Good Advice For Using Social Media...Except, it Doesn't Scale
It's rare to come across really useful advice for businesses wanting to ride the wave of social media to increased revenue and profit that is devoid of the usual unsubstantiated hyberbole. So, it was enjoyable to discover an article entitled "2010 predictions & recommendations for Web 2.0 and social networks" by Christopher Rollyson. While not the main point of his article he ends it with some suggestions as to what steps businesses can take to use social media intelligently. I'd like to quote them here for their intrinsic value, but also to make a practical point on the limitations of using social media, even correctly.
Christopher suggests that individuals (and this would apply to small and moderately sized businesses:
- Start blogging
- Take your LinkedIn Profile up a level
- Commit to tweeting
- Cut back on unproductive networking
- Relentlessly conduct yourself so that you increase trust with people who count
This is relatively good advice, although I don't agree with everything in the article. There's something that stands out though, connected to his suggestions, and that is the limitations of unscalable techniques of communication and interaction on social media.
Scalability and Social Media
It's probably accurate to say that the people who best use and profit most from the use of social media NOW, are those who cultivate relationships one person at a time through personal interaction. In other words, they don't use social media as broadcast one way media, but actually dialogue with people. There are exceptions of course, and larger firms, who believe (but cannot support claims) in the efficacy of social media are not likely to go in that direction. Then again, it's questionable whether those companies are gaining from the use of social media.
If in fact, success is built one person at a time, what about scalability? The term scalability refers to the ability of a system to function as the number of objects, people, users, etc, grows. Can it be adapted with increased demand to cope with that demand.
The answer is that the techniques that will work on social media are not scalable, because they use the most precious of resources in the enterprise -- employee time. As the number of people participating in a company's social media effort increase, the amount of time required to "connect" with them grows. Theoretically, companies could hire more staff, but traditionally that's not what they do. For smaller businesses, hiring extra people just to deal with an increase in social media contacts may not be viable.
This produces an interesting state of affairs where social media success (in terms of building relationships) has within it the seeds of its own destruction. At some point, as the numbers grow, existing staff cannot handle the existing loads while maintaining the quality of interactions.
There are actually numerous examples of this, most notably on support forums run by smaller companies like OpenX (a free ad serving platform). As the service grew, the load on the few people providing support in their own support forums, twitter accounts and Facebook accounts was impossilble for staff to deal with. The result has been a complete breakdown of support, and the loss of many clients and potential clients who could not get even basic questions answered. Of course, the result is a loss of trust.
You probably have experience with this. As companies like Google and Yahoo grew, where once you had the sense of communcating with real human beings when you needed help and support, now, you know that flat out you are dealing with auto-responders that in effect, tell you to go somewhere else to find an answer. Personal help and support does not scale. Of course, when you have enjoyed a virtual monopoly in some areas, as has Google you may afford that for some time, albeit the period of grace is not indefinite.
Is the scalability issue something that can be solved? Perhaps not. The bind is simple, but profound:
- Establish real relationships between real people and you will prosper in social media.
- Achieve success via that route and you will no longer be able to establish and maintain those relationships and you will bear the consequences.
With social media you cannot "dance with the girl you brung", because ultimately, she is just too darned busy!