social media that is blamed, not the implementation.

Baker suggests that there is “danger of a backlash”. I’d say that the backlash is already happening – I see it already in the scorn some people heap on not just consultants but the tools themselves.

We saw exactly the same thing happen after the Dot Com Crash. Companies that had invested in expensive web projects, many of which were doomed from the outset due to being patently stupid ideas, failed to look at their own poor decisions and instead wrote off the web as a bad idea. “Internet” became a four letter word. (If you tried raising biz dev money in autumn 2002, you’ll know that!) The baby was thrown out with the bath water.

Seven years later, companies that had been quick to throw their digital talent under the bus have found themselves way behind competitors who reacted more sensibly to the end of the boom. Those who invested wisely in the web and ensured they had good digital people on board have flourished. The nay sayers are still running to catch up.

So here are two basic truths about social media:

* Social media is not a panacea. It cannot perform miracles. It cannot turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse. It can go horribly wrong horribly easily.

* Social media is not a waste of time. It can be transformational. It can empower your staff and your customers. It takes time, effort and understanding to get it right.

Companies making bad decisions now about social media are going to have a lot of running to do in five years’ time when they suddenly realise how far behind they are.