If it’s good enough for Obama
Whenever a new web-based something or a new gadget gets the blogosphere chattering, my first thought is “what’s just changed?” This is sparked not from fear, but from intense curiosity because whatever it is may just have altered the business or learning landscape forever.
If, like me, you’re a ‘baby boomer’, it’s easy to dismiss phenomena like Facebook as an irritation that distracts your kids or younger employees from more meaningful pursuits. But if you think that, you’re missing the point and missing the boat. These channels are the direct line into the hearts and minds of a large proportion of today’s customers and workforce, and the lion’s share of tomorrows. Business success is increasingly going to depend on learning how to make them work for us.
I’d pick that American President-elect Barrack Obama really gets this. Or at least his strategists do. Obama’s campaign leveraged a range of new media to perfection – Facebook, Twitter and text messaging to name some of the channels used – helping him interact with and motivate his supporters. But most of all they were used to connect with younger voters in ways they understand. Within days of his win a website was set up with a blog giving information about the transition process and seeking people’s thoughts and feedback. A supporting YouTube channel includes videos of weekly presidential addresses and other events. The upshot of all this digital flurry is that as he moves into the White House, President Obama will already have connected with a vast number of Americans in ways never thought possible even as recently as the last Presidential Election in 2004.
Words like ‘social media’ and ‘web 2.0′ are strewn around modern conversations like confetti in a churchyard after a wedding. I, for one, find them exciting and challenging at the same time. My professional role requires me to stay ahead of the changes and interpret how they will impact our working and learning lives. The trouble is, for many of us boomers, this does not come naturally. I watch the Gen Y’s in our office. Theirs is a different response. They ‘twitter’ and ‘yammer’ instinctively, and ‘blog bust’ organisations and people they believe to be unethical, because these media are the language of their generation.
Take Twitter for example. For most people, twittering is still something that is the exclusive preserve of small birds or adolescents. But in the US, professional firms in their droves are cottoning on to its potential to put across their corporate messages. And the epidemic is spreading – my younger staff are all ‘tweeting”and, silly though the surrounding terminology is, there are real benefits to be had for informed Twitterers who understand the power of the medium.
Twitter (www.twitter.com) is a free, web-based communications platform through which users can share information with others who have similar personal and professional interests. Users communicate via text-based posts – ‘tweets’ – of up to 140 characters in length. Twitter currently has more than 3 million users and the number is growing rapidly.
From a company perspective, the benefits of these types of communications are two fold. Firstly they are becoming a ‘must have’ information gathering and distribution system, providing a means of finding out what a very large number of people think about issues or products. They are also a great early warning system. For example, the first rumblings of breaking news such as the recent Mumbai bombings were heard on Twitter, and the BBC and other news organisations use it to push news out quickly.
For professionals such as lawyers and accountants, they are a great vehicle for receiving news updates about their area of practice and of contacting with potential clients or referral sources. For financial advisers, Twitter offers an instant way of keeping investors in the know. An announcement at an annual meeting could potentially wipe billions from the shareholder wealth and a well-timed ‘tweet’ could save large amounts of client money.
Any company that wishes to keep its clients informed should consider whether it is really necessary to send out a long media release if a 140 character message will do. Of course, that requires significant effort to distil the message to its essence, but wouldn’t that be a good and time saving concept, and a godsend for the English language?
But the other thing it is important to understand about social media like Twitter, is that they are a new way of sharing knowledge. If today’s connected employee doesn’t know how to do something, their social networks are likely to be where they go for answers rather than their manager. After all, the network is only a few mouse clicks and several heartbeats away whereas the manager can often be a very elusive beast.
Equally, in the past when employees left they tended to carry off a proportion of your institutional knowledge. Nowadays, if you understand the new forms of networking, not only do you not have to lose that, you can also tap into the knowledge of the communities that current and former staff belong too. When someone leaves a workplace, do everything you can to foster the concept of an Alumnus Association because your staff will and will run it via the likes of Twitter. Cost to you? An open and nurturing workplace. Value? Priceless.
For sure there are privacy and confidentiality issues, and new dynamics to consider in how to manage staff usage of new media. But they are part of the modern lexicon and we need to get our heads round these issues if we are to remain relevant and attract and retain calibre staff.
Anyone who doubts the extent of the communications revolution we’re going through should go back to the impact of the printing press. The information revolution ignited by Johaness Guttenberg’s 1450 invention, seen by Life Magazine as the greatest innovation in the last thousand years, fundamentally changed society’s power structure. The publication of mass media it enabled has been attributed by many as being the catalyst for the Protestant Reformation, and ultimately for the move away from absolute monarchy to democratic models of government in western countries.
I believe what we’re involved in is every bit as significant, we just don’t know how it will pan out because we’re in the middle of it. Make no mistake all those bloggers out there are changing our world for better or worse. ‘Googling’ is an accepted part of our vocabulary. Facebook, Digg, Squiddoo, Wikipedia, Delicious, Bebo and their ilk are here to stay. Virtual world’s like Second Life attract people in their millions for all sorts of reasons from commerce to downright escapism and, as pressure on physical resources internationally becomes acute, e-commerce, virtual solutions and mobile social software are going to play an increasingly important part in the business fabric and language of the future.
Love them or hate them, they are a fact of life. The names might come and go as fashion, as it does in so many other aspects of contemporary life, will play its part in which ones stay the distance, but the times they have a-changed. We need to wise up to this fact or risk losing ground as business people and employers.
In any case, it’s clear the MoSoSo world has arrived and if it worked for the communication machine of the new leader of the Western World, then I guess it’s fair to say something has just changed.
Jill Wilson is Director CWA New Media, providers of specialist consultancy services to government and business. For more information www.cwa.co.nz