social media give and take

Social Media for Business is about Giving, not Taking

Many organizations – and particularly businesses – still look at social media and wonder, “Where’s the value?” From their perspective, social media fails to deliver the goods. And the bad news is, from their perspective, it probably always will – because the question “What can I get out of social media?” misses the very point of social media.

At the heart of the misunderstanding is the question “Why is social media here?” Consider Facebook, for example. Was Facebook created to help users share their experiences and find like-minded people, or was it created to serve the needs of stalkers? Okay, that question was too simple. But if you change the second option to “to help corporations improve their profits by leveraging the social networks of unsuspecting users”, the answer would be the same.

Harsh, you say? Perhaps. At least from the business’ perspective. But from the average Facebook user’s perspective, corporations who use social networks to reach out only for financial gain are seen as outsiders – just short of “creepers” and “lurkers” (see Urban Dictionary).

By design, social media are venues for giving, not for taking. And to users, a participant’s motives are self-evident.

30 years ago, there would have been less scrutiny on organizations attempting to leverage social media for financial gain – had there been social media. In the ‘80s, it was cool to be a taker. Yuppies flaunted their earnings and their consumption, stocks (and retirement funds) were on the rise, and everyone-who-was-anyone expected to retire by age 55. Takers suffered a setback with stock market crash of 1987, but the mindset rebounded with great resilience, turning a blind eye to the footloose behavior of the ‘90s in favor of more big corporate gains. Then, with the new millennium, came the collapse of Enron, the creation of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and a growing public distrust in corporations. To a new generation, “taking” was no longer cool. And it was this new generation that gave birth to social media.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that the current generation is innocent of “what’s-in-it-for-me” behavior. Quite the contrary. After all, this is the generation who brought us Napster (the illegal version) and Limewire. What I am saying is that the spirit of social media – from Myspace to Facebook to YouTube to Photobucket to WordPress – is about sharing. Users turn to social media to share their ideas, their creations, their social circles, and their influence.

And as long as corporations engage with social media for the same reasons (or ostensibly the same reasons), then engagement can work.

Such examples of corporate sharing aren’t even difficult to find. Philanthropy is an obvious place to start, but stopping there would miss the point of social media. Because money isn’t the biggest asset in the social vault. Knowledge is.

So, start a dialog with your customers. Share your manuals (even on products you no longer support). Develop slide presentations that educate (not sell). Create infographics. Promote responsible behavior (which, for brewers, could include curbing sexism). Make a difference.

In brief, if you want to get something out of social media, you have to stop trying to take.