It’s time to step up and address one of the great myths pervading the social web — that an essential best practice is decentralizing social media marketing and pushing it down to employees at every level of the company.  This is a philosophy that sounds good, but is often detached from practical reality.

I have been immersed in the social web for more than three years. It’s a big part of my job.  I teach about it. I consult about it, and of course I write about it. And here is a conclusion that I can confidently make: Social media marketing can be very, very difficult to do successfully.

Why force social engagement?

So why do so many people insist that we should be shoving social media down the throats of employees at every level of the company?  This is like forcing me to do accounting.  It would not be a good fit … I just don’t have that mindset.  Not every person has the right mindset, ability, or openness to succeed with social media but that doesn’t mean they can’t still fit in your company.

Of all the people I interact with on the social web, I would say I am most in-tune with Jay Baer. He is a true intellect and I highly recommend a regular dose of his blog Convince and Convert. But we disagree somewhat on this point.

I’m not picking on Jay … his viewpoint is widespread.  But his recent post Speak No Evil – Why Trust Isn’t a 4 Letter Word in Social Media, is a good focal point for the issue.

A hiring problem?

Jay concludes that “it’s everyone’s job to represent the company on the social Web” and that if you don’t have employees who can represent you, ”you don’t have a social media problem, you having a hiring problem.”

The underpinning of this hypothesis is that every employee should be both skilled and trustworthy on social media or you are not running your company well. This logic gets further twisted for me with claims that people are communicating stupid things to the outside world in emails any way … so why not trust them to put it out into public on the social web?  Seems like apples and oranges. Emails don’t go viral.  Just ask NFL player Rashard Mendenhall.

Should everybody tweet?

Jay uses the example of Mendenhall and his recent litany of tweets that were outside mainstream American thinking.

Let’s look at the Mendenhall example. Yes, he was out of step with mainstream thought.  But who isn’t to some degree? The man was hired to carry a football toward a goal line, not necessarily to “stay on message” during a news event.  So did the Steelers make a ”hiring mistake” because he sends out stupid tweets?  No.  The guy is one of the best football players on earth.

Part of the ”social media is for everybody” myth is that we should humanize our companies — trust people to be themselves and everything will be OK. Again, this is just too simplistic and disconnected from reality. You just might get what you ask for, as the Steeler ownership discovered.

I work with an extraordinarily gifted man who is one of the best sales people I have ever met. He is kind of “folksy,” maybe even leaning toward redneck.  But he is a perfect fit for his marketplace and there is nothing he would not do to serve his customers. The man is a star and he has single-handedly built up his business — he’s probably the most valuable employee in the whole company.

Putting this fella into the public social media spotlight 140 characters at a time would be a disaster.  I imagine his tweets would come across as incredibly embarrassing — taken out of the context of the individual and his environment. Does this company have a “hiring issue?” Of course not!  His customers understand and love his quirky humor but that doesn’t mean the whole world would.  Here is what I would say to him — “You just keep selling your heart out buddy. Don’t worry about Twitter.”

Uniform political correctness is impossible

When consultants pontificate that every employee should have enough common sense to be on the social web, what they are really saying is we need to hire people who are always politically correct. Which of course will create the most boring, ineffective companies — and who would even want to work there?  Not every employee has good judgment about everything — especially when we are turning them into public spokespersons.

Before you drink the Kool Aid on this perspective of “cover the world with social media,” ask yourself one question. Think about some of the best bosses and employees you have ever had. Would they take naturally to the social web? And if not, does that make them a bad hiring decision?

Let’s put this into a practical context

Theoretically I agree with Jay. But I think applying social media effectively requires business sense and balance. We wouldn’t force everybody into a sales role. We wouldn’t put everybody into the glare of the six o’clock news in a PR role. Why would we set an expectation that everybody should be able to have a role in social media or that is a sign that we have a “hiring problem” if we don’t?  Being adept at social media is NOT EASY for everybody. And we should be able to live with that human diversity.

Instead I think it makes sense to encourage social media participation in the context of the goals of the company, the available resources, the competitive environment, and the talents of the employees:

  1. I agree with Jay that the PR or marketing department hasn’t cornered the market on social media greatness. Certainly employees can become online ”beacons” for your brand, but don’t force them to do it or dismiss it as a “hiring problem” if they don’t want to blog or participate in Twitter.
  2. Acknowledge that social media participation is going to occur, sanctioned or not.  An explicit social media policy is a must.
  3. If employees do want to be formally active on the part of a company, give them the training and guidelines they need to do it well. Explain how it connects to strategy and the implications of representing the voice of the company.
  4. With the increasing importance of social participation, start adding this to the job requirements of new employees, if that is key to their role in the company.  For example, I certainly would not care if a star engineer doesn’t want to blog. You know, some people have to be about the business of actually making stuff.  Again — “context.”

What do you think?

So I absolutely recognize and appreciate the opportunity that Jay and others put forth, but I think this nuance is important –  It’s not that everybody SHOULD be a marketing voice for you company. It’s that everybody COULD be a marketing voice for your company depending on context.  This approach simply recognizes human diversity and that an employee can be extremely valuable … even if they don’t participate in the social web. What do you think?

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