Would you ban the Internet?

A couple of months ago, the IABC asked me to expand this article, Irony is a Social Network, into a longer piece. It lives behind the paywall on the IABC site, but here it is, for your reading pleasure.

If you could have instant access to the very customers, stakeholders and influencer that you, as a communicator, hope to influence, wouldn’t you want to listen to them? Interact with them? Read what they read, watch what they watch and gain an unprecedented insight into their likes, dislikes, hopes and fears?

Communicators have always wanted to get inside the heads of their audience; to find out how their constituents want to get their information and what messaging or positioning works best. And now they can.

Ethnographic Research

With the advent of social networks such as MySpace, Friendster and Facebook, communicators now have access to a focus group of some 25 million where they can perform deep, meaningful ethnographic research into their target audience.

Used in the correct way, social networks can tell you who the next great band will be, which politicians will win the next election and which brands are gaining or losing momentum. The same networks will also reveal insight into your employer or client’s brand and, more importantly, what that brand means to the people who use it.

On the Black List

However, more and more organizations, including the Ontario Provincial Government, are lumping social networking Web sites together with serial time wasters, productivity drainers and offensive material like YouTube, online gambling sites and pornography.

I agree that sites such as Facebook (my poison of choice) can be addictive, time consuming and a complete distraction from more important matters such as, well, work. But the lines between “work” and “play” are blurring. I can’t ignore the possible groundswell of opinion against my client or my employer within these burgeoning communities – anyone who’s read the Kryptonite bicycle lock case study will know that the company’s value tanked after one post on one forum mushroomed into a full scale assault on a key product.

Simply put, there are many, much worse, timewasters at work – the water cooler, the cigarette break, the long lunch, the conference calls, meetings, those interminable emails, that much beloved and possibly patented “desk perch” that your boss loves to do and something called the Internet.

Just because something could waste time, doesn’t mean it will. Just because you can black list a site doesn’t mean you should.

Irony of I.T.

If, as Marshall McLuhan is so fond of saying, The Medium is indeed The Message, then what message does banning such an important form of communication send to constituents? Does it communicate openness, accessibility and collaboration? Or does it give the impression of an organization out of touch with its audience and out of touch with the very people who provide its mandate to operate? More importantly, which of those messages would you have your organization put out?

As far as government is concerned, there is a perverse irony of politicians using Facebook to cultivate, aggregate and motivate their own supporters while the people who are supposed to be executing policy are cut off from the very people who are supposed to benefit from it.

As communicators, we should be acutely aware of what our constituents are saying and where they’re saying it. The best messaging in the world will be rendered useless if it’s directed to the wrong place. We need to be going where our audience is. We need to adapt to our audience’s changing media habits – what worked five years, or even five weeks, ago won’t necessarily work tomorrow.

Ignorance is No Excuse

If you’re new to social networks, and are feeling a little overwhelmed with the possibilities, here’s a quick primer of how they may change your day-to-day job.

1. More monitoring and reporting. Now you know they’re there, you can’t ignore them. Sign up to the network du jour and periodically perform vanity searches for your employer or your clients. I guarantee you’ll be surprised what you find. Did you know there are more than 500 Facebook “groups” dedicated to “Nike” and “iPod”. How many people are interacting with your brand?

2. More influencers. As with any community, there are people who lead the community’s direction. Luckily for you, these people are self identifying in a searchable and trackable manner. They’re only a few keystrokes away so why not find them and introduce yourself?

3. Your own community. There may be hundreds, even thousands, of unofficial groups you’re interested in, but there’s no substitute for the “Official” group. Try creating your own group, your own space for people to play with your brand on their terms. Give them the tools to express themselves with and content to discuss before stepping back.

Whatever your feelings on social networks and the Internet, as a communicator you have to be aware that your toolbox is growing and how you can take advantage of the new channels of communications afforded to you by the interactive Web.

This article first appeared in the always excellent IABC newsletter, CW Bulletin.


One Response to Would you ban the Internet?

  1. […] I’ve written before about the irony of banning social media at work and how the use of social media, far from being a bane on productivity, may actually enhance productivity. […]

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