Social beast there to be tamed

Harnessing social media to grow business is a 21st-century innovation which hitched a ride on the internet, as Dan Matthews reports

Like the world wide web that spawned it, social media is a vast and varied canvas. The people who populate it are unpredictable and lawless, prone to regular violent and seismic shifts in patterns of behaviour.

The businesses that have colonised it blip in and out of existence: launching, financing, growing, merging and then either ballooning into mega businesses that roar on to the world’s stock exchanges or fizzle quietly into obsolescence.

It’s chaos out there and yet even the biggest, most risk-averse businesses realise that social media is an opportunity to be seized. Firms that understand the rules of engagement reap the benefits, while slowcoaches and Luddites burn.

The glaring truth for businesses of all sizes is, like it or not, social media cannot be ignored. For large public-facing organisations, it is a seething pot of malcontent that can bubble over at any time. Never before has feedback been so immediate, often so damning and so like a tidal wave of opinion.

For small businesses there are different pitfalls. Neglect social media and your rivals will tempt customers away with regular bulletins, competitions and offers, but spend too much time aimlessly tweeting, pinning and liking, and risk neglecting other, more pressing parts of the business.

These third-party websites represent the battleground now, where businesses duke it out for share of voice in a maelstrom of chatter

It’s a tight-rope walk all right and a far cry from the “free marketing” opportunity that many businesses predicted ten years ago. Businesses invest billions in their social media presence every year; a fact that has given impetus to a growing network of advisers and software developers – businesses themselves of course – all helping clients get the most from their budgets.

Some big brands have gleefully announced the closure of their proprietary websites – created in the haze of the dotcom boom – and diverted all online marketing efforts to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the like. These third-party websites represent the battleground now, where businesses duke it out for share of voice in a maelstrom of chatter.

Fast-moving consumer goods dominate the social media landscape, but accountants, solicitors and other “non-funky” firms are gaining a foothold too. As social media shifts to the mainstream, with people of all ages and demographics getting involved, more and more businesses are seeing the benefits of communicating with prospective customers in this way.

“As businesses develop greater confidence that they understand the legal and social parameters of that process, so they become more adventurous and imaginative in the way that they use the medium,” says Philip James, partner and joint head of technology at specialist lawyers Pitmans.

But businesses using it to spread awareness should tread carefully. While there are as yet no laws targeting social media directly, the rules of intellectual property, data protection, discrimination, defamation and privacy all apply in the virtual world, just as if you were barking into a megaphone in a crowded town centre.

As Mr James points out: “The desire from a marketing perspective to create natural and organic conversations with customers has to be tempered with the recognition that any statements made are treated formally as publications by the company, with all of the formal legal consequences that flow from that.”

High-profile law suits involving defamation of character and discrimination are big news, but cases involving Lord McAlpine and Fabrice Muamba are just the tip of the iceberg. Consider also the recent case of Daybrook House Promotions, ordered to pay damages of £5,000 for unlawfully using a commercial photographer’s copyrighted material, downloaded from a social media website.

But there are many opportunities social media has brought as well and marketing is just the start. The evolution taking place in this arena is not just about getting bigger and more widely used. New and innovative applications for the technology are being created all the time.

Businesses can conduct market research, create company intranets, gauge the public mood, sell direct to customers and even replace e-mail by adapting internal processes to use the various social media vehicles now on offer.

It is driving down the cost of starting a business and helping established firms enter new markets, launch products and communicate with stakeholders where before they were unable to do so, certainly not at the same price point.

Social media is fuelling the development of technology, particularly in mobile communications and tech brands are working hard to accommodate the medium, at least as hard as social media owners are adapting to the new handsets of choice.

The business case for social media was established long ago and most companies see the benefits of using it regularly. But the market is evolving at lightning speed and now is the perfect time to take stock of an industry that’s growing up fast.

Businesses face the onerous task of moving with the times and adapting to the proclivities of capricious audiences. Those rising to the challenge will enjoy the fruits of success; those who fall behind risk being forgotten forever.