Marketers are still asking the wrong questions about social media

Justin Pearse is MD of The Drum's content marketing agency The Drum Works and is a member ofBIMA's executive committee. He is a former editor of New Media Age.

The marketing industry remains obsessed by social media but the problem is that everyone keeps asking the wrong questions.

Justin Pearse: No stranger to a social media panel

I spent a bit of time at Social Media Week a couple of weeks ago, appearing on a couple of panels and listening in to others. The week was the best yet and the debate was as vigorous as it always is at a social media gathering, with an engaged and engaging group of very smart people. One thing that struck me though was how, wherever you go in social media circles, the conversation really hadn’t moved on that far from what you would have heard at similar events a year or even two years ago.

This is not in any way to demean such debate; social media remains, despite the continuing media obsession with its fluffier elements, one of the most disruptive digital forces we have ever seen. Despite the wealth of amazing case studies of brands using social media to incredible effect you can read daily here at The Drum and encounter across the industry, most brands are still struggling to understand how best to employ it.

So, it’s unsurprising there’s a desire for healthy debate and desire for knowledge. Ask anyone that runs a marketing publication and they’ll tell you the term ‘social media’ in a headline works on readers like crack cocaine.

What’s interesting though is that debate, across the press and at events, still centres on issues of control and the rules of engagement: how brands can best use this new media to actively engage with consumers, how they can create communities, how to feed these communities, who in a company should ‘own’ such social media engagement, what new platforms and technologies should be used. And why, oh why clients are so reluctant to ditch decades-old control of intransigent brand control.

The discussion is too often about what brands and their agencies can do to ‘use’ social media to change their relations with consumers. Seldom is it about what brands have to do to change their actual businesses to get fit for this new world.

Stanford lecturer and Harvard Business Review writer Nilofer Merchant brought out a fascinating new book last month on the need for businesses to reinvent themselves for the social age. The inability of organisations to truly adopt social media can be simply summed up, she says: “They see social as the purview of two functions: marketing and service but social is not always attached to the word media. Social can be and is more than marketing or communications-related work.”

This view was perhaps put into neater real world context by Scott Monty, global head of social media at Ford, at the Dreamforce conference a couple of weeks ago. Despite being widely recognised as a leader in social media he said. “Ford doesn’t have a standalone social media strategy…..we have a business strategy supported by social media,” he went on.

He discussed how social media for Ford was no longer about campaigns; it was now about how it helped it operate as a social enterprise,

All this seems to me the biggest prize. The ability of the marketing industry to help brands re-engineer their business to become social by default. To get more people talking like Scott Monty.

Maybe this means the questions everyone should be asking are not about how brands can change their communications strategies for social media but what they need to do to change themselves first.

Justin Pearse is head of innovation at Bite Communications and a BIMA executive committee member.

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