I spent much of this week talking to companies about using social media, particularly in crisis situations. I listened to them as they asked me questions and discussed among their teams the potential risks and rewards of social media. I sensed both salivating optimism at the upside and palpable fear about the downsides.
But, people are starting to get it. When we look back at 2009, this will be a tipping point year. The momentum of social media seems to be self-sustaining now. A fantastic example of an industry that has a great social media presence is the American Petroleum Institute's Energy Tomorrow site. (Full disclosure: I don't consult with API, but I consult with several of its member companies).
Control seems to be the big issue. When people ask me "How can we control the message?" what they are really asking is "How can we keep anyone from saying anything bad about us?" Most companies understand how to work with reporters and the news media. If you compare traditional media relations to participating in social media, you can get an interesting perspective.
You really don’t have any more or less control over social media than you do over traditional media. I think a case can be made for more control and effectiveness with social media than with the traditional media relations with which companies are already comfortable.
As companies debate whether or how to engage with social media, I find a false premise underlying the discussions. That being a belief that discussions about their company, their products or their industry won’t start until they start them.
Guess what? Those conversations are already taking place. New research from Nielson shows that two-thirds of people that use the Internet visit social media sites. People spent more than 45 billion minutes on social media sites last year. Social networks and blogging sites are now the fourth most popular activity on the Internet. Ahead of email.
Instead of control (or lack of it) think influence. Last year during the presidential primaries, I wrote a column for the Arizona Republic to highlight the quirky primary voting system in my adopted state that made it easier to run for president than to vote in the primary. As the comments came into the newspaper's Website, there were a lot of harsh remarks. My wife was appalled that I was being flamed. But, it didn’t matter to me what people were saying. What mattered is that they were talking about what I wrote. Not only did I give the conversation the context in which it took place, but I had influenced the conversation because of that context.
And if you just can’t let go of that control, ask yourself this question: If you think participating in social media gives you too little control over your message, how much control will you have by not participating?