Great discussion at [grow] on Social Media dissent

Mark W. Schaefer writes a great blog, and today there is a terrific discussion there regarding the echo chamber surrounding social media’s expert class, the Chris Brogan, Brian Solis, Julien Smith, Beth Harte, Amber Naslund slate.  Namely, Mark observes that we are lacking strong dissenting voices.

Obviously, there are a few people out there who are refusing to drink the social media Kool-Aid — @amandachapel the most notable.  My own experience with social media as a user is putting me in the class of skeptics, not outright refuseniks, but I have been asking about the value of social media in PR and bemoaning the lack of objective, independent research to evaluate the often breathless claims of its moral superiority.

At the [grow] blog, commenter @tamadear offers this important proviso:

Nobody responds well to “You’re wrong; I’m right” dissent, to those who dwell on our weaknesses. It makes us defensive and unwilling to listen.

This is very true, and is why in virtually all of my consulting (both inside and outside organizations) I always assume that I may be wrong and use language accordingly.  There are far too many pronouncements, baseless and unresearched, in all of public relations, but especially in social media.  I have used the term “self-described experts” many times because I have no visibility into the qualifications of the speaker (or writer). Many of them could be literally anyone, and will even call out their lack of qualifications as a benefit of working with them. From Drudge’s refusal to be called a journalist, to Chris Brogan’s declaration that he is not in public relations, I’m often left wondering why I am supposed to regard these people as authorities.

With a tip of the cap to @amandachapel, it’s “caveat emptor” in the world of communication these days — there is big money to be made (a worthy effort that I share the desire to attain) and precious little objective information to help the consumer evaluate claims.  There are also few best practices that include true outcome measurement of the sort Olivier Blanchard describes in his excellent slide show, “The definitive social media ROI presentation.”  My only beef with the esteemed BrandBuilder is that such end-state ROI calculations performed without care lead to assuming that correlation equals causation.  We would love to see revenue increase and expenses go down concurrent with our social media campaign, but what percentage of the improvement is due to social media and how much due to other factors, including simple continuous improvement?

This is the point of the dissent discussion — for every Olivier and Mark there are five people claiming that the action of participating in social media IS the return on investment. That’s just not going to fly, and the more the experts try to convince people otherwise, the worse off we all are.  The “conversation” MAY be important — it always has been prior to all of this Web. 2.0 stuff — but aside from questionable research by the people poised to benefit the most from its findings, there simply isn’t much data at this point to declare the social media discussion closed.

What’s your view?

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2 Responses to “Great discussion at [grow] on Social Media dissent”

  1. Jim Savage says:

    Sean – Good post. There’s an interesting interview with GM’s Bob Lutz on their use of social media at http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com. GM, for all their faults, was into this early and the car makers are arguably at the vanguard (look at Scott Monty at Ford and many others). From a business standpoint I don’t think there is a strong sense that social media are some sort of panacea – at least there shouldn’t be. Really, they are just another means of conducting the conversation, appealing to certain market niches (dare I say publics?) who assign a high credibility to firms that do this stuff “for real”. Like anything else, social media will surprise those who underestimate it and disappoint those who overestimate it….

    Actually, the fact that some highly credible social media types don’t want to be associated with journalism or PR is a sad reflection on our professions. I’d argue journalism had since the 70s rather put itself on a pedestal in the US – back in Blighty journalists call themselves “hacks” for a reason – so perhaps this is merely a long overdue come-uppance, but for PR I think it is really unfortunate, as the flourishing of new media gives us in the PR world an opportunity to truly define ourselves a technology-neutral strategic communicators and break free of the tactical press-agentry mould at last….

  2. Sean says:

    Jim, thanks for the comment. I love “…social media will surprise those who underestimate it and disappoint those who overestimate it.” There are so many critical issues to discuss and debate in this space. Did you happen to catch Clay Shirky’s essay (reported by Ethan Zuckerman) about the business of newspapers? http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2009/09/22/clay-shirky-and-accountability-journalism/

    And, this piece from TechDirt on why traditional media is losing the game? http://techdirt.com/articles/20090921/0227066261.shtml

    Social media presents major issues of authority and accountability — as I have said for a while now.