What social media really is

| May 7, 2013

Approaches to social media are varied and the way to use it can be a challenge if your business has not utilised previously. Fergus Neilson explores how best to tackle social media for stakeholder engagement.

‘Social media’ is a tool.  It is NOT a strategy.   

Social networks are only a tool that we may (or may not) facilitate to a particular end.  It is true that they have been utilised effectively by many organisations as a means to deliver entity specific outcomes:

  • eBay to match sellers of the detritus of a consumer society to hoarders of same;

  • Amazon to fundamentally tilt the landscape of book retailing;

  • Facebook to stoke the Y generation appetite for self promotion;

  • Wiggle to sidestep the need for high street retail exposure; and

  • Obama to stimulate the complacent into voting his way.

However, in each and every case the overarching strategic aim was established FIRST.  Only THEN was a mechanism designed to meet that adopted aim through the application of appropriate communications technology.

If there is no agreed strategic purpose coming ahead of the adoption of social media the resulting ‘website’ will operate only as an electronic sandwich board and it will be ignored as completely as the pedestrians on George Street ignore the sandwich board inviting passers by into ‘Australia’s Greatest Magic Shop’.

It therefore important to FIRST commit to a Stakeholder Engagement Strategy and only THEN define, design and apply appropriate social networking technology; where the focus of that technology should be on ensuring the maximum volume of stakeholder participation.

Participation is the key.  Without participation there is no point to implementation.  The priority should therefore be on ensuring maximum reach and on delivering a genuine reason for stakeholder participation.

Merely putting out a one-way-message is the primary cause of, if not failure, then of the irrelevance of most ‘social media strategies’.  It is just background noise on an already overcrowded bandwidth.  Even allowing for feedback mechanisms, there is no guarantee of success unless the ‘engager’ both listens to the feedback from the stakeholders and is then seen to act on stakeholder feedback.

Two-way traffic is not sufficient.  Only three-way traffic will deliver solid stakeholder engagement: starting with an invitation > generating participation > and then clearly demonstrating that participation creates real stakeholder benefit.  Importantly, for sufficient numbers to participate and for that participation to be meaningful the process and technology should be characterised by:

  • the delivery of dynamic user-centred content – must be of real utility to the stakeholder;

  • a commitment to crowd sourcing – ask for and respond to feedback from a substantial stakeholder group; and

  • a genuine and visible commitment to acting on stakeholder input – make stakeholder participation worthwhile.

Any entity seeking to engage its existing or prospective stakeholders needs, therefore, to adopt technology that engages the stakeholder, respects the stakeholder and clearly demonstrates to the stakeholder that his or her input does actually influence the decision-making process – both tactically (day-to-day operations) and strategically (long term policies).

In conclusion, an effective ‘Stakeholder Engagement Strategy’ must ensure that:

  • at the most senior level in the organisation there is an agreed strategic purpose to the application of social media technology;

  • there is a real probability of attracting a meaningful stakeholder base where meaningful means large enough to blank out the stridency of single issue advocates;

  • stakeholder participation will matter and that stakeholders do have a role in directing outcomes; and

  • the adopted social media technology is suited to the particular strategic purpose of the ‘engager’.

Remember – Purpose Precedes Process

Fergus Neilson is Co-Founder of The Futures Project. Fergus brings a wide range of business and life skills gathered from a career in the armed forces, investment banking, the United Nations, McKinsey & Company and private equity investment. Always sceptical of solutions imposed ‘top-down’ and increasingly frustrated by the default position that invariably sees cleaning equipment bought in only after the proverbial has hit the fan.