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Social Media Consultants: A Cautionary Tale From History

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin… Once upon a time a man called Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. It was 1876 and blah blah blah yadda yadda yadda. That’s not the interesting bit. What’s interesting is that Bell himself, despite predicting the immense social consequences, never owned one at home.

The reason was generational: having grown up with nothing more than telegraphs and morse code to communicate further afield than the next town, the need for these new forms of communications had not really touched his own life. He just didn’t feel the need.

In 1878, the first switchboard opened in Connecticut. It was staffed – as were many of the first exchanges by young men (average age 17, apparently). This was because they had the stereotypically “male” trait of being able to look at these complex devices and be able to work them without lengthy training. By 1880, there was one phone for every thousand American households. By the mid-1890s, that number had dropped to one in 70.

Most interesting to me was that, at this point in history, these expensive machines were not for fun – they were treated like a telegraph machine with a little more functionality. You didn’t chit chat, you didn’t top and tail your conversation with pleasantries, you just verbally expressed what you would have sent by telegraph. People would pick up the phone and say “Need 17 cases STOP Delivery by Wednesday STOP Price as previous order STOP.” And put the phone down.

By the 1920s, the machines were more ubiquitous and the companies that sold them were trying to get people to use them as more social devices. AT&T’s legendary “Reach Out & Touch Someone” came from a realisation that the families and friendships that had been scattered by America’s still-recent migration could be reconnected using the phone. This marked a change in direction, although it was one that businesses had already realised, as they networked a series of offices across the country and even the world. Using the phones was big business, but people just hadn’t grown up with them so they needed help.

An industry grew to help these businesses. This is a film from 1927 (it has no sound, sound hadn’t been invented then and I believe people mostly mimed to each other in the street [CITATION NEEDED]).

Around this time, the switchboards were getting rid of those young boys who had ruled that particular roost. With competition raging between Bell Telephone, AT&T and Western Union (the latter merging under the same president, Theodore Vail, who was related to the one of the people who developed the first telegraph and was such a stickler for centralised power that Vailism became a byword for monopoly practices) there was a move towards service as a feature rather than mere functionality. Owners found that the boys were often rude, made short answers and were unhelpful – another stereotypically male trait, unfortunately. This is why, by the time cameras got around to capturing them, most of these switchboards were operated by women – they were simply more pleasant to talk to than their spotty teenaged male counterparts.

If you look closely there's a smug guy saying "Plug it in there and say "Hello, sir.""

There must also have been a change in the employees that were taken on. By the mid-20s, many would have had experience in using a telephone at home and would have been more comfortable with the conventions surrounding its use. And training would have become less of a specialty – these operations would have become focused over time less on how to talk on the telephone and more about how to monetise operations off the back of them. Think of terms used in callcentres today and it’s all cross-sell and up-sell. You would imagine that the training around saying “Hello, welcome to Acme, my name is Allan, how may I help you today?” would be a short side note. The real meat of training is how to sell, how to serve, how to make sure the customer leaves happy and with a lighter wallet.

And so it is – and will be – with social media. It seems odd to me that this is even something worth mentioning in 2012, but I was reminded of the need by an idiotic spat with a “social media consultant” over their use of hashtags to hijack news items and conversations. I’ll save the details for now, but it occurred to me that these snake-oil salesmen are still out there relieving businesses of budgets for nothing more than, effectively, learning how to speak to people in these channels.

This was social media strategy for most of us in about 2005. Since then, it’s become more about how to integrate this new channel into business operations. With the advent of “social CRM” (yes, I know, but it doesn’t have to be complicated, it can really be distilled into listening to what your customer wants and then working out how your company can service their demands and needs), there is an even greater push to get brands and organisations engaging, listening and responding operationally.

But this is not where the social media consultant lives. They still think that their ability to chat on the phone sets them apart as specially talented, that brands haven’t yet caught on, that the need to impart wisdom gleaned from sometimes as much as two years’ experience as a self-appointed consultant qualifies them as a business requirement. But every year that passes, another generation of young employees comes to a company and for them social media is not something special – it just “is.” They’ve grown up with these things, it’s natural to them, they don’t need training in how to use it; they need training in how businesses work so they can work out how social media becomes as much a part of everyday company life as it is for the next generation of consumers coming through. Communication skills are easy to teach; how to run a business is not.

Snake Oil - check out that ROI!

The social media consultant should be dead by now, but they aren’t. They use each other to bolster their follower accounts, content farming like crazy to set out nets to catch each other with, giving the impression of huge networks that are bolstered by pointlessly-inflated Klout scores, but despite dropping phrases like ROI into their copy they offer very little of real worth to anyone that has learned to use their new version of the telephone. In an age when social media should be moving people towards transparency, they are skilled at setting up false impressions that easily impress the last few clients on the block not savvy enough to see through it. In this respect, they have another historical counterpart – the snake oil salesman, the guy that used to ride into wild west towns, sell everyone a magic cure based on miraculous results witnessed by the crowd when some poor miscreant (who also happened to be a stooge) would suddenly be “cured.” Then they’d ride off to the next town before the last one discovered this stuff had done nothing at all or, worse, poisoned them. Often, the placebo effect would make people believe they had actually gained relief, so those salesmen knew which towns they could visit again and which ones would lynch them if they ever set foot in the place.

A couple of years ago, I saw the video below. It made me laugh so much that I immediately removed from any of my copy any kind of terminology that seemed to imply social media guru credentials. I (honestly!) wasn’t in the same game but I knew plenty who were and it seemed like a red flag, a warning not to be lumped in with this kind of behaviour. I watched it again. And what made me laugh more than anything was the thought that with 2012 just around the corner, it’s still relevant – unbelievably so.

To anyone that might consider employing one of these chumps, I beg you – ask why you need them. Again, this feels like a five year old issue, but it clearly needs restating. Ask why you need “social media” and be clear what exactly your company can use it for. Treat it like any other channel and apply some meaningful metrics. Your telephone is connected to – potentially – billions of people, but just because it has that potential connection doesn’t mean you are actually connected.

That connection depends on whether or not your business has anything they want. Without that, your Twitter follower count means precisely dick-all. If you have the kind of business that needs it, there are specialist call centre companies which can help with outsourcing. They work because they are well-trained, understand your business requirements and deliver against them. Outsourcing social media should mean nothing less, but it often does.

Whilst “social media strategy” used to mean “how to talk to customers through social media” it is now about the more complex relationships involved between organisations and their customers, including collaboration and co-creation and how to integrate what is created into business operations that run a profit. Social strategy is a part of digital strategy is a part of business and marketing strategy. It’s all inextricably linked. Stop being impressed by surface impressions and ask more questions about what this stuff does for you. Stop drinking the snake oil.

Like the boys who once ruled the switchboard roost, or the maker of the instructional film, the social media consultant will one day be consigned to a minor footnote in history, notable only as a passing interest that “huh, we once used to need people to tell us how to use this stuff.”

Huh. How about that?

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Posted by on October 10, 2011 in Digital, Marketing, Social Media, Society

 

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Caution: Do Not Subscribe To This Blog

I really mean it. Perhaps that sounds odd in an age where everyone seems to be trying to gain a personal following. I mean, shouldn’t I be trying to build up an audience for this new blog? Should I not be kissing link-butt and drawing in you in? Maybe, but I don’t like the idea of “belief.” And following people – or, indeed, subscribing to their blogs – seems to engender a notion that one believes in them rather like one believes in a religion or political agenda. And that stuff is getting old, baby.

There is nothing that can't be said through the medium of lolcats

Let me explain: I am, basically, an old punk. My favourite band is probably  Dead Kennedys (caution: maybe NSFW / NSFL) and my favourite comedian Bill Hicks (likewise). It is plain weird to me that I have somehow, despite all my best efforts, ended up working in the field I do with the principles I hold dear, but that, as they say, is life. One of my main principles in thinking punkyish is that you burn your idols. You don’t have them. Nobody gets to be right just by virtue of who they are. Our political systems (West, East, everywhere) are based on the idea that we believe what certain of our leaders say with often then very lightest of questioning.

This is a form of idolatry. I want to question everybody, I want to know what they know so I can see whether their conclusions are ones I would come to myself. We all tend to use cognitive shortcuts – instead of examining the raw data or information, we rely on the source – some like The Guardian, some like The Times; some follow the guy with that kind of beard, some with this kind of hat. Are you a Redditor or a 4Channer or a Digg-er? Noam Chomsky or Leo Strauss?

There is a certain necessity in all of this. Few people have the time to examine every fact for themselves; more importantly, few have the intellect. There is no reason why anyone who has not studied economics (academically or in practice) should hold a valid opinion on whether or not we raise interest rates or cut taxes. This is why debates like whether or not the UK should join the Euro are reduced to nationalist issues such as whether or not the Queen’s head would be on a 10 Euro note or whether or not it’s a matter of national sovereignty. The media – and commentators, blogs etc – act as a filter or translation mechanism. If you don’t understand an issue personally, then you use outlets you trust to make those decisions for you.

This is a responsibility which is often abused. Headlines about health that play on fear or offer unrealistic hope by pulling a medicine trial result out of context – cancer is not necessarily cured because a bunch of rats showed some promising results in a single experiment. But media need to sell papers and advertising and bloggers need their status and ego-stroking, so that’s what tends to happen. Andrew Wakefield falsifies results in a tiny trial regarding autism and the MMR vaccine to bolster his shareholding in a company which sells single-shot vaccines. Years later, children suffer from diseases which had all but been eradicated; media and others have used the confirmation of what they “believe” in the media to bolster what they think they “know.” And it’s totally understandable – we just don’t have the time or intellect to read up on everything we need to have an opinion on, be sure of the validity of the source of the information and interpret it accordingly. Which begs the question: do you really need an opinion on every subject?

Believing something and knowing something  are two very different things. Scientists are supposedly the benchmark: a good scientist can hypothesise on something for years, treating it almost like a belief, but – unlike, say, religious or political people – when the evidence shows them to be wrong, they change their minds.Science is not a belief system – it’s about being able to observe something and repeat it, in essence it’s only about what can be actually proved to be true. It requires no belief other in one’s own eyes and ears.

In practice, of course, that isn’t often the case. Andrew Wakefield still “believes” he is right (as he is paid quite a lot of money to do so) despite all the evidence proving he is quite wrong. Renegade / sceptical climate scientists make a name for themselves by being available to undermine the 97%+ of climate scientists who agree that the evidence is compelling. The public’s difficulty in sorting the wheat from the proverbial chaff (most of us are lucky to have a physics or chemistry GCSE let alone a career’s worth of learning to be able to decide for ourselves) and so we fall back on belief.

Where the science element fails is often not in the science or scientists, but in those that follow them. I love Ben Goldacre’s work in this respect, but those that follow him tend to use his proclamations as fact when they are often opinion (which he is entitled to) – I suspect relatively few of those that cite him understand his actual scientific work in the slightest. I also adore the work of Adam Curtis as he’s one of the few documentary makers I’ve come across who can stimulate thought and discussion around complex topics, but it’s foolish to take it all at face value and represent as pure fact. This is exactly what religions and political parties do; you may believe that God sent the 10 commandments for his people on Earth but how much more of a religion’s commandments are actually just interpretations by mere mortal men & women? You may believe that tax cuts stimulate the economy because your political party tells you it does and provides you with a single historical example of when this appeared true – but does it also show you examples of all the times when it didn’t?

This is why I love the likes of Wikileaks and (some) hackers. The opening and democratisation of information allows people to see the facts for themselves without the media’s filter process. The downside is that people often do not recognise their own shortcomings in interpreting the information. But that problem is the same with or without the media in the middle of the process. My mother clearly has trouble questioning what The Daily Express tells her – give her the raw data and she’ll still most likely see what she wants. In that respect, I think she’s fairly typical of most of us, whatever publications we choose.

Some credit, then, to Noam Chomsky this week. He’s someone I both love and hate, although most people treat him in exactly the fashion I am trying to address. They either idolise him and repeat every word as gospel or treat him with contempt and ignore everything. But this week he did an interesting volte face. He’s previously hailed Hugo Chavez for his socialist revolution in Venezuela. But he’s also had the guts to say “Actually, you’ve gone a bit wrong there, pal” when it matters. Must be hard to lionise someone one moment and then be critical when required. Try finding newspapers that apologise for their errata with the same amount of column inches they gave over to being wrong in the first place.

Truth is, Google (or Wolfram Alpha or Bing) is my guide. If I want information on a subject I look for it and try and find as commendable a source as my feeble brain can understand. What I don’t do is have a small selection of media outlets on which I rely for information. If I see something in The Independent I may wish to cross-check it with The Guardian, Telegraph or specialist blogs. Just because I see a good post by a blogger does not mean that everything they write is spot-on. This kind of thing is endemic in the kind of people I meet in my work. Malcom Gladwell, Clay Shirky, Jeff Jarvis, Robert Scoble. All good, intelligent people, but whilst some of their work appeals, some of it is, frankly, utter shit – churned out to sell a book, bolster blog traffic or gain new followers. Once anyone is in the business of providing information, their motives should always be treated as suspicious. That scepticism is healthy – although instantly disbelieving someone because they make a buck is equally stupid.

”]Belief is like a cancer. It grows in a person until they can no longer function effectively. How on Earth can it be that people believed in the Rapture / end of the World? Because they believed in Harold Camping. That’s bad enough, but when he’s proved wrong by a distinct lack of, y’know, earthly destruction, how can people continue to believe him. In fact, people’s beliefs are more likely to be strengthened even when they are “proved” wrong. Seriously, how mad is that?

So forget your idols. David Cameron is not right about everything by virtue of being Prime Minister. Obama is not wrong about everything by virtue of being “leftist”. Your rabbi / imam / priest / prophet is there to be questioned not idolised, your favourite writer / commentator / scientist is just one voice. And yours should be asking “Why? How? When?” or maybe just “WTF?”

So, as I said: do not subscribe to this blog.

 
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Posted by on July 4, 2011 in Digital, Marketing, Social Media, Society

 

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Blocked on Twitter / Am I just bitter?

Tempting tho’ it was to end that title with “You can’t get fitter / Than a Kwik-Fit fitter,” I’ll move right along. An odd thing happened this morning – I woke up and found that the writer & broadcaster Andrew Collins had blocked me on Twitter, following a conversation we had yesterday.

I thought there was a point worth exploring for a blog post – that of celebrities who are happy to use Twitter when it benefits them but rankle when their audience dares to be anything less than celebratory about their output, as well as the difficulty of engaging (as a mere punter) with people you like and remaining sufficiently critical of whatever they have to say. However, the difficult thing is to ask the question without sounding as if there’s a bitter tinge to anything I say.

I passive-aggressively respond by failing to provide a photo credit. TAKE THAT COLLINS!

So to be clear – I was already writing some notes on the topic with regards to Johann Hari. In case you’ve missed it here’s a summary.  Now, I quite like his writing, I like the passion and invective as well as his hunger for facts. But the reasonable side of my brain also notes that he’s occasionally wayward in both evidence and style – call it artistic license or personality at one end of the scale or inaccuracy / following an agenda at the other. Is it possible to like someone’s writing even though you know they aren’t 100% “correct”?

Of course it is. Writing is not (always) like science. Science communication needs to be accurate because it concerns the transmission of facts; but facts alone simply do not win arguments outside of evidence-based practitioners like scientists. So there’s a need for some art – and Hari does his job well. This article is a good example – some good use of economics and history, packaged in a way his audience is likely to understand it. But at the end, he loses it a bit and gets all shouty. That’s his style, and it’s very effective. And then you read someone else’s take on the article and wonder if it was as good as you thought it was. And let’s face it – there is rarely such a thing as “100% correct” when you’re not talking about maths or physics.

But if you’re style is passion, don’t be surprised when the naysayers react passionately when you fuck up. You can’t hold other people to high standards and expect people to just instantly forgive you. I was especially surprised that a lot of the people who usually are first in line to bash inaccurate reporting were also first in line to defend Hari. Why? Because they tend to agree with his point of view. (It’s also wholly valid to say that Hari’s mistakes are not on a par with those who falsify / ignore evidence to support their point of view, a position I agree with, but the boy did wrong and admitting it doesn’t weaken his talent). This blog post from the excellent David Allen Green pretty much sums it up for me re Johann Hari, by the way.

Similarly, I like Andrew Collins’ broadcasting & writing. He’s pretty funny, has some interesting stuff to say about films and his 6 Music stuff with Richard Herring is excellent, as are the podcasts. He also is a defender of homeopathy, which I loathe. That does not (nor should it) stop me finding the rest of his work worthwhile. If I read the Guardian, I may be in line with 50% of its opinions; the fact I find the other 50% unpalatable is no reason not to read the rest. There’s barely anyone you will ever meet and call a friend that you agree with 100% on everything.

The great thing about Twitter is that it gives people a chance to discuss their work in a way that has rarely been possible before. Some are good at commenting on their own blog / newspaper website pieces and responding to criticism. Some never do. My feeling is that, in this day and age, you need to do it. No work goes without question, nor should it. If Melanie Phillips is to have the freedom to spout complete crap, then the crowd should have the right of reply. When your work is published to a potential readership in the millions, it’s irresponsible to be misquoting evidence and downright wrong to be fraudulent. People being able to challenge, clarify, respond – that’s just what happens in a free society, right?

If you write on a site with a big audience, the rules are different; you have an audience which is using you as a shortcut to opinion and information. Good writers are those that can take a complex issue and translate it for the rest of us. Not everybody is an economist or a scientist or a politician, and those issues need some explaining for most people – and that is a responsibility not to be taken lightly. Social media should help sort the wheat from the chaff. In the past, a writer could get by with a modicum of skill and written charisma; they could present something as a fait accompli and most of their audience wouldn’t know any better. Now, however, those in the crowd that know what they’re on about can challenge those assertions and the discussion around it becomes as informative as the original article.

So, then, Andrew Collins. Why would anyone post this?

Innocent enough

Note the question mark at the end. Almost looks like it’s inviting a discussion. Either you post something about what you’re working on to invite discussion or you do it because… what? You think people are just interested without comment? Isn’t that the equivalent of “I’m having a coffee” type status updates? “Look at me! I’m interesting by virtue of my very existence!”

OK, we all do it. I’m as guilty as anyone. But I don’t care if someone wants to pick me up on it or criticise me for it. I’m posting in public so I must surely expect it, right?

So, I politely (I thought) questioned the validity of a writer for a big site reviewing Top Gear when they’ve never watched it before. This is a series that has run for years, so what’s the point of a review based on watching one episode? Context is everything – the examples I mentioned in reply stood up as far as I was concerned. Have a look at Collins’ timeline for details – I’d Storify it, but I’m blocked. Haha. 

But what I find amazing is how personally he took it – and how I was then “a Top Gear fan” and, basically, an utter arse for even daring to question his work. I don’t mind a bit of Top Gear, despite the fact I think 2/3 of the presenter team are total arseholes. Same deal as with reading a newspaper or liking Andrew Collins’ work… but I’m no fanboy, and I wasn’t defending Top Gear, I was questioning the editorial policy of reviewing based on one person’s watching one episode  – surely then it becomes about the writer (and their experience) rather than the subject in question? Maybe that’s OK, but I didn’t see Collins in the same bracket as, say, Charlie Brooker, where the experience is all about him personally.

I don’t doubt that there are circumstances where mere “broadcast” is suitable for Twitter, but it’s not really making the most of the format. News feeds as broadcast work fine, but human beings on Twitter become part of the bigger conversation. If you don’t like talking to people or can’t stand criticism then it’s a strange place to put yourself. Everything has a price and the price of gaining profile, traffic and adulation on the one hand is being open to criticism and questioning on the other.

Let’s be clear about this – if you give, you receive. Both the good stuff and the bad. Blocking people is fine for spammers, but if you don’t like someone’s opinion, just ignore it. Or unfollow them. I prefer to follow people from all walks of life – I like to know what people who don’t naturally agree with me think – it’s a big world and restricting your field of vision seems rather narrow-minded. In this case, I think it’s a little bit babyish / Stalinist to block someone simply because you don’t agree with their point of view.

Of course, the rule is: don’t feed the trolls. But I wasn’t trolling, even if I was being marginally cheeky. If I wanted to troll Andrew Collins, I’d have mentioned that, by homeopathic principles, his watching one episode probably imbues him with the knowledge of the entire canon of Top Gear works…

 
 

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