The strategic use of social media is about changing your perspective, not using new communication tools. The talks I give about social media and social marketing these days focus almost exclusively on the shift we need to make in how we think about interacting with people formerly known as the audience and much less on the tactics, or how to use specific social and mobile media tools. Fortunately, in the past four years, many social marketers and change agents have emerged to fill in those gaps. But the pace of adoption of social media in public health and social marketing programs is outpacing the understanding that social media is not simply a new set of communication tools to substitute for, or complement, posters, pamphlets, PSAs and publicity events.
A number of points about strategy and social media came together for me over the past few days as I have been consulting on five different social media projects at various stages of development. The contours of the issues each project faces are specific to the environment they are percolating in, but the repetitive themes that kept coming to the foreground – and my response to them, equally repetitive - brought me to writing a few of them down to share here.
The issues revolve around the self-defining question of what should be the role of a sponsoring organization when launching social media efforts?
The default positions most people gravitate towards come from the old model of communications – develop ‘innovative’ or ‘pilot” projects that use various social media tools (usually Facebook, Twitter and widgets, maybe a blog – rarely a mobile strategy or MySpace and never a wiki, building relationships with bloggers or working with existing local social network sites). A few groups recognize the value of co-creation of content, but have little idea of where to start and have the expected jitters about how all that will work out IF they were to try it. Somehow many people become amnesic that we have always had essay, photo, poetry and other types of contests to elicit content from ordinary people. Somehow, it has become sooo – sinister, subversive, sexy?
A slightly more enlightened position to assuming the familiar role of content creator is to become the expert consultants or coaches for others – provide training and technical assistance to the newbies in the organization, state, or whatever. What will they teach? Mostly how to use the new media in old ways.
What I believe are the more powerful positions to take, and here I mean by powerful the strategies that exploit the features of the social media, and not simply put old wine into new bottles, are to become collaborators, conveners, facilitators, brokers and weavers. By collaborators, I mean working inside what others have created – existing blogs, social network sites; creating platforms for group participation from the beginning – not just as a glorified dissemination website. By conveners I think about using social media in new ways to bring people of common purpose together to get things done – not simply substitute computer-mediated (not even in Second Life) meetings for in-person ones (aka the burgeoning scheduling of ‘webinars’) to ‘talk.’ One of the major barriers to becoming a convener is that few people and organizations understand the effort that must go into changing the behaviors of their collaborators (for a recent discussion I recommend Preece, J. and Shneiderman, B., The Reader-to-Leader
Framework: Motivating technology-mediated social participation in AIS
Transactions on Human-Computer Interaction 2009;1:13-32). Brokers implies becoming a dynamic resource center – not a place where people go to check out job posts, download toolkits and case studies, but where people can, among other things, exchange advice and information, solicit creative work, comment on works in progress, allow agencies to see who outside their usual networks might have the ways and means to reach priority groups. For example, why do so few health programs reach poor, underserved and rural populations through agricultural extension services? Why do federal health agencies work so closely with state health departments for pandemic flu preparedness when they clearly do not achieve the presence that is necessary for an informed public and prepared and responsive smaller public health agencies (is there some presumption of trickle-down communication)? And finally, agencies and organizations need to think about themselves as network weavers – pulling together what are usually (when you look for them) a number of diverse and isolated groups working on the same problem but do not have the connectors, or bridges, to bring them into contact with one another. When I suggest creating a collaborative platform for the program, the default response is to move all the usual suspects onto it – and not see it as the way to engage the local groups, advocates and affected groups in the effort. Their response is - how will we manage all of them?! Maybe a first step is to believe in the power of groups and social networks to self-organize. But that’s another story for another post.
Using social media means embracing the idea that the world is composed of social networks, not individuals. In my talks I distinguish between the old world of sources, channels, messages and receivers (a convenient fiction reinforced by the dominance of broadcast media for several decades) and the new world of distributed social media where anyone can be a producer and distributor of information. This new world focuses us on the engagement of people, not trying to creatively break through clutter; the idea that people are continuously interacting with each other and yes, will talk back to you (the secret is they always were, you just could not hear them); and the need for multiplexity – that in the new world of masses of media, and the personalization of one’s media environment, it is ubiquity that is important – not being on Facebook or Twitter. And yes, I do see people creating tactic-driven strategies. It goes like this: we want to use Twitter – or some other social media tool - because it’s cool, or someone really wants us to, or everyone else is doing it. So how can we rationalize it by creating a strategy that makes sense for us to use it? Forget what the original objectives of the campaign were – we can change those too. You get the circularity of the argument.
Understanding that it is a social world means shifting our thinking from individuals to the connections between them. As I put it today, focus on using social media to take advantage of the connections people have with each, not to reach people in new ways. What we find when we do this is the challenge of ‘making something go viral’ – a core wish of all social media toolmakers – becomes more clear. The challenge has to be framed: how do we design experiences people want to share, rather than simply how do we design something that is entertaining and changes their behavior (whoops, that old mentality slipping in again). That is how behavior and culture can be shaped, changed, shifted. Through people exchanging with each other. And once you get to that place - that we all live in a marketplace of ideas, behaviors, products and services. That people we wish to serve are not a horde of individuals only calculating costs and benefits for behaving (performing?) in self-interested ways. But people forming and participating in any number of social networks through shared social objects, beliefs, customs, norms that in turn influence their and our behaviors.
Some of those people we use to call audiences, and others we call our co-workers and partners. Others are people working in what use to be thought of as disparate fields, agencies and lands. New technologies have made it clearer than the theorists ever could that we are all connected in many different ways. Social media gives us the tools to discover and transform these relationships, not just pay rhetorical homage to intersectoral collaboration, busting out of silos, reaching across departments and offices, nurturing and sharing collective wisdom and experience (wherever it may be), engaging the public and building social capital, and leveraging scarce resources. But first it means as social marketers that we need to think about social media as a means for pursuing social strategies for making the world a better place for all the people that live in it. And then as a way to transform how we go about doing our work.