Social media means… making mistakes

Last week, at a London conference for communications directors, I was asked to lead a small group discussing how organisations can best use social media to engage with what might loosely be termed ‘customers’.

As I posed the first question, a figure reclining on the couch declared:

“Don’t you think that, as this is a conversation, we should go round the group and introduce ourselves?”

Notwithstanding the fact that we were all wearing badges and sitting in close proximity to each other, she had a point, even if it was a rather jagged one. I should have helped break the ice. I made a mistake.

***

For a day commanded by conversations about social media it was striking how commonly delegates used that ‘m’ word. Communications heads from big brands in pharmacy, banking, retail and the third sector taking the podium and saying: “We messed up.” “We’d made a mistake.” “We tried this, it didn’t work, so we tried something else.”

I couldn’t help thinking back to another London communications conference dominated by digital, this time in 2006, a Don’t Panic ‘New PR’ event where speakers included Emily Bell, then Guardian director of digital content, the social media commentator and analyst Neville Hobson (by then already a prolific podcaster) and University of Sunderland’s Head of Journalism Chris Rushton.

I’ve tried to find a link to the original programme but can only find a Manchester version, posted by Chris’ then colleague Philip Young (who ran a fantastic study on ‘new media’ adoption in colleges for us when I worked at the Association of Colleges.)

That 2006 event felt like the meeting of a sect – a dark room, people speaking quietly, hands rising tentatively to ask questions, a confessional atmosphere. Some were experimenting – with podcasts to a handful of listeners, with (gasp) online newsrooms – often despite the organisation for whom they worked. The delegates might be blogging in a personal context, or monitoring what people were saying about their place of work on Facebook in their lunch hour. If they were making mistakes, they were doing so in secret.

Others like me were sat at the back, undergoing some form of conversion. And like a sect, it wasn’t entirely clear if we were heretical or simply an off-shoot of a larger body, at that point mostly spending its time taking journalists out to lunch.

So flash forward seven years, which is a very short amount of time in the grand scheme of things, and here we have global brands being searingly honest and public about the mistakes they had made online.

And while this feels a little odd, it is quite incredible that organisations haven’t made many more. Because here we have:

  • A medium which often strips out the helpful signals of visual and aural communications. Witness how well sarcasm works in social. Not.
  • Technologies that adapt or mutate with alarming regularity – whether they are Facebook algorithms or yet another image-sharing tool.
  • Monitoring that has always struggled to keep pace with the conversation, as if our ears were a little slower than our mouths.
  • A corresponding dearth of precedent – even now it often feels like an experiment.

Which is why communications professionals cling to eachother’s mistakes. Because in the era of social media, that’s often all we have to go on. If technologies and volumes of conversations and possibilities for talking to people are always changing, then we really are still experimenting and as such, more likely to stumble across what didn’t work for other people as what did.

It shouldn’t have taken a comms conference (or two) for me to work that out. The clue is in the name. If it’s social media then it’s destined to be defined by trial and error, just like any social interaction. We all make  social faux pas, some (like me) more regularly than others. We struggle to remember names. We talk too loudly, too softly. We forget to introduce people to each other.

The trick for communications practitioners is to persuade their organisations that the trial is worth the error. But that’s a conversation for another day.

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