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Social Media in Theory vs. Social Media In Practice

Submitted by on March 25, 2010 – 10:20 am3 Comments

John Battelle cited a post of mine today in his great FM Signal blog.   At issue were my thoughts on the Nestle Facebook fracas.  John makes a great point and his post helped me get clear on what I increasingly see as a divide within social media between theory and practice.  That is to say, there are a standard set of answers that garner complete agreement in theory but may not hold up so well in practice.   John writes:

I think I’ll open Signal with a response to this post: Why Social Media May Not Be for You… (Yet), from Joshua-Michéle Ross of Opposable Planets. I like the thinking in this post, but disagree with the final thought. Musing on the recent Nestle Facebook “debacle” (which I do not believe is, or needs to be proclaimed a debacle), Joshua-Michéle concludes: If Nestle neither wishes to change or defend itself on the merits – then they shouldn’t be operating in social media.

Well, yes and no. Yes, in that the sheer beauty of social media is that it forces questions to the fore, and thus forces companies to respond to those questions. But no, it’s not OK, as a strategy, to “not be operating in social media.” I sense, perhaps, that Joshua-Michéle was making the same point in a roundabout way.

My reasoning? Because all of our customers are already operating in social media. You can’t pretend otherwise. And it’s better to engage, make mistakes, admit those mistakes, and move on, than to not engage at all. I call this “conversational judo,” and suggest we all practice it, daily. Twice on Sunday, perhaps.

Here is the comment (with very slight clean up after further reflection) that I left on the Signal blog:

Thanks for citing my post. We are essentially in agreement but I think we are lobbying from a fundamentally different perspective. In my opinion the difference lies between theory and practice. In theory every company SHOULD get engaged for the reasons you state above. In practice many organizations aren’t yet prepared (culturally and structurally) for what is involved. If you are counseling a company that will get criticism but has no internal mechanism to either respond or change – then as their counselor should you really be advising they take the dive? The result in many organizations will be personally harmful to those who you are advising (most company punish “mistakes”).

Case in point: I recently counseled a client similar in size and controversial status over their FB presence. They also had very debatable policies (on social rather than environmental merits as was the case with Nestle). I advised them to develop a risk mitigation plan – essentially that that they needed to be prepared ahead of time to either defend, ignore or change in response to the potential criticism. They decided that (1) they had no influence over corporate policy (2) the policy was hard to debate on the merits, and (3) that their remit was still quite traditional marketing (brand awareness). Weighing these together they concluded that the risk outweighed the reward. I think they actually made the right decision given all the factors above.

Do I think that they should be more fully engaged? Yes. Do I think that they are ready? No. So while on a theoretical level I agree that all organizations SHOULD be engaged, they need to lay the groundwork first. I hope the distinction makes sense.


  • Chris Meyer says:

    This is an “and” discussion: both John and Joshua-Michele are right. What unites the two is a combination of awareness and learning. It's fair to say all major firms are aware of the social web's presence though they may not know how to interact. Perhaps using a maturity model of awareness (broadly John's point) with a similar model for learning and action (Joshua-Michele's point) might help. At a low level of awareness, X learning/actions might be appropriate whereas at a higher level, Y action fit. Sure it reeks of a 2×2 matrix but that's why they're often useful.

  • […] The conversations about Nestle’s “failure” focused on prescriptions that supported the consultant’s value proposition more than the real-world context that surrounded the Nestle incident.   On a much more benign […]

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