Can social media change your company’s culture? I doubt it.

Mitch Joel mentioned to me in a recent exchange that he thought social media was changing corporate cultures.  As I pondered this possibility, I’d like to suggest that this scenario is very unlikely, and in fact the opposite is true — company cultures are radically changing the social web!

Anybody who has ever worked in a large company knows that corporate culture can be a very mysterious, powerful, and difficult thing to deal with. Culture may stem from:

  • The values and personality of a company founder (example: Richard Branson, Walt Disney, or Larry Ellison)
  • Rules, regulations and customs of an industry (defense contractors, law firms)
  • Complex brand identity issues (think of McDonald’s or Coca-Cola brands and the impact on culture)

To give you an idea of how deep and entrenched a culture might be, I once worked for a company whose identity and policies were driven in part by a lawsuit that happened in 1945.  Another customer I work with has policies posted on the walls of their HQ building that were created by the company’s founder … in 1938!  I don’t think this is unusual.  Company cultures are forged over time, change slowly, and come to define how a company shows up in the marketplace, even as technologies and channels change.

And like a human being, the psychology of an organization may be derived from a complex history and set of circumstances that determine behavior in ways we may never even truly understand.

So the idea that you could transform a company culture just because it needs to create a Twitter account or YouTube channel is probably fanciful. I believe the companies who are succeeding on the social web are doing so because they already have a company culture that would enable and reward that success.  A well-managed, market-oriented company with a legacy of customer-centricity is going to do well with social media — and any other marketing innovation that comes down the line.  If you look at a list of the most successful companies on the social web, there really aren’t any surprises are there?  Their cultures are pre-wired to succeed.

But a company that is slow to change, entrenched in bureaucracy and resistant to customers setting the pace will carry that culture through to whatever market challenge they face, too.  And pressuring them to set up a Facebook page isn’t going to change that either!

In fact, I will argue that strong corporate cultures are actively and powerfully changing the social web. Think about …

  • How blogging has changed from “journaling” to a search-engine-focused marketing tool.
  • How Facebook has transformed from an exclusive college social network to a multi-billion-dollar marketing powerhouse
  • How grainy, home-made videos of brides falling at weddings have been replaced as the most popular YouTube videos by glossy corporate mini-movies

Power to the people?  Hardly.  All of these changes were brought about by corporate marketing strategies. Companies are dramatically changing that nature of the social web far more powerfully than the social web will transform companies.  Right?

Community note: Mitch Joel posted a nice counter-point to this article on his blog.  A good read to see another valid perspective.

Illustration: View from Tower of Belem, in Lisbon, Portugal. I took this photo in 2009 and it reminds me of the fortress-like characteristics of corporate culture!
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  • I’ve come across some strange companies that are entirely rooted in practices of the past. Not that the past is bad, per se. However, when it comes to working with social media I often see interest in it from various outposts in the company. Rarely does it come from the executives.

    A communications manager, say, who can’t get the go ahead to invest in social media just starts using twitter or Facebook because they realise so many others in the industry are developing these skills. Only when something is working, delivering results do they take it to the upper echelons of the company and present it as a working strategy. Then the bosses get onboard.

    Resistance to change in communication practice – and specifically regarding the Net – is one of the biggest stumbling blocks in this industry. Unfortunately some CEOs stubbornly cling on to the past for the past’s sake.

    Whether or not it’s marcom folks experimenting with social media that drives these channels towards a more traditional ground, I don’t know. But I’d certainly like to see more CEOs have the confidence to embrace social media.

  • Mark

    @Jon — you hit on an important point about corporate culture and change as it relates to social media. There is no such thing as a grassroots (led from the bottom of the organization) success effort. At some point, the CEO or leader of the organization MUST be on board and actively sponsor the change. That makes the difference between a change that is woven into the long-term fabric of the company versus a “program” that disappears with a poof once the novelty wears off. Thanks for this insight!

  • Mark, I agree with you that there are just certain companies that are wired to do customer service well, to do marketing socially, to develop employees that can have rapport with customers, etc regardless of whether the channels of communication are new or traditional, and those companies will of course have a much higher likelihood of success in social media.

    To be honest, I don’t think I’ve seen an example of social media changing a corporate culture, but I do believe that stodgy, traditional, strict, etc companies can do well in social media when they treat it with its own considerations, benefits, and drawbacks just as they would a customer service call center or direct mail or whatever other channel.

    As you mention, blogging has become more business-minded. There is a better defined focus than just “We have to have a blog. Everyone needs to.” Now, you can list reasons why blogs are beneficial, SEO potentially being chief among them. Much the same, other social media are gaining more business focus, defined metrics, and business goals partially driven by that doubt and wariness that these late adopter, non-social, entrenched corporate cultures bring.

  • Mark

    @Eric — I agree that there is no reason that “stodgy” companies can’t have social media successes. There is nothing wrong with being conservative. I would suggest however that the social media campaign will ultimately reflect the marketing culture of the company. A conservative company will probably also have a conservative tone to its marketing efforts, no?

  • Mark,

    Does social networks fall under the umbrella term social media? I think so. If you agree, I would argue that social media can, slowly, change corporate culture. Use of (internal) corporate social networks can be a good source for collaboration and knowledge sharing. This does help the morphing of culture. Granted, no technology tool is going to change things unless the psychological use does appropriate “steering.”

    As with all aspects of social media, no one channel is correct for all objectives. From a marketing perspective, I have always preached that one should expect slow, continuous success. I think the same can be said for changing culture – granted at an even slower pace.

    Thanks.

    Living the experiment,
    Social Steve

  • As the main social media lead in our company, I can definitely agree that social won’t change our company culture – especially since I’m one of the few people in the whole building that doesn’t have social media blocked. However our organizations ability to adapt quickly to necessary tools has aided our social media success. That and a lot of patience on my end

  • Mark

    @Steve — I think you make a great point, an important point. Essentially, internal networks can provide a trial run for external networks. I think that would be a highly effective way to introduce change to a corporate culture and, as you say, slowly but effectively. Well said. Always an honor to have you comment!

    @Drew — I feel your pain! Currently working with a company that will probably never “get it.” But providing marketing advice that is consistent with the capabilities of the culture is essential, even when you know you can do more. Hang in there!!

  • Hi Mark, interesting thoughts. You say that blogging, YouTube and Facebook (et al) have become over-run with corporate content. But the content is still subject to the social web democracy. If it doesn’t speak to people, it won’t be consumed on a large scale.

    So, while it was created by corporations it is still ‘The People’s Content’, if you will, not the content of corporate America/UK/wherever.

    We now know so much more about organizations, like Coca Cola, MacDonald’s and – yes – Disney (including their history, belief systems, heart, and soul) partly because they are finally speaking to us in a way that is engaging. It wasn’t just the difficulty of sharing this information and these ideas in previous decades that prevented this knowledge – it was also because we rejected the self-serving, uninspiring corporate way in which it was communicated.

    And the reason the corporate world can now speak to us in our language is because the social web has allowed them to understand us better.

    What I’m saying is that the corporations are changing and moving in seismic proportions. Why? Because of social media.

    Another great post.

    Thanks!

  • I agree with you Mark…

    One way social media is able to change company culture is to first acknowledge and answer this question…

    Does your reaction, your response to stress about choice, culture, and project/time management need to change? -Dr. Rae

  • Good afternoon Mark,

    This is an interesting take on a conversation that ecos in the halls of New Media / Digital Marketing agencies everywhere…

    Are we shaping the web, or is the web shaping us?

    Personally, I’m to sides to every story kind of guy, and I feel the same goes for this. I agree totally, that strong, well thought out, well run companies are finding success because…well they’re set-up for it, they’re positioned for it, and the know how to get it.

    However, I also believe that it’s shifting the culture for the “not so good” businesses that where able to drift for a long while. These aren’t your Apples or Nikes, but the small to mid sized business that populate so much of North America. These guys, who before could drift, are forced to either step up or step out – (alright that’s a generalization but go with it).

    So do we have the cake, and eat it too? You bet!

    But excellent points, as this side is rarely discussed (and often an integral part)

    Josh Muirhead

  • Mark

    @Michael — You make some excellent points but I guess i am a bit more jaded than you. Much of the corporate content on the web is as much the people’s content as “Avatar” was the people’s movie. Companies are buying eyes through slick content that had to be earned before in the “early days.” It’s inevitable but I seriously doubt any of it is changing companies any less than advertising on TV changed companies in the 1960s. Somewhere between me and you is probably the truth and I sincerely appreciate your perspective, Michael!

    @Dr Rae — I am in the 99% who would answer YES : )

  • @Steve – I completely agree with your assessment (internal or professional networking). Living that dream (or nightmare – just depends on your point of reference).

    To tie into the post. The same reasons that success can happen externally – has to be felt internally. Corporate cultures are a very hard thing to pin down. Change is slow and sometimes extremely painful. From my vantage point, external was where I worked started and internal has been slow to start, but the people are making it happen. Much to the displeasure of some folks at the top. Slow and painful.

  • Mark

    @Josh — Two sides to every story? No, only my side survives around here. Where’s that delete button? : )

    Seriously, you bring up a very fascinating point and you have me thinking about some things.

    I’m glad you appreciate the “culture” perspective of the story and that I’m not alone out here. I think this is so important and many times when i bring it up I just get shouted down. Yesterday a guy published a post on the 19 things that would predict if a company would have success on the social web (i.e. do they have a content plan, a community manager, etc) This kind of view seems so terribly naive to me — like throwing resources at a problem is the magic key to success. It’s not. If you had the best community manager in the world, do you think this would assure the success of a BP social media program?

    The point is, corporate culture/ management effectiveness is the trump card, not resources or money. Give me a progressive marketing culture and I will beat out any sluggish competitor with twice the budget.

    Thanks for contributing today!

    @Steve — This sounds like a fascinating journey! When the time is right, maybe you will share more of your experiences for the rest of the community? I would love to hear more. Thanks so much!

  • @Mark Thank you for your candid response to the question I presented earlier.

    On a different vantage point, you may be interested in what I offered Jim M. by scrolling down to the middle of this page
    http://YourStressMatters.com/askdrrae.htm

    Your thoughts are welcome : )

  • amy

    I think this is something everyone can relate to. EVERY company has a culture. You’re right, some are based on outdated sayings of their founders. Some are created through events that were integral with the companies past successes. So much of the company’s culture is embedded into the employee it’s overbearing. For many it comes down to this: They love the job, the pay, the benefits, but they can’t stand the culture. It seems like the more in tune your company is with changing media trends and technology the more successful they can be. The more a companies keeps their employees happy in turn keeps their minds on the job which can cultivate some great ideas! These power companies not only created cultures, but maintain them and use them to build mega brands.

  • @Mark Agreed. The company culture will always color marketing and perception. I used to work for a boring, extremely conservative company, so my blog posts were boring and conservative. Then, I worked for a company that had pretty much no filter, and my efforts on its behalf mirrored that. Correlation? Definitely. Causation? I can only assume so.

  • Hi Mark,

    I took the delete button away when I started to comment (you’ll get it back at the end of the day if you play nice)

    We could go even deeper and say that the true trump card is a amazing, dare I say, remarkable business vs. just an ordinary one.

    I know he get’s over used in examples, but think of Gary V. His corporate culture / remarkable product offering of being honest, and easy to understand when it comes to wine, has allowed him to have the explosion of success that he has had.

    I’m certain we’ll chat over this soon again

    Josh

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  • Wow, what an awesome discussion! I personally believe the answer is somewhere in the middle. There is certainly a “battle” happening within companies that have engaged with Social Media technologies and practices. But is the pure corporate culture being changed? Not likely. Is the ability to leverage and communicate the corporate culture changing, absolutely.
    One trend I believe we are seeing is the culture of “new” ventures, those that will become the leading brands of the next generation are being directly shaped through the Social Domain.

  • Reading this post sent shivers down my spine. As I was reading it I thought to myelf “…and yet people still choose to work in these rigid cultures, why?” or maybe it’s not a choice. Just further emphasis on how important it is to research companies and ensure that they are a good fit personally. Even with the 9.6% unemployment rate in the US and all the challenges, I still prefer to choose a company that is the right fit for my belief system. Of course, I’ve had to learn the hard way, but it’s been the best way. Great post Mark.

  • Mark

    @Rae — Appreciated, but not being able to find the article quickly or turn off the music was causing stress : )

    @Amy — Sounds like you have had some bad experiences with that topic! Hope things are working out for you now. Thanks.

    @Eric – Causation, yes I think so too. Your story is funny and it hits home. I’m working with a company whose president and founder is “intense.” If it is possible to have an intense blog, I think this company has one. The culture really does come from the top.

  • Mark

    @Josh — of all the social media “celebrities” Gary is probably my favorite because he is so out there and authentic. He really walks the talk. He would be a good leader to work for wouldn’t he, if you could keep up with him? Social meida marketing for Gary would be a dream job because his “culture” would set the tone for success.

    @Steve — Now THAT is an interesting point!! How are NEW ventures and their cultures being shaped by the marketing channel? Fascinating idea and it makes all the sense in the world. I have this image in my mind now: If you put a baby in a crib and all you do is talk to it without listening to its needs (old school) versus a baby with a parent who is more of a listener and nurturer — the development of the two would be very different. You have me thinking!! Thanks!

    @Anna — “Reading this post sent shivers down my spine.” I believe that is a first! : ) I can certainly relate to a situation of being trapped in a culture that is incompatible with your work style. Curiously I am now my own boss and still face these issues from time to time! Thanks for commenting — always a pleasure to hear from you!

  • @Mark For some reason when you said intense, I thought of the movie Boiler Room and started imagining what it would be like if those guys were also marketing…or at least blogging.

  • @Mark,

    Yes it would be amazing to work with Gary, and even better to become an colleague, as I’m certain his style is different than yours or mine. However, I would be happy with either option.

    Until your next post!

    Josh

  • @Mark,
    This post articulated something I have experienced in many churches I have been a part of. Many times I have pushed for a church to become more technologically relevant and create a website or blog only to find that when that happens the idea is not embraced or that nothing happens beyond that. I have seen people jaded by technology in this regard and just give up trying to see change. However, this spelled it out in a clear way that there are many other facets of an organization’s culture that have to be changed in order to leverage social media effectively rather than the other way around. Bottom line: ‘use of social media alone equals relevance to your market’ = illusion. Thanks!

  • I am blog stalking in reverse here Mark. i read Mitch’s blog first after seeing his Tweet. And commented there. Now will give you my 2.16 cents. You get the extra .16 because I like you.

    I agree with both of you. I know patsy position but I will explain. Is a massive brand changing because of Social? Yes and no. I view social as communication technology, not marketing. It has been hijacked by Brands and marketers because the networks seeking revenue let them in.

    But people across every single business are communicating in different ways now internally and externally. So there is change but in increments. In the past I might of had to wait for the company newsletter, then it was an intranet, now things get posted/shared via twitter or another network.

    The view of Social for marketing for big business is not a strong one. Most massive brands do not need to Tweet or Facebook or You Tube. But you do leave open incremental theft of customers or sales by the ones that do. But not enough to jeopardize your year end bonus yet.

  • Mark

    @Jeremy — That makes me feel great that something I wrote had a positive impact on you. Churches can certainly have strong cultures, can’t they? : ) Thanks for taking the time to pass along your observations.

    @Howie — Mitch made some valid points on his post (which I will post on my original post as a great counter-point). Our views are not mutually exclusive. he agreed with most of what I said and i agree with some of his points too. It’s nice to be able to have a direct and lively discussion like this among a bunch of true professionals. Love this community. Thanks so much!

  • Social media (SM) if appropriately used and guided can and I hope will change not just a single company culture but create a massive global consciousness shift and change.

    What do I mean by appropriate use of social media?

    Based on my observations of what is currently going on in the SM world, I think that at present the activities on the SM are unfocused, not coherent and not aligned. They lack leadership, purpose and vision. This is on a global level.
    The same is true for the national, local and in the corporate world.
    The difference would be in the focused discussions that will be lead in coherent way on a corporate/local or global level.
    Anyone who has experience with appreciative inquiry, or open ended inquiry or world café discussions will know how powerful a single question can be in order to create positive change and attitude within a group.

    Now imagine that instate of the current confusion on the SM (by the way this is only a reflection of our personal and collective confusion and lack of global leadership) we start to use the SM in a coherent/aligned way and start to ask questions that matter on corporate/local/global level. This will start a process of inclusion and WHOLE SYSTEM PARTICIPATION and will tap the collective intelligence of our employees/people on the planet.
    By the way, culture is extremely difficult to change without the whole system participation.

    What I suggest is that the SM is being used as a platform for a global INQUIRY (discussion) on things that matter.

    To illustrate you this, just imagine the impact of one important question being shared and answered all over the world by lets say 10 000 000 people or more. Questions like:
    What is our vision for the future?
    How do we want to live on the planet?
    What is our purpose?
    How to deal with global warming etc? …etc.

    Further more SM could not do much good on its own in changing culture.
    With culture as with other things “If you can’t measure it you can’t manage it” so the social and cultural change needs to be measured and monitored.
    Today we have laser sharp tools to do this used by many companies and several nations.

    Some companies are understanding this and thy are in the middle of so called corporate culture transformation. Several countries have also started this process on a national level. This is only a signal of what is going to happen next and that is global-WHOLE SYSTEM PARTICIPATION in changing culture, behaviors and consciousness.

  • @Mark Sorry for the distress you experienced and surprised to read you heard music here http://YourStressMatters.com/askdrrae.htm

    Mid-way down this page ~4th Q&A~ please find and read my response to Jim M’s stress question that may shed some light on dealing with the stress of social media changing culture.

    As always, your thoughts are welcome : )

  • Roland van der Aa

    This is an interesting topic I would like to discuss with you when you have some time…

  • Mark

    @Viktor — I am highly suspicious that you are spam : )

    @Rae — Will do, thanks!

    @Roland — I would value this conversation and of course you know how to reach me! : )

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