Thesis 14: Strategic Thinking about Social Media is no Substitute for Action

At a certain level, it’s important to think strategically about how your organization will use social media.

After all, if Thesis 4 is true, and if social media really are the defining communications trend of the third millennium, then using these powerful tools in a way that aligns with your overall strategy just makes good business sense.

Strategy is “a plan of action or policy designed to achieve a major or overall aim.” Aimless use of social media is no better than aimless advertising or product development research. It’s never a good idea to devote your organization’s time and resources to an activity that doesn’t relate in some way to an overall strategy. Aimless is pointless.

As B.L. Ochman has chronicled, there’s no shortage of self-proclaimed gurus, experts, specialists and strategists — nearly 16,000 at her last count — on Twitter. She also has a good post on “The only two questions you need to ask your prospective social media agency.” The problem I see with many of the self-proclaimed “gurus” is that they lack experience in tying social media to organizational strategy, and as B.L. says, “they’ll be learning on your dime.”

It’s much better for YOU to learn on your dime. Or your time.

After all, you know the strategic initiatives in your organization. The outside consultants and agencies don’t. Instead of paying them to learn about your organization, why not take the time to learn about social media so you can see how these tools can support your goals?

There is certainly a place for agencies to help in this area, especially if you have more money than time. They may be able to help you refine your plans, and bring perspective from other similar organizations to help you sell management on your plans.

But instead of insisting that you have a grand, fully developed strategy before embarking in social media (and which is accompanied by a hefty planning and consulting price tag that will make the ROI harder to prove,) I would suggest there are some goals compatible with social media strategies that apply for most organizations.

So here are a few goals you might want to pursue in the new year, using social media:

  1. Improving communication and collaboration among employees. Find a work unit in part of your organization that doesn’t deal with your most proprietary or confidential information, and encourage those employees to pilot use of Yammer, PBWiki or other networking and collaboration tools.
  2. Preventing brand-jacking. Claim your organization’s name on popular social networking sites to keep impostors from posing as you. That’s what we did with our Mayo Clinic Twitter account, Facebook page and Mayo Clinic YouTube channel.
  3. Improving customer service. Use social media tools like Twitter to listen to customers. Comcastcares is an example of this.
  4. Reaching niche “audiences” with in-depth content, and helping those “audiences” coalesce into communities. A YouTube channel, blogs and podcasts all may be good tools to use in reaching this goal, as you can provide information and resources to people who really want it, instead of using expensive advertising to interrupt those who don’t.
  5. Learning all you can about social media. By becoming conversant in social media and accustomed to its norms and mores, you’ll see many more specific applications for your work that will support your organization’s goals. I can recommend lots of books, but hands-on experience is essential to understanding. That’s why you might want to become a SMUGgle.

Your social media strategy doesn’t have to be perfect right away. In fact, I believe it should continually evolve as you learn more about the tools and see new applications.

The other point I want to emphasize from the definition of strategy is that it is a “plan of action….” Action without a goal is likely unproductive, but planning without action is even worse. By acting rashly without full consideration you might possibly do the right thing: you could just get lucky. But analysis paralysis means you will consume resources with no hope of accomplishing anything.

So those who seem to be the greatest defenders of strategy run the risk of undermining it.

To avoid this, identify one or two goals for your use of social media, either picking from the list above or something else you have in mind. Goal #5 can always be your personal entry point, if necessary.

Then execute against that plan, putting your strategy into action. General (and later President) Dwight Eisenhower famously said “plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” I believe his wisdom is best applied in an almost continuous planning process that is accompanied by continuous execution and modification.

Remember, it’s a lot easier to steer a moving car than it is to get it started from a dead stop. If you find yourself going off course, you can always steer back or even tap on the brake. And by choosing some small but well-defined (and likely successful) social media projects, you can build momentum.

In a future post, I’ll tell how we used a series of mini-plans at Mayo Clinic to grow into full-scale incorporation of social media. We’ve had some minor course corrections along the way, but through the process we’ve learned a lot and built momentum that will help carry us forward.

Strategy and the Social Media Pyramid

Last week I introduced the concept of the SMUG Social Media Pyramid as a helpful framework for considering how much is “enough” in social media. It was an attempt to answer the question, “Should we spread our efforts over lots of platforms, of just focus on one or two?”

I followed that post with a couple of more, on portions and serving sizes, as well as the need to serve through your servings, and I appreciate all the supportive comments and re-tweets, as having an analogy to the balanced physical diet seemed to resonate with many people. Just as you have different “food groups” that contribute to overall health, various categories of social media tools meet different needs in communications.

But I wanted to spend a little time discussing one of the comments that, while supportive of the concept, raised an interesting issue:

I have to say, however, that from my perspective, none of what you describe constitutes strategy. It comes across like a hardware salesperson from the Snap-On Tool Company laying out tools, and telling us what tools are most important…WITHOUT KNOWING WHAT THE TOOLS WILL BE USED FOR!

In other words, the tools will be ranked very differently in order of importance if I’m working on a car engine than if I’m working on a water main. In the networked world, the operations we perform, the needs we express, vary immensely. From breaking a new music act to the bonding of parents with hydrocephalic children, to (as one of the commentors above mentions, connecting with old classmates.)

Not being negative here, Lee, just constructively critical. Here’s another thing to consider in ranking the relevance of the various social media platforms:

Existing content.

If, for example you’ve got a vault of video related to your subject, or if there’s some incredibly emotional and compelling content available on video, then You Tube (or Vimeo or Hulu or Veoh– each has its own strengths, and merits its own ranking-within-ranking) can become the foundational platform, and the other platforms will be implemented to drive awareness and patronage.

I don’t really disagree with much of what Bonifer had to say, except that what I’m presenting in the Social Media Pyramid is a “well-balanced diet” — or since it’s about production instead of consumption — a well-balanced menu. I’m not ranking the tools any more than the USDA is saying Breads, Cereal, Pasta and Rice are more important than Fruits or Vegetables.

I would say, however, that in most cases your program won’t reach its peak potential without a blog. Most of the content can be embedded video, or you may want to use primarily text-based posts. But a blog, like the one Bonifer mentioned, can be the hub to tie various tools together. And the blog he cited is actually a really good example of text, photos, a Twitter widget and embedded video. A blog gives you the potential for depth that you don’t have with other platforms.

The other good point Bonifer makes is that within each category of the pyramid, there are various options. In social networks, for example, you probably don’t need to have a major presence in Facebook and MySpace and LinkedIn and Orkut. You’ll probably pick just one, based on where members of the community you’re gathering spend their time. Or you may try to create your own special-purpose network with Ning or some other service.

And that relates back to the question that originally prompted me to publish the pyramid paradigm (I just can’t avoid alliteration), as to whether organizations should focus on one or two platforms or spread themselves over several. I suggest picking a primary platform in each level of the pyramid, and that in most cases the popular, general-purpose platforms are going to be the best places to start.

Take advantage of the critical mass that is already building instead of trying to start from nothing and getting people to sign onto your special-purpose, standalone network. If you have passionate fans or community members who define themselves significantly by their association with your organization, maybe a standalone network would be useful. And there could be some cases in which a more exclusive, members-only networking site would make sense.

But if a big part of your goal is outreach, or spreading word-of-mouth, it’s important to be in places where that can happen. That’s why general-purpose networks make sense: your fans’ enthusiasm can infect others. In a standalone social network, you’re interacting with the proverbial choir (not “preaching” to them!), but you’re not recruiting new members. In a general-purpose network like Facebook, MySpace or LinkedIn, your community members’ friends and contacts can discover you.

So certainly, there’s a place for strategy, and you should give thought to what particular platforms make the most sense for you and for your organization.

But I would argue (in fact, I already have), that social media tools are the postmodern equivalents of the telephone and the fax. No one asks (unless you’re a telemarketing firm) what your telephone strategy is, at least in the sense of whether you should use the telephone. It’s just a basic way of communicating.

You may have strategic decisions to make, such as whether you will use automated voice mail or have a real human answer every call, but almost every company will have a phone number. Some may, as strategy to cut costs, emphasize online service options and make the phone number hard to find, but in a way that just proves my point. They are likely using digital tools, such as online communities, to provide product support more cost-effectively than even a call center in Bangalore.

If you’re not taking advantage of social media tools to help you accomplish your organization’s work more efficiently and cost-effectively, you’re missing a significant opportunity.

That’s not a good strategy.

Comprehensive List of Communications Channels

Kay Sessions Golan from the CDC asked whether there is a comprehensive list of Communications Solutions or Tactics that communicators can use in their planning, to have a wide spectrum of old-to-new media as a reference that could be incorporated into an integrated plan.

So I said, “Let’s put it on a wiki!”

Sorry about jumping right to a solution, but this is a good way for people to get a feel for how to use some of the social media tools while also pooling our knowledge. So please go here to the SMUG wiki, where I have created a section called Comprehensive Communication Channel List. Add things wherever you think they make sense, or reorganize as you see fit. Let’s create the mother-of-all-tactical lists!