Debating social media…

Last week, I went to the Centre for Collaborative Creation for a debate organised by Claire and Nicola at SEO PR, part of Social Media Week London, on the role of corporate use of social media, and in particular, which part of an organisation should “own” the social media budget. The debate was between representatives of a search engine optimisation agency, a PR agency, a marketing publication, a small social media consultancy and a technologist.

It was a very interesting discussion. Very roughly speaking, the SEO, PR and marketing guys all said “we should!”, Anke Holst – the consultant – said “it depends”, and Benjamin Ellis, the technologist, said “who cares?”. Given my dislike of absolutes, Anke and Benjamin had my vote: quite where social media activity sits within an organisation depends entirely on what the organisation is trying to achieve. By the end of the debate, all the speakers had come around to agreeing this, and Benjamin won the final vote by a large margin. (Though I must declare an interest: I know both Anke and Benjamin, so perhaps I’m biased!)

What interested me was how little was said early on about customers. (It was later, if only because I asked where the customer came into all this!) Anke’s and Benjamin’s views included the customer, because they stemmed from a strategic view. If the point of social media within an organisation is to communicate with customers in a two way dialogue, it doesn’t matter where the budget is based as long as that activity is aligned with the business strategy.

Benjamin came out with two interesting points. Firstly, we are still early – very early – in our use of social media (although Anke pointed out that media have been social for centuries!): their use might be spreading quickly, but a small minority of people are using them.

Secondly, he pointed out how organisation structures haven’t caught up with social media. As a means of communication, social media flatten hierarchies – anyone in a firm can communicate with customers (whether they’re allowed to or not…), and whist customers’ views might once have been the realm of customer service, or marketing, or any other bit of the business, they can now be quickly disseminated through an organisation: anyone in a business can read the tweetstream. Just like use of social media within organisations, using social media to talk to customers will change the lines of communication, remove layers – and change the way businesses work.

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