One of the biggest mistakes businesses make when thinking about social media is that it’s all about the tools — that if only they choose the right software they’ll be a success. That’s about as sensible as thinking your retail business will be successful if only you buy the right bookkeeping software.
Yesterday a client asked:
My friends at [some business] wish to create a social networking section as part of their site, with home pages or profiles for each user. Do you recommend any third party apps for this or a currently operating system?
No, I don’t recommend the tools until I know what the job is.
That question is like being asked, “I want a motor vehicle, can you recommend one?” Before you could answer you’d need to know the requirements. How many passengers? An answer of “6” means a people-mover, not a sports car. An answer of “40” means you need a bus.
Does it have to go off-road? Land Rover time! Does it have to carry 3 tons of bricks? Well, you need a truck, not a car. Do you need to make a social statement with your vehicle? Then maybe you need a Rolls-Royce. Or a Porsche. Or a Ferrari.
Or a packet of Viagra.
Another client asked:
Is [software package X] any good?
Again, wrong question. “Any good?” Good for what?
“Is a Lexus any good?” Yes, it is — but not for driving across the Simpson Desert, or delivering packages, or transporting your basketball team or invading Poland with a section of infantry.
As I wrote this, I remembered that Hugh MacLeod covered this point in his piece social gestures beget social objects:
When you’re planning how to embrace the brave new world of Web 2.0, the first question you ask yourself should not be “What tools do I use?”
Blogs, RSS, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook — it doesn’t matter.
The first question you should REALLY ask yourself is:
“How do I want to change the way I talk to people?”
And hopefully the rest should follow.
The redoubtable Laurel Papworth, one of the country’s foremost experts in the emerging social media, has just posted an article Seven steps to building a social network. It, too, emphasises that it’s about the people and the connections you make, not the tools.
The key point for my anonymous clients is number 3:
3. Decide what features are needed. Differentiate your site from a plethora of others by including the features most relevant to your membership, such as the ability to schedule meetings or upload conference photos and white papers.
This differentiation of your product almost always means that you need custom-written software to deliver what you’re after — though that custom software might be a custom-written module that plugs into a pre-existing application framework. But that’s a technical decision that comes after you’ve thought about your community. Leave the boring technical decisions to the geeks.
Laurel also runs a one-day course on managing a social network around a product — the next one is on 7 March.
The problem for most businesses is that they’re looking for The Magick Solution. If only they buy the right stuff then they’ll be profitable or successful or cool or popular with the chicks. The world doesn’t work that way — despite what the advertising industry might tell us.
You actually have to think and do the hard work and get out there and have conversations with your customers.
But that’s hard.
As Hugh MacLeod points out:
The decision to raise the level of conversation isn’t economic. Nor is it an intellectual decision. It’s a moral decision. But whether you have the stomach for it is up to you.
Do you have the stomach for it? Are you willing to do the work? Or are you just hoping to buy a Magick Box of Social Media Dust and sprinkle it on your business?