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Every year, I pay close attention to Mary Meeker’s annual presentation on internet trends. Meeker, one-time analyst at Morgan Stanley and now partner at Kleiner Perkins, has become famous (some would say infamous) for her internet analysis and market projections. Her presentation and commentary is always worthwhile for any PR professional – particularly given the critical and growing impact of the Web and technology on communications and advertising.

Once again, my reaction to Meeker’s analysis is focused not so much on her conclusions, which are cogent and important, but in the apparent gap between technology trends and the state of corporate communications. Allowing the caveat that my perspective is totally subjective and anecdotal (based on recent first-hand experience with perhaps twenty organizations largely based in North America) I see some notable gaps.

Let me start with a snapshot of relevant trends from Meeker’s presentation:

  • Globalization – More than 80% of users of the world’s top internet properties (including Facebook and Google) live outside the United States. In 3 years, China added more internet users than exist in the U.S.
  • The Web is social – Social networkers around the world now outnumber internet users.
  • Mobility – Mobile technology (led by 3G Smartphones and the unprecedented adoption of tablets) continues to grow at historic rates. Mobile search and access to social networks is growing rapidly. Mary suggests the mega-trend of the 21st   Century is the empowerment of people via mobile, connected devices.
  • Digital content – User interfaces and digital content is moving from text and icons to a new combination of sound/touch/video. Content is now accessed, moved and altered through a simple touch on the screen.
  • Content aggregation – Content is increasingly being packaged, and accessed, though sites that aggregate rather than create original content.

Now let’s compare each of these trends to what I typically see in my communication work:

  • Globalization - Most companies struggle with truly global communications, and rarely make a concerted effort to ensure their content is representative and relevant across their international locations. Call it the HQ syndrome. Many don’t bother to address the most obvious challenge of foreign language in their corporate outreach; English is the default language, even in organizations with a majority of staff outside North America.
  • The Web is social - Despite the tremendous growth and opportunity of social technology, many organizations still hesitate to introduce even the most basic social platforms (such as internal blogs) despite the fact most intranet platforms now come with built-in social capabilities. Even fewer encourage and train their staff to be online ambassadors or interact with customers. Some organizations have yet to introduce employee Web policies.
  • Mobility - Despite the proliferation of mobile devices, only a hand-full of companies I’ve worked for/with use company-supplied or personal devices for communication purposes, and that is often limited to text digests. Even organizations with many remote staff and/or manufacturing environments where workers don’t have access to computers, mobile outreach is limited. Many companies still ban use of iPhones or other Smartphones that aren’t officially supplied.
  • Digital content - Text pushed out via email is still king in corporate communications, with a surprising paucity of original video content, and even less packaged audio (though I’ve seen…or heard…some innovative programs that leverage podcasting and DVDs to train or inform staff.) The ubiquitous Powerpoint slides, which can now feature interesting visuals and compelling design, are often limited to busy, generic text. Photos are becoming more common, but there is rarely a proactive program designed to help create and share original photography. In terms of interfaces, I’ve yet to see an intranet (or many external websites) that’s anything close to the iconic, visualized interface used by many technology providers.
  • Content aggregation – Too many companies still believe in the build-it-and-they-will-come come mantra, limiting their online presence to official corporate sites with dubious prospects. (The obvious exception is companies that market and sell online.) Most content on corporate sites is usually produced by the organization, and often self-serving. On the internal side the same trend applies, but with even less access to external content or feeds. Usually, a fairly rigid hierarchy of approved authors prevents staff from being active content contributors.

Even allowing for aversion to risk and cultural differences across workplaces, I’m surprised our profession appears so out of step with emerging trends. From personal experience, I know it’s difficult to go against corporate inertia, but we risk losing our credibility and relevance if we don’t counsel our clients/leaders to consider these trends and look for opportunities to innovate and improve.

It’s rare a day goes by without another example of an employee getting fired or reprimanded for posting something inappropriate on their Twitter account, or a company being forced into damage control due to an off-color comment or tone-deaf message. I read this example of Congressional staffers and their ill-advised Twitter chatter this morning. There are countless other blunders that have generated heated coverage – ranging from political scandals (hello Tony Weiner) to marketing snafus. All this noise usually creates two concerns, or conclusions, with many of my clients:

  • Social media is very risky for organizations…probably too risky
  • It’s very difficult to regulate and monitor social media interaction

As I’ve written before in this blog over the years, I think the fears of social media are overblown and misdirected. Yes, social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook allow content and commentary to spread globally quickly – whether it’s positive or critical. But a cursory review of the most celebrated social media snafus (including the one referenced above) reveals that in most cases the controversy could easily have been avoided with basic common sense: Don’t lie. Don’t use inappropriate language or content. Be nice. Play fair. I would argue these are the same guidelines employees would use with any other workplace forum or channel (including company email.) In fact, I am often amazed at how ridiculous and ill-advised these controversial posts are…causing me to ask rhetorically what were they thinking?

The issue of monitoring and managing social media outreach is also surrounded by misconceptions. Companies can use a wide range of user-friendly tools to monitor the Web and track posts, triage comments or questions and identify emerging trends. With regard to organization, many of recognized social media leaders use a small, dedicated team and simple planning process to direct their social media efforts. In other words, this doesn’t have to be that overly costly or complicated. The barriers to entry for social media are very low for individual and institutional users alike.

Rather than blaming social media channels – which are inherently neutral and provide incredible platforms for robust, real-time conversation with millions of users – company leaders should spend more time selecting and training their staff, and determining the strategic purpose of their social media activities (even if they are mostly passive and reactive.) These steps don’t have to be onerous. Many of the most successful companies actively using social media – notably Dell, IBM, Best Buy and Starbucks – have clear and simple policies and objectives. And determining if and how you want to get involved can (and should) be shaped by due diligence and strategic planning.

The fact that some have made mistakes using social media platforms is an indictment of the culprits, not the technology.

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