Social Media: Changing Things or Making Change?

There was an outstanding article written a couple days ago by Alexandra Samuel in the Harvard Business Review. You owe it to yourself to go read her article - if you're involved in any form of online marketing, it's probably one of the most important things you'll read in a while.

In her post, Alexandra aptly defines the word "social" and how it's meaning has dramatically changed with the rise of "social media". Citing that social used to be a word used to describe something related to social change - justice - responsibility - service. Social did and still does carry a meaning of "society" - or as she puts "We're all in the same society, so let's act as if we actually care about one another".

An extremely valid point - and when you stop and think about it (go ahead - do it) - this meaning of "social" most likely isn't the first thing that comes to your mind when you think about "social meda". Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn - these are all platforms that allow us to engage each other socially, to communicate with each other instantly, to share status updates about our drinking habits. In the business world, they allow us to share our message to a mass audience, they enable us to build all-important "relationships" that we "experts" talk so much about. But - the "doing good" part has almost been completely forgotten.

Alexandra writes:

"...If there's one field that's hurt by this weakened definition of "social," it's social media itself. As social media professionals, we have the opportunity to define our field and our work as a social project: the project of enabling and inspiring online interactions, information and behaviours that advance society. We have the opportunity to take a massive advance in technology and communications and harness it to the social good; to define social media as interactive and beneficial..."

As Lisa Barone of Outspoken Media writes:

Want to create more inspiring online interactions? Take that paragraph and tape it on your computer monitor. Every time your brain stalls, re-read it.  If you’re lucky, eventually it’ll sink in.

I couldn't agree more. Social Media is here, and it's here to stay - but not in the way you think. Facebook and Twitter will (eventually) come and go - so if you're primary concern is to build a massive following to shout at, rather than focusing on the individual relationships that can be forged and developed into long-term connections, you're missing the point.

A lot of clients - primarily non-profits and small businesses - come to us hesitant to climb aboard the social media bandwagon. Why? Because they think "What impact can I possibly have"? The answer - a lot.

Maybe you won't create the next viral video campaign ala Old Spice (that didn't do much for sales).

Maybe you won't have a mega-relaunch like DIGG (which didn't exactly pan out very say the least).

But what you can do is have a great impact in your niche - within your community - where you may lack in numbers you can more than make up for in genuine connections. Connections that lead to conversations. Conversations that lead to change. Change that leads to results for you and your business.

Quality trumps quantity.

Through all of the follower collecting, traffic spikes, trend following, and flash-in-the-pan success stories - focus on being truly social, and developing a social culture that seeps through the pores of your business, your clients, your consumers, and your community.

(Photo c/o Rob Williams)

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    • Great article.

      I believe that without proper use, “social” media can really hurt us. It allows us to interact with others on our own time table…”focused on oneself…i.e. selfish”. It enables individuals to “control” their conversations.

      Hopefully some of us can put the “social” back into social media and actually get together for coffee!


  • Social responsibility, social entrepreneurship, social media. Social. This is the world we live and breath in–online and offline.

    You’re right to point out that the tools and platforms will change, but the tactics and “how” you engage with people across them will not. It’s all about relationships and driving value. This is something I have done for my own self and brand (@lamiki) and also what I am doing for a nonprofit (Jolkona).

    Why are we playing in the “social” world? Because we want to make a connection, an impact, a difference.

    You’re right, Matt, this is an important post. As always, thank you for sharing your words.

    Storyteller @lamiki
    Director of Communications & Social Media @jolkona

    • Matt Cheuvront

      Thanks for the comment, Laura. I agree that you and I think in the way we’ve described – that we’re involved with social media because we want to make that social connection and impact – however – we’re in a business-minded world where “ROI” is ever-important, and often I think the true meaning of “social” gets lost in campaigns and metrics.

      The important takeaway from Alexandra’s article? There are several but most importantly, it’s that we must tap into the ‘connection’ part of social media – a connection that goes beyond the specific tool or platform (Facebook, Twitter, etc). That’s how change is inspired and (long-term) results are found.

    • Well said, Laura. Many of us do want to have a positive impact on people – whether in person or online. Hate to sound cliche by saying it may actually come down to character.

  • Bethanyrc |

    Totally printing that sentence out and taping it to my computer!!

  • When a lot of companies decide to partake in social media, they focus on creating the next lovable viral campaign and in attempts to be clever or creative miss out on connecting with people. Like you and others mentioned, it’s not about what you use to connect, but how you do it. Taking a moment to listen to those around you gives you a distinct advantage in your niche. If companies stop using social media as a tool purely for gimmicks , they’ll be able to engage with others and see the ROI.
    Great post, thanks for sharing!

    • Matt Cheuvront

      Right on, Kelli. I’ve literally had clients come to me and ask “Do you create viral videos”. Talk about a red flag – I don’t discount the value of building awareness, which can include cute cat videos or laughing babies – but if it contributes nothing to your companies mission or purpose, those viral campaigns, like a virus, will fade away.

      It’s important for businesses to set goals with every form of marketing – but blindly setting a goal of “10,000 Twitter followers by Q3” is empty – it’s a numbers game – and without meaning and purpose behind your goals, you’ll almost always fall short.

      Thanks for the comment!

  • “As social media professionals, we have the opportunity to define our field and our work as a social project: the project of enabling and inspiring online interactions, information and behaviours that advance society.” I absolutely agree with and love this sentence.

    However, I also believe both articles are trying to say today’s social media is ONLY seen as a “social butterfly”-style of communication. I read the two articles (this one and Alexandra’s) a few times and it started sinking in: “social” does have different meanings – whether it’s online or in person. This isn’t new.

    There are some people who go into a cocktail party, political arena, fundraiser, or homeless shelter and are just all pomp and circumstance. It’s all about them, what they say, who they know, how great they are. There folks who go to bust out a megaphone, curse “the man,” wear a t-shirt dripping in some funky material to make a dramatic protest and declare to the world that everyone is out to get them and no one understands. There are others, though, who want to meet other people with similar interests, learn more about the reason they are all together and share a little of their knowledge and interest on the topic.

    These are pretty generalized and somewhat extreme (but realistic). We’ve all seen it, though. We’ve all been stuck at a networking happy hour with the person who wants to burn the building down for all the injustices of the world. We’ve also been seated at a wedding next to the person who is more than happy to tell you how important and fabulous they are. So what’s the difference online? Please note that what’s scary to me is that the latter are typically the personality types who are “popular” and “successful.”

    These are personalities, though – which are what make people interesting. Now, on the note of being professionally responsible – we can only hope that social media “experts” will fall into the category of wanting to meet people with similar interests, share ideas and learn a little along the way. We also must wait and see if this personality type is the one to prevail in the “profession” of social media. One can only hope.

    Man, I hope I didn’t just fall into the megaphone-waving chick!

    • Matt Cheuvront

      Great comparison, Rachel. Much of “social” media has become nothing more than a popularity contest – who can shout into their megaphone louder than everyone else. We’ve become society that absorbs information from whoever/whatever is the most popular source – which is somewhat inevitable I suppose, but also a shame.

      This is what holds smaller businesses back – because they think “I can’t possibly yell louder than ______” – But my point, and the point of these other articles, is that it’s not about who can shout the loudest, but rather, making an impact within the reach you have – within your niche and community. If you’re focused on the genuine connection and relationship, those connections will grow and grow – but just like any “real life” relationship, they take time to develop.

      Thanks for the comment!

      • “it’s not about who can shout the loudest, but rather, making an impact within the reach you have” – Amen. Great discussion. Thanks for the info, opinions and insight.

      • Matt, thank you so much for this lovely take on my HBR post. I’m really glad you found it useful, and that you teased out the implications for social media pros in terms of focusing on establishing genuine connections and having conversations that lead to change.

        And Rachel, I jumped into the conversation here because I loved how you situated that ideal social media pro — the one trying to just make some real connections — in between the social butterfly and the preachy soapbox-er. That’s a very useful dichotomy, and helped shed some light on the conversation over at HBR, where (somewhat to my surprise) some people took my defense of the old-school definition of “social” as a jumping-off point for knocking the social change movement.

        What I find very interesting is the role that social media professionals can plan in eliding the differences between the two extremes Rachel highlights. The “conversations that lead to change”, as Matt puts it, can be online conversations that get people mobilized around capital-s Social Change, which is what I was thinking about when I wrote the post. The companies who have embraced that explicitly, with cause-oriented social media presences (Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty, the American Express CardMembers’ Project, the funding contests offered by Pepsi and Target) have earned a lot of goodwill while also doing good.

        That’s not the only way social media can make change, Matt reminds me. All those conversations that happen in organizations where people are deciding to actually make a human connection instead of just “shouting”, as you put it…well, there’s plenty of evidence (in the literature on social capital) that every time people go for a human connection over a sales opportunity, we get a little bit healthier as a society.

        Thanks for broadening my thinking about putting the big S back in social. You’ve started a great conversation here.

        • Matt Cheuvront

          Thank YOU for writing it, Alexandra. It opened my eyes and my mind to the shift in the meaning of “social” with the rise of “social media” and I think the message of “creating goodwill while doing good” is extremely important and something that all businesses and organizations can and should be tapping into when they pursue their own “social” media path.

          Look forward to reading more from you in the future! Cheers!

  • This is a fantastic discussion. I’ve learned over the past couple of years that who you are in real life is who you will ultimately be online. If building relationships and communities is part of who you are, you already have the right skills. You will be able to translate them into authentic interactions using whatever medium of media is appropriate for you to use, because this is what you’ve always done.

    • Matt Cheuvront

      Agreed – you can “fake it” for a while but eventually folks will sniff you out. That being said, I believe that everyone has the ability to tap into their “best self” and have that persona reflected within their online community. Making money, driving sales, and generating awareness may be a big part of what you’re wanting to do – we all want to be successful in that light, but if it’s your sole focus, you’re going to miss out on a ton of opportunity for long-term connections that can be forged through social media.

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