There’s a turn of phrase that’s been rattling around my head recently—you know the one about being a “victim of your own success?” Sometimes I wonder whether that’s the case with social media evangelists. By any measure, we’ve helped drive ever larger numbers of businesses and independent professionals to start using social-based promotion, which is fine on its face, but how much value has been added to the lives of consumers?
It’s not a rhetorical question, and it’s certainly not a trivial one. In the sound and fury that defines the social web of 2012, it seems precious few companies are reaping the returns of customer-centric dialog. And a big part of the reason for that is most business owners failure to understand one basic concept: no matter how great a service or business, even your most ardent customers don’t really care about you’re saying. You’re simply not driving value.
Alright, I think I know what you’re thinking: isn’t the definition of “value” subjective? How can I make a blanket statement about the relative value that any given social media presence drives? Fair enough. But the problem is that business owners frequently over-estimate the degree to which even our consumers identify with our products and services.
So when I go to pick up dry cleaning, and I see that they’re promoting the URL of their new facebook fan page; or when I’m watching a commercial and notice that the maker of a processed lunch meat is promoting their twitter handle, my first thought is: Who cares? What could they possibly say that I would find interesting? Sure, if I went to their page perhaps I’d discover a fun, distinct new voice with which to engage, but I doubt I’d really put in the effort to find out. This all might sound harsh, but here’s the thing: most retailers and B2B providers should assume that everybody thinks like me.
Social Media “experts” have been aware of the misalignment between the needs to business owners, and the perceived value of consumers, since the dawn of the social era. The conventional wisdom has been that business owners should seek to establish themselves as subject matter experts within a related domain. The prototypical example of this approach is Gary Vaynerchuk, founder of winelibrary.com, a video blog dedicated to discussion and reviews of wine, which, in turn, launched Gary into the ranks of internet stardom, and (more importantly) enviable profitability.
The problem with this approach, beyond the physical and temporal demands of becoming a recognized subject matter expert, is that it doesn’t always pass the “who cares” test. Unlike wine, which has inherent qualities making it a potentially fascinating topic, the world is filled with businesses whose products and services are simply too limited to arouse general interest. No matter how educated someone might become on Dry Cleaning; most people will never care enough to engage in any meaningful, regular way with a social media feed built upon that topic.
So should local business like dry cleaners, and pet groomers, lawyers; auto-body mechanics, etc. simply disregard social media? No, far from it. But they should assume that sharing store hours; product updates; and even discounts; simply won’t be enough to excite their socially-connected clientele. They should assume that by default, no one really cares about their business. It may or may not actually be true, but the assumption will force a frank evaluation of what it would take to drive genuine, perceived value in the minds of their target consumer.
I’ll close with an example of a company that belongs squarely in the ‘who cares’ spectrum of the business landscape, but who managed to create a value-driven social media presence without resorting to subject matter expert-ism or through unsustainable price discounting: Blendtec. Blendtec makes home blenders, exactly the kind of product that precious few really care to think about in their spare time. To create a social media presence that people actually cared to engage in, Blendtec produced a series of YouTube videos called “Will It Blend”, in which Blendtec’s blenders are challenged to liquify everyday items like golf balls, marbles, even an iPad. The videos are cheeky, and they provide users with a distinct value: a bite-size piece of share-worthy entertainment. As a result, Blendtec has received nearly 200 million views as of the time of this writing, and has reaped a sales and licensing bonanza.
Not everyone will be able to mimic the viral success of the Will It Blend campaign–nor do they need to. But pedestrian business like dry cleaners; tax prep service; attorney’s; etc. should understand that having a social media presence is no more a guarantee of financial or viral success than participation in other historical trends which enjoyed a brief moment in the online sun (e.g. widgets; toolbars; e-mail lists; message boards; etc.). When it comes to the web, the medium is not the message. The message isn’t even the message! Value is the message, and unless you’re delivering it in an original, and ongoing fashion, nobody cares.