Note: This is a working argument, not a polished piece. I appreciate your help in shaping this thinking further.
Between upcoming speaking gigs, new marketing efforts at work, and my past history as a one-man blogger in a niche, I’ve been thinking a lot about the differences between establishing a social media presence for different types of people and organizations. For example getting Twitter followers may be exceptionally easy for Ashton Kutcher because of his pre-existing celebrity status whereas a small handmade bike manufacturer in Portland may find it extremely difficult to establish their presence on a service like Twitter. This fascinates me. How do the challenges and effectiveness of the medium change as you move across different organization/individual types? In other words – does who or what you are determine how difficult it is to achieve success in creating a valuable and meaningful social media presence?
I think it absolutely does, with a few caveats. Success of course, is relative. There is no question. The bike shop above doesn’t need the 2 million followers that Ashton has, rather they need a small set of passionate bike fans, preferably in the Portland area who are engaged and advocates for the company. That population number is obviously much smaller. And of course, meaningful and valuable are highly subjective as well. However, I think there may be some interesting patterns that arise from establishing a social media presence that point to different degrees of difficulty for different individual/company types/focus areas.
It becomes increasingly difficult to effectively establish a social media presence that creates value for you and your stakeholders the further you get from either an individual pursuit or from a consumer-focused business model.
To help me get my head around this I created a crude little bell curve with some markers/placeholders to help me think about the types of businesses and the overall difficulty in establishing a mutually-valuable (to company and customer) social media presence. Note: I’m strictly talking establishing a presence. When you look at managing a social media presence this bell curve gets tossed quickly.
How to read this thing
The bell curve’s y-axis is difficulty in establishing a valuable social media presence for any entity. Person, corporation, non-profit, etc. The x-axis is existing market footprint. Defined as existing share of mind or awareness that is latent in the online audience. This can be either via other marketing, a well-known brand, celebrity achieved elsewhere, etc.
So for example, on the continuum social media for individuals is rather easy. Setting up profiles, finding friends, and engaging and connecting with your network is a relatively easy way to use social media, and is, by definition, the way it is used the vast, vast majority of time. While it’s easy it leaves you with very little in the way of a market footprint, and usually that doesn’t matter; but to some it does.
Again for start-ups it’s relatively easy to jump in and start using social media. Without a large customer base, working with early adopters and people who are willing to forgive you for your mistakes as a young company, and without the restrictions of brand police and established marketing you’re free to dive in and start developing your voice from day one inside social media. It makes presence building the easiest possible for an organization. Starting from the very beginning is always easier than trying to transpose a message/voice/brand on to a medium that is built for individuals. Again, though as a start-up you’re dealing with a typically small market footprint which makes your mistakes generally more forgettable and experimentation at establishing your presence in social media.
As you start to move across the footprint size x-axis your difficulty increases. The bigger your footprint more often than not, the more you are constrained by things like brand standards, messaging, corporate communications policy and other legacy media structures that make establishing a valuable presence in social media very challenging. Add to the fact that most established companies with a decent footprint (think regional firm, or a company that has solid revenue or subscribers or whatever metric you want, without the brand recognition of the Fortune 100+) have more than one stakeholder involved in the communication process. PR firms, advertising agencies, internal marketing, customer service, etc. etc. all have responsibilities with social media. Establishing an appropriate and effective social corporate strategy is critical to achieving success.
These barriers inherent in many of the world’s organizations make social media implementation much more difficult than that of an individual.
B2C companies get a bit of help because as a consumer-facing entity their customer/potential-customer base is large and are (for the most part) independent actors who are governed by their own set of decision-making criteria many of the people they want to engage with are on social networks representing themselves and are free to act as they see fit. This, I argue makes establishing a social media presence far easier for these B2C companies than for B2B companies as we’ll discuss next.
The curve falls apart a bit here because there is no reason why a B2B firm should move further along the x-axis (i.e. their market footprint) compared to a similar-sized B2C company. But the change in difficulty on the y-axis is quite a jump from B2C. In fact, I argue that a non-branded B2B company has the biggest challenge when it comes to implementing a social media presence that is valuable enough for the company to officially support. You’ve got a few things working against you as a non-brand B2B company in social media.
- As a B2B entity your customer/potential-customer base is far smaller than a B2C play.
- Many of your customers (the other “B’s”) probably have very limited social media presences themselves.
- Employees of your customers are typically using social media primarily in a personal capacity and not as representatives of their firms in the space.
- B2B relationships are often defined by communication structure (e.g. the CEO talks to the CEO, etc.) that can’t hold in the social space.
And I’m sure there are more. But the point being that this type of social media presence creation/implementation is the most challenging of all because the audience is limited and their accessibility and engagement on these platforms is restricted by their own corporate policies/practices. These make the opportunities for B2B much smaller in number than in the B2C space. While the quality may be higher, it is exceptionally difficult to prove the return on the social media investment for B2B companies when so few business to business relationships function across the medium.
Big B2B & B2C
In the diagram I argue that the B2B v. B2C dynamics of difficulty hold for big brand companies and establishing a social media presence (say a company like Paychex vs. Best Buy) but the difficulty begins to comes down due to the brand recognition already obtained by the presence of their large market footprint. Continuing with the two companies I’ve chosen it’s much easier for Best Buy to connect with their customers online because there is hardly a person in America who isn’t familiar with the company and brand. Paychex also can leverage their reputation to more easily implement a social media presence than other companies less well-known, even though they have a B2B acquisition model. Small businesses are familiar with Paychex and would be more willing to connect with them in a social media setting than another unbranded, smaller company in the same space.
And celebrity is just the combination of the ease of creating and using social media in a personal setting combined with the massive market footprint created by outside activities. The confluence of these two factors make establishing a valuable social media presence the easiest for celebrities out of all the groups that I’ve identified so far.
What’s the point?
The point is that there is a lot of one-size fits all social media theory and strategy bandied about daily by people who don’t consider the implications of the person or corporate realities that impact their execution in creating a new social media presence. The circumstances are different and therefore the execution, expectation and effort levels need to be different as well. I implore all “experts” talking on the subject to consider where your audience/clients/readers lie on this continuum before dispensing generic advice. Building a social media presence for a regional B2B manufacturer is completely different from McDonalds, Britney Spears or Morgan Brown (humble author, individual). The challenges are different, the expectations are different and the difficulty in creating value out of a new social media presence is certainly different.
As I said at the open, this is an in-process framework that I’m using to sort through some of these issues as I address different audiences. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how to represent and think about these challenges and any thoughts you have on the concept in general. Thanks.