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Social Media Realities - Idealizing Social Media Costs Millions In Waste

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We're bombarded by advice about social media, almost all of which tells us that we should bring our organizations "up to speed" by using social media to communicate with customers, and to use social media to facilitate communication internally among teams and employees.

Because much of the social media advice comes from people who make their livings by using social media, selling services to organizations, we have to ask two questions:

1) Is the positive information we see every day coming from biased sources, and thus, at the minimum, providing an unbalanced picture?

2) Is the advice based on how people really use social media, or is it based on an idealized idea of what the technology provides.

In this new series of articles, we'll look at these questions to help you decide what value social media might provide your company or organization.

Idealizing Social Media

When new technology arrives, whether it be the telephone, or television or other media, there's a period of time where people look at what the technology COULD be, and how it COULD be used. This is based on the technological "features", and tends to largely ignore how real people interface with the new technology. As an example, when television became popular, schools spent millions of dollars outfitting their classrooms with television sets, under the assumption that because TV "could" be used for learning, it "would" be used for learning.

In retrospect we know that while TV has the capability to "teach", that's not how it was used, or is used today. That's a great example of idealization, on the "should" and "could" that ignores human psychology, or more simply, how people USE the technology.

Social Media Advice Based On "Features" Not Humans

Every day the following pattern is repeated. Advisors push social media, almost always "just because", rather than to solve a well defined problem. When companies don't use social media in the prescribed way, they are told that "they don't get it", or they don't understand social media. When return on investment is negative, which it often is for the majority of companies that try, once again, they are told that they "didn't use it properly".

But is that true? Or could it be that these "failures" in fact, know more about how people really use social media, than the experts immersed in it? Could it be that the social media experts are so immersed, and occupied with the shiny new toy that they idealize it? That the lose BOTH the business realities and the human factor? You bet. And it's costing people millions of dollars in wasted money, effort and time.

Here's a typical comment that exemplifies the problem. Made by Jason McCain, on

I think we may be missing a bigger issue here....

Why social media?

If your org has "pre-approved" social media messages the first thought that comes to mind is your org probably doesn't know how to use social media to get the greatest return.  What do I mean?  Social media is about engagement.  Sure you can put out "pre-approved content", but what then?  Does is just sit out there?  Are their ways to provide feedback or comment on the material?  If the answer is "no", then it is not social media.  If the answer is "yes" than you need to engage in that dialogue to be effective.  This cannot come in the way of "pre-approved" messaging.  

So, if social media is ONLY a one way street then the organization misses the point.  Sadly, this is what I see happening in most cases. 

His comment makes sense, right? But it doesn't, if you take into account how REAL PEOPLE use social media, and look at the data that helps us understand how it's used, not how it "should be used".

First, the majority of people who sign up for social media platforms don't post much.

Second, of the people (and the companies) that use social media often, the overwhelming majority are "broadcasting" one way messages, or have a very limited desire to engage with total strangers, which explains why so many social media "discussions" are so short, or otherwise limited.

Third, The number of people who sign up for social media accounts, and then hardly ever return or use the accounts if also overwhelming. Their accounts still "count" in overall statistics, except they aren't anywhere, or reachable via social media.

Fourth, the overwhelming majority of active Facebook users tend to use it to interact with people they already know -- real life friends, relatives and so on. What they are NOT doing is interacting with a lot of strangers. In fact, they use Facebook, the way it was originally intended -- as a means of connecting with those already known to them.

Fifth, there's good research to suggest that somewhere between 75% to 90% of tweets and Facebook updates NEVER stimulate any response that is observable. In other words, while people may read them (we actually don't know what's read or not), they certainly are NOT engaging with the poster. Unless, of course, they already know them.

So, while Jason's comment about "engagement" being the soul (and defining characteristic) of social media, that may be Jason's opinion, perhaps idealizing the medium, but it does NOT reflect how real users behave.


For companies and businesses it's about lost time, energy and money, because the costs of wide ranging social media presences is hidden, and high. If that investment is based on some idealized notion that people are clamoring for "engagement", then, sadly, that investment is lost.

Oddly enough, the companies that people like Jason criticize for "doing it wrong" are actually using a broadcast, one way communication approach that accurately reflects how real people use social media. Most social media companies do not respond to every mention, and in fact, many don't respond to complaints either, which, you'd think, would be business suicide. Yet, it isn't. And that's because people online don't behave the way Jason and other social media proponents, want to believe. They just may know a lot more than the social media experts, or it may be they are just cynical and resistant to change, but one thing is for sure. They are acting like they understand social media in a realistic way, based on how real human beings use the various platforms.

So, if you've already jumped on the social media platforms, and you are wondering why you have lots of friends and followers, but nobody is talking to you, it's because you got caught in the idealization of social media.

And if you are not yet in deep in social media, and considering its use for organizational purposes be sure to read: Developing a Social Media Strategy For Your Business.

Robert Bacal is a best selling author on customer service and management topics. He also does keynote speaking related to the topic of this article. If you have comments, or interest in Bacal and Associate services and learning tools e-mail us.

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Bacal & Associates was founded in 1992. Since then Robert has trained thousands of employees to deal with angry, hostile, abusive and potentially violent customers. He has authored over 20 books on various subjects, many published by McGraw-Hill.


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