It's A Cultural Thing (You Wouldn't Understand)

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"What are we doing on Twitter?" "What are we doing on Facebook?" "What are we doing on YouTube?" You’ve heard these questions a million times in a million different meetings.

For the past long while, I have raged against those questions. To me asking "what?" is simply tactical. It’s usually only asked because a competitor is doing something similar or because someone in the c-suite got handed a newspaper article that defined one of the Social Media platforms as the newest media darling and sensation. It’s a dangerous route.

Start with "why?"

"Why should we be using Twitter?" "Why should we be on Facebook?" "Why should we be posting videos to YouTube?" When you ask "why?" you start thinking more about the strategy. You start thinking more about how this will tie into your business objectives and help the overall economic value of the organization. "Why?" is the strategy and "what?" is the tactical. If you’ve been playing along at home on this Blog, apologies for being repetitive, but it hasn’t sunk in. eMarketer recently released a news item titled, What Makes Up a Social Marketing Strategy? (June 24th, 2010), which stated that, "52% of social marketers are operating ‘without a game plan,’… Further, many that do have a strategy find it doesn’t address all their concerns or fit their needs. The most common elements included by companies with a social media communications plan were resource-allocation guidelines for ongoing activities, registration of branded usernames on social sites and research into competitors’ use of social media. To be sure, those are all critical components of an effective strategy, but they are only the beginning."

There’s a bigger reason why brands and Social Media are having a hard time connecting and few people are talking about it.

Before jumping into Social Media, ask yourself this one hard (and very serious) question: does my brand fit into the culture of these platforms? It’s a complex question. It’s a cultural thing and sometimes brands think that they do fit when in reality, they’re just the old guy standing at the back of the club by the bar waiting for the concert to end so that they can take the kids (who are moshing up front) home. They’re not really invited. They’re not really welcome. Everyone else there is just tolerating their existence like a necessary evil.

There are ways to engender yourself to these different cultures.

That’s where a real Social Media strategy kicks in. When you can break down the brand and define how/why it can develop any semblance of a community within the specific platforms (and don’t kid yourself, Blogs are very different from Facebook’s culture and Twitter’s culture is very different from LinkedIn‘s). So, in case you were wondering, yes, there is a Blogging culture and it’s everything from personal journalizing to sharing information in a non-PR-ish kind of way.

People always want to preserve their culture (and there’s nothing wrong with that).

In the end, I would argue that a Blog is not just like every other publishing platform either, because every other publishing platform isn’t like any of the others. Think about how we culturally see YouTube versus Twitter. Yes, you can do things within them to change them and tweak them to make them unique or different for your brand, but they each have their own culture (language, audience, vibe, etc…). It’s not always easy to define a culture, but once you’re engaged in the channel, you can feel it. It’s also not wrong (or unfounded) for those who Blog to want to encourage the culture of Blogging to push on and not become homogenized into something "other." Whether we like it or not, we do need these semantics and understanding of these channels and their unique cultures. Otherwise, what’s the difference between a blog, newspaper, magazine, book, website, etc…? Afterall, they all just publish content. The difference is in their culture, how they operate and who they appeal to.

What brands are learning is that they can’t make that culture bend to their will. They need to work hard to live that culture and become an accepted member of the community – in an authentic way.

Do you think brands are up for this challenge?


  1. Mitch, as long as the brand in question is willing to actually start with why as you suggest, I believe that anything is possible.
    I’ve always enjoyed your “start with why” riffs.

  2. I think I’m shifting away from the “why?” and moving towards a “will it/can it fit?” type of question. I’ll keep you posted on how this progresses, but thanks for the compliment. I still need a burger…

  3. Yes, if they can figure out how to minimize “cooperation costs”, the costs of syncing a value within an existing target niche(as wider or random as it goes over time, it is a challenge).
    It is difficult, it is like fixing an engine in a sportscar while it is running 60mph.
    I think it is doable, if they have patience, passion and large amount of curiosity.

  4. Is the “why” question similar to asking “what problem do we solve for our users” or “how can we add value to our users” or even, “how will our users benefit from our strategy?”. Those are questions I myself liketo have answered when thinking of a stategy. Sure, brand culture and identity are equally important, since the ‘message’ needs to conform to the core values of the company. Finding a balance in there is often the challenge to me, but adds to the fun bit!

  5. Mitch, it may be semantics, but for many small businesses, I believe the discussion should start with Should I be on ANY platform? And if so, which one? “Why should I” forces the business owner to justify participation when he or she should probably be thinking about whether participation in a particular social platform will help identify people with a need and convince them to know, like, and trust…and then buy from and refer them (with a tip of the hat to John Jantsch).
    As you point out, there are a lot of “social media consultants” out there focusing on the tactics without first setting a strategy, but their livelihood depends on convincing those business owners to participate in as robust a way as possible. I think many small businesspeople need to dip their toes in the water before diving in — to alleviate their fears or see a small return on the investment of their precious time. What would be most helpful would be a matrix that helps them see the pros and cons of each platform, particularly if it’s customized for different types of businesses.
    Any thoughts on the best source for that?

  6. Lots of listening and experimenting can go a long way as well. Let’s also not forget about using the analytics to really uncover whether or not what we’re trying to do is connecting with the right people.

  7. I think the Social Media “why?” comes a bit after those preliminary questions. The ones you listed seem to the be the same ones you will find on more creative briefs. In this instance, we’re looking to understand “what the culture is?”, “how we fit in?”, “what we can do to add value to the community?”, and “how we’re going to do this?”. From there, you can delve into the channels a little bit more.

  8. I totally agree with your thoughts, but I do have one caveat: Social Media is – at it’s fundamental core – not about the conversation, but about the act of sharing. It may be better to rephrase that first question to: “as a business owner, should we be sharing with our consumers?” The answer – most likely – is yes. From there, ask this: “are there any platforms that can help us share information, who we are, how we connect?”
    In my 20 years of being involved in Digital Marketing, I can’t seem to recall any instances where there wasn’t some kind of opportunity to use these channels to grow a business – even internally between staff.

  9. I think every brand can leverage social media in some way, whether it is listening, learning or engaging.
    The first step for any brand wanting to engage in social media is wanting to build a genuine relationship with their customers. If they sincerely want to start a dialogue and are willing to take the good with the bad, then I think they are up for the challenge.
    If all they want to do is promote and sell without building a credible and authentic voice, then they will fail.

  10. I was asked to look at a client’s proposed social media policy the other day. It was nothing more than a safety net, liability-wise. There was nothing in it encouraging, progressive or inspiring. It was wholly reactive and disciplinarian. This is the antithesis of social media culture. You know what? I told them so, and they appreciate it. If you knew what brand it was you’d laugh and say, “them?” “That sounds about right.” But I hope they do take my advice to heart. Interestingly, some of the most conservative and supposedly monolithic corporations have the most liberal and proactive social media policy. Walmart’s is purposefully humorous and brief; Microsoft’s is something akin to “Use your head.”

  11. I had a similar conversation this past week. I think companies, ultimately, grapple with the channel of conversation. Meaning: they think they’re dealing with journalists or the media and they don’t realize that consumers don’t speak their language or follow those traditional business/media rules of engagement.
    Furthermore, any Social Media policy (btw, I much prefer guidelines over policy) that takes the angle of caution/fear is starting from a point of weakness. Being open and embracing Social Media should always be the first strike.

  12. Funny enough, I have seen brands use Social Media to sell and push and it does work – you just need to have the right brand and an audience that cares.
    I like the idea of brands staring out by simply sharing. Sharing is an amazing and generous gift… we sometimes forget the little/simple things.

  13. The why vs. what question does change the whole perspective of the conversation. What could be spinning wheels. But when you know the answer to why you do something, you’re doing it with purpose and giving it meaning.

  14. Mitch you hit some important things businesses fail to address when it comes to Social. I tell clients ‘why would someone want to engage with you using mainstream Social Media (Facebook, Twitter etc). For 90% of businesses the answer is actually most people do not want to engage with you in THOSE forums.
    But I think you agree that every business can find a use for Social Network/Social Media Technology to improve internal and external communications with workers, clients, and with Sales/Networking. It is a matter of choosing what is best for the Client. I think often the people making the decisions glamorize their expectations which clouds reality.

  15. I agree 100% Mitch that Social is NOT about conversations. I rarely see a real conversation ever anywhere. But short bursts of sharing, discussion, and diatribe happen all the time. It is actually really hard to have a conversation that takes place over a long time period, say a few hours where a new tweet or comment is added every 30min. They lose momentum. But the constant sharing and exchanging of content is the true core of Social Media in my opinion.

  16. … and you’re setting yourself up for success because you’re planning it – both from an execution and from an org chart perspective. A lot of people want to “join the conversation” and then they put the intern on it (or the CEO’s recently graduated son). We all know how this ends up.

  17. One of the best places for a company to start Social Media engagement is internally. Use the tools to share within the organization. Use the tools to comment back and forth with one another. Set-up an internal Podcast or Blog. All of these initiatives will get everyone within the organization that much more comfortable with the tools.

  18. I use all the “channels” you mentioned above. I like to think they all have different personalities (and genders but that’s a whole blog post). I think our conclusion is the same. Why should I use this channel and will it reach the audience I want to reach with the correct message. I also know from analytics that all the channels bring significant traffic to my home base(blog & Company website). Finally, sometimes I just feel like I’ve been neglecting a channel and then I create a video so my YouTube channel is fresh again. It’s late I’ll stop rambling now.

  19. As long as there is a sound strategy behind it and your measuring results, I’m a big proponent of using what works (obviously) – and not just what happens to be the cool, new trick of the day (maybe a little less obvious).

  20. I totally agree, Mitch. I’m thinking about the REALLY SMALL businesses — the locksmith, the ice cream shop, the hairdresser — and whether that emphasis on sharing — for them — should be face to face or on a social-media platform. I struggle with the advice that I want to give to this group when they look at me and say, “everyone says I should be on Facebook or Twitter,” and they’re struggling to keep their doors open and worried that the engagement or the sharing will distract them from selling their products to the person right in front of them.
    Chicken or the egg, you might say. And you’d be right. But it’s a difficult conversation and I appreciate you (and your brethren) keeping the discussion going.

  21. It’s an easy fix: try it out (with a small test), but stick to it until you know that you’ve found the result (whether intended or not). If the Internet does anything great, it does allow you to fail fast, often and cheap (or fairly cheap).

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