Pretty Simple: web, digital, social

Footsteps in sand

We've come a long way already

How far we’ve come. Not that long ago, many of us felt like we faced an insurmountable brick wall. Social media remained a black art in so many organisations – misunderstood and distrusted.

Since then, we’ve seen huge advances in the awareness of the true power of social media, with global events like the Arab Spring making it impossible to ignore. Uptake continues to boom, with my own organisation seeing award-winning campaigns go from strength to strength; national tweetathons attracting lots of attention; and a huge internal effort to develop a strategic way forward.

We’ve done much “talking and planning”. We’ve even seen plenty of “doing and learning”. I’d say that we’re now in a strong position to take it to the next level – to start “refining and perfecting”.

However, as the floodgates open, we need to be careful that unbridled enthusiasm doesn’t lead to sloppy delivery. And experience tells me that one platform in particular will continue to cause headaches for those of us charged with maintaining some order in this chaotic online frontier.

I’m talking, of course, about Facebook.

Common Facebook fallacies

Despite all my enthusiasm and optimism around the potential of social media, I still shudder whenever someone approaches me asking how they can get a Facebook page. Fundamentally, they are asking the wrong question. Facebook is just a tool – it is one possible answer to the wider question of how we might improve communication and engagement with our service users. And often, Facebook turns out not to be the answer.

Take, for example, the Primary School Facebook page I saw recently, aimed at promoting sport. Sounds like a nice idea, doesn’t it? Well, not when you remember that Facebook’s terms state that you have to be 13 to register. Suddenly, a nice idea turns into a potential disaster, where a school is seen to be actively encouraging its pupils to register on age-inappropriate websites.

(And by coincidence, the Guardian has today reported that teachers have been warned about befriending pupils on Facebook. This would seem pretty obvious to me, but the sobering examples given in the article prove otherwise.)

The problem is that Facebook seems so ubiquitous that many assume they should be on there. For large brands, that may be true – if just to protect yourself from cyber-imposters.

(That said, though, I was bemused to see an advert this Christmas for a popular cold remedy brand which proudly announced “we’re now on Facebook”. Really? Why on earth would anyone want to follow a page about a cold remedy? What sort of person would be proud to annouce to their friends that they are an ongoing fan of such a product? And what sort of information are they hoping to glean from following such a page? The only thing I can think of would be advice on how to avoid getting a cold, which would surely dent sales!)

For smaller entities, though, Facebook may not be the right answer at all, and can easily cause more harm than good. Some of the main mistakes we’re seeing include:

Using Facebook to just broadcast, rather than to start a conversation

Allowing people to leave comments on a Facebook page is risky. It opens you up to criticism and even abuse. It means you’ll have to constantly monitor things and have a process in place for dealing with comments. You may find that people come to expect a response to questions posted on there, sapping even more staff time.

Many people think they’ve found the perfect solution – simply disable comments. But in doing so, you’re taking the “social” out of “social media” and, arguably, completely missing the point.

Failing to understand how Facebook works

Facebook’s settings remain a mystery to many, yet so much can go wrong if you don’t get these right. Privacy can be easily compromised. For example, many people believe that it’s impossible to publicly track who “likes” a page. That’s because it doesn’t, by default, show up on the page itself. But the info is there for all to see – just set up a custom Like Box to see what I mean.

Images of people on Facebook

With two clicks, I'm able to see who "liked" the aforementioned cold remedy. Strange people.

Apply this ability to a fairly specific Facebook page (such as for a local school or youth group) and you can start to see the inherent risks of getting privacy wrong.

Not measuring success

Many of the proposals I get from people wanting to set up a Facebook page refer to “followers” and “page views” as the way in which they will measure success. Yes, these are reasonable indicators for exposure, but that’s only part of the picture. They don’t really tell you much about engagement or conversion. Are those page views actually helping you to achieve your goals?

Of course, this is an impossible question to answer if you haven’t set any goals. Which again begs the question – why? Why do you want to be on Facebook – what are you trying to achieve?

Underestimating the invisible cost

When people talk about social media as “free”, I’m quick to put them right. A social media presence requires a huge investment of time and effort to be successful (and even that’s no guarantee). And whilst staff are doing that, they’re not doing other things. It’s not a reason to not do it, but it’s a damn good reason to think long and hard about it first.

Simply being bad at it

Producing a constant stream of engaging, interesting content is actually quite a skill. I’m certainly no expert at it. But huge expectations are being placed upon relative novices, who are suddenly being asked to do the job of a communications expert on top of their day job. And in truth, many of them are getting it wrong. They’re probably not doing anything horribly, scandalously wrong – they’re just not doing it that well. Dull, predictable or irrelevant updates; barren attempts to start a conversation; misjudged efforts to sound trendy or youthful – all of these pitfalls plague the many Facebook pages I’ve come across, and only really serve to damage the reputation of the associated brand.

Time to get it right

Of course, most of the above would apply to any social media platform, and we have a long way to go to tackle these challenges. But for all the half-baked efforts we see, there are also plenty of great examples of people doing social media really well – genuinely innovating and redefining the boundaries of success.

We’re undoubtable seeing a continuing increase in the uptake of social media. What remains to be seen, however, is whether we’ll also see a notable increase in the quality of those efforts.

Footsteps photo courtesy of MollaAliod – licenced under Creative Commons

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