Social Media’s Perception Problem(s): Everything and Nothing

by Ken Mueller on July 2, 2012 · 35 comments

English: 1950s Women's "Cats Eye" Gl...

Social Media has a problem.

Several, actually.

And most of this stems from the perceptions that many have of this new-ish kid on the block. The two perceptions that create this social media problem are that social media is everything, and social media is nothing.

Social Media is Nothing

On the one end of things, there are those who still don’t get “it” and don’t take social media seriously. This is an issue that is brought home to me nearly every day in conversations, but most recently by two particular situations.

I was asked to look at the social media policy being drafted by a non-profit organization. The communications department requested the policy as they work to create a strong social presence. The HR department took control, ignored most of what the communications department had requested, and drafted a policy that was nothing more than a list of “Thou shall nots”. Rather than encouraging the use of social media, and outlining how employees can be an important part of the organization’s online presence, the policy is incredibly restrictive, and feels like a hammer is being held over their heads. Step out of line online, and you’ll pay the penalty.

The folks in the communications department were justifiably upset with the way the policy turned out, but their hands were tied. Clearly, social media is nothing more than a time suck for employees who want to trade cows on Farmville, as far as the HR department is concerned. And this is why it’s important that we tear down those internal silos and have everyone involved.

Meanwhile, my friend Crister posted a note on Facebook about a chat she had recently with a college professor. This professor had proclaimed,

“We don’t teach social media here because we don’t believe it’s communications.”

That’s right. Students at some university aren’t learning how to integrate social media into their marketing, PR, and communications plans because the professor and school have a rather myopic view of social.

It’s not communication.

In their minds, social media is nothing more than a fad; something that shouldn’t be taken seriously. There is so much wrong with this professor’s statement I don’t even know where to begin, but I’m guessing he has been around a long time. This kind of old school thinking is endemic to those who have been in business a long time and believe that the old way of doing things is the only way.

If what we’re doing regularly via social media is not communication, then what exactly is it?

Social Media is Everything

On the other end of the perception problem are those folks who believe that social media is the magic bullet that will save your business. All you need is a Facebook page and you’re good to go. Sadly, if you hold this position, you’re setting yourself up for a major letdown. And other than the fact that it’s not true, the real problem is that those who believe this will not only be disappointed in the results, they’ll then swing back to the other end of things.

I met with a guy once who had no clue what social media was about, but was convinced that it would help him. I hear this a lot, and often I’m encouraged by that mindset, but not in this case. He was putting together a fundraising event for an obscure nonprofit that had no online presence, and he just knew that if he created a Facebook event, it would take him from obscurity to success. I tried to explain to him all that was needed in terms of an overall marketing plan, but he insisted he just needed a Facebook event, which he proceeded to create.

And then he sat there. And waited.

And nothing happened.


So after two weeks he cancelled his fundraising event, and got back to me with the grand pronouncement:

Social media doesn’t work.

He had bought into the lie that social media was the magic bullet that could cure anything, and despite my advice to the contrary, he pursued what he thought he was supposed to do, and was severely disappointed. He had the wrong mindset, and false expectations, and when those expectations weren’t met, it clearly must be because social media doesn’t work. At all.

Unfortunately, this perception is encouraged and perpetuated by many of those in my field who are looking to make a quick buck. It’s no surprise that many of these folks proudly wear the self-proclaimed title of guru or ninja, and they sit around in coffee shops tweeting for multiple clients, without any thought given to branding, strategy, and integration.

These people preach a gospel of “Social media will save us all“, yet often have no understanding of how and why social media really works. And this type of thinking has seeped into the minds of many business people who think all they need is a Twitter account, or a Facebook page.

This is why I won’t blindly give quotes over the phone, or put blanket fees on my website. In order to serve the client’s best interests, I want to know more about them and their goals, and only then will I make recommendations. Or walk away.

This is why when a local business owner contacted me about helping her set up her Facebook page in a barter deal, I declined. Instead, I told her that I wanted to sit down with her, look over her online presence and her overall marketing plan, and then present her with a proposal on what I felt she would do. She agreed, and as we talked, it was clear that she “gets it”. And now we’re working together, over the long haul, to create a digital communications plan that is fully integrated into her business model. And it’s working.

I battle both of these misconceptions about social media on a daily basis. And while both are still rather pervasive, I am seeing a slow shift into a better and more realistic understanding of what social media is all about.

How are you battling these perceptions as you work within your business or with clients?



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