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!

Marketing observations from Europe

I crawled through the nooks and crannies of the UK and France over the past two weeks and while I enjoyed my share of fine food, history, art and monuments, my mind was never far from looking at the marketing spin on things. That’s just the way I am : ) Here are a few random things I picked up along the way:

Compared to my last trip a year ago, there appears to have been little progress using social media as a practical marketing tool, at least on a retail level. While nearly every hotel, restaurant and pub in the U.S. is building an online following, I saw zero evidence that this is being embraced across the pond, and believe me I looked!  I did pick up some Foursquare activity along the way but typically I was the first person to check in at any given location. Would love to have some of the European {grow} community members weigh in on this topic. What’s going on?

I’ve always thought one of the hurdles to adoption in Europe is the relatively low availability of free Wi-Fi. In fact, at one hotel, I was charged five euros (about $6) for 15 minutes of Internet time.

I did get to meet some high-profile bloggers on my trip (video interviews forthcoming!) and they indicated that even blogging may be on the decline in the region.  They described Twitter as something only being adopted by geeks, not businesses.

This goes down as one of the more interesting ads I saw on my journeys.  The Diesel brand of clothing promises that you’ll have more sex if you wear their clothing.  I tried some clothing on in the store and nothing happened.

At first I was a little taken aback by the audacity of the ad but hey, here is it is in my blog. I’m talking about it right?  Must have worked. Kids, dogs and sex have always sold well.  Not together of course.

I have always loved the way Coca-Cola has leveraged the shape of its iconic bottle as an integral part of the brand. I had the pleasure of working on several projects with Coke and they used to tell me with pride that they were the only brand that could be identified by the sense of touch in a dark refrigerator.

All over France cafes identified that they were carrying Coca-Cola products simply through a graphic on their storefront windows.  I just think this is totally awesome. Such marketing genius at Coke.

I attended some fantastic art exhibitions during my trip and was completely blown away by the way Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Museum used interactive displays to make art come to life.  I’m putting together a video montage of some of these amazing ideas but in the meantime, here is one innovation that captivated me.  As you approached a wall, there appeared to be a live video image of an eyeball.  If you look closely, you will see that my wife and I are in the middle of the eyeball.  As we moved, the eye moved with us, creating this unusual self-portrait.  Through interactive technology we have literally become part of the art installation. This is just one of many ways the Kelvingrove used technology to literally pull “customers” into the gallery.

While some European countries may lag in social applications, I found it interesting that the city of Bordeaux is posting QR Codes in posters along bus routes to promote tourism and special events. By using a smart phone equipped with the correct reader application, somebody can scan the image to display text, contact information, or a web page.  Using QR Codes as a promotional tool is a relatively new idea so I thought this innovation was noteworthy. I wonder … what would be the advantage of promoting a QR Code instead of developing and promoting a smart phone app with the same information?  The poster instructs citizens how to download the app. Seems like a pain to me. Still, an interesting development, n’est-ce pas?

One lasting impression from my trip was how airlines — and airports — remain so out of touch with human needs.  An example. We had paid for our international flight on American Airlines months in advance.  When we arrived at the airport, I was issued all of my tickets, but inexplicably my wife was not and had to check in at each connection. This forced us to re-negotiate seats together at each stage of the trip. In Chicago, there was nobody at our gate to process the request so we went to the next gate, where there was a woman standing idly. We asked her to help and she refused, explaining that we would have to wait for our gate attendant to arrive.  When I pressed her for a reason why she couldn’t fulfill this minor request, she reluctantly complied.  This employee, and so many others, seem programmed to be un-helpful. It is beyond me how this last bastion of customer arrogance persists among U.S. airlines.

I’ll leave you today with this image from Charles  de Gaulle Airport in Paris, which I regard as the worst airport in the world (any other nominations?).  This is a sign over an area reserved for handicapped customers. I understand the symbols for the wheelchair, the blind, and the deaf. But what about that second one? What does it mean?  Is it reserved for bi-racial couples? People who are smiling?  Anybody who has played the villain Two-Face on Batman?  Oh Paris, why do you toy with us?

Well, it’s good to be back and typing again.  A big thank you to all the awesome community members who pitched in with guest blogs during my absence!

Illustration: Art installation, Kelvingrove Museum, Glasgow.

When it comes to social media, there’s no place like home

Arminda Lindsay has become one of the most steadfast {grow} community members in 2010.  Here’s Arminda’s story about finding her new career in social media marketing in a very familiar place. It is a fitting way to end “Community Week!”  Bring it home, Arminda …

Every year The Wizard of Oz played on network television during the fall lineup. And every year we begged, pleaded, and negotiated reasonable terms with our parents for the opportunity to stay up past our bedtime to watch. And yes, every year Dorothy found the Yellow Brick Road, formed lasting friendships, defeated the Wicked Witch, and discovered home is where she belonged, and she already possessed inside her the “magic” she was looking for to take her there.

Metaphorically speaking, at the beginning of 2010, I felt my career was a tornado that landed smack in the middle in Oz. I wasn’t unhappy with my clients, nor was I being shown the door. In fact, I am business partners with my brother, and have never been happier than in this vocation. I just felt like a change was on the horizon, and decided to pursue the inclination. When I emerged from my technicolor doorway, I started looking for my own Yellow Brick Road to follow — certain that my journey would lead me to “the next big thing,” and I would, invariably, change the world.

Here’s what I discovered:

Social Media was something I’d used sporadically, at best, and only for personal reasons. I had a profile on Facebook and was actively gathering friends I couldn’t even remember — from places I am still trying to forget! But social media for professional purposes? Okay – I had a profile on LinkedIn, but who actually uses that? And some time last year I created something on Twitter, but that seemed like a waste of time so I was in social media “Kansas.”

The on-ramp to my personal Yellow Brick Road was a conscious decision to try social media for business purposes. What’s the worst thing that could happen? I could follow the road for a while — really giving it a fair shake — and if I still felt like it wasn’t worth my time, I had an exit strategy in place.

I put on my red shoes and started following the social media path, which led me to tweeting. Not sure how or where to jump into the whole Twittersphere, I kept late hours for many nights, searching for my own Scarecrow and Tinman, hoping these new followers would join me in an adventure.

My early tweets were nothing to write home about; they were basically regurgitations of what others had said or links to articles of interest – mostly about social media. Then something interesting happened: late one night @markwschaefer tweeted that he’d just re-watched The Princess Bride. Unable to resist, I tweeted a quote back to Mark from the same movie, and our friendship was born. And that’s when it occurred to me there are REAL people on Twitter, and they actually care about what’s being said and who’s saying it.

I started attending local tweet-ups, luncheons and get-togethers because the people behind the tweets (unlike the man behind curtain) need to be noticed. Subsequently, the real people I have met, and continue to meet, through Twitter and LinkedIn are my friends. And these very real people are sharing their knowledge, their professional connections, more business, yes, and equally important — lasting Friendships.

I did have a Wicked Witch of my own making. I kept thinking I needed to search elsewhere for my professional happiness. With the support of my friends, I looked at where I was happiest, what I was most passionate about. That would lead me Home.

After wandering through Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and my own blog for the past seven months, I finally clicked my heels together and realized all I need to do is apply this new-found passion for social media to my existing happy business, and I’m exactly where I belong: Home! In business with my brother — but with the added benefit of social media working its magic on everything I touch!

Arminda is Vice President of Whetstone Leadership, which provides management and leadership training to executives.  You can find her regularly chiming in on Twitter at @allarminda or read her random blog at www.allarminda.com.

Easy Steps to Amplify Your Blogging

Dr. Tony Karrer, CEO/CTO of TechEmpower, was one of the first people to highlight my writing outside of {grow} when he invited me to participate in the wonderful aggregation site B2B Marketing Zone.  Tony is an inspiring web entrepreneur and offers in this Community Week guest post today some new ideas to attract more attention to your blogging efforts …

I’ve been blogging since early 2006, so I know first-hand that it’s hard work — with often slow results — for both new and established writers to reach a sizable audience.

The good news is that I’ve found a really great way to effectively amplify your blogging, reach a new set of potential customers, build relationships with fellow bloggers, and create a useful and powerful library of relevant content for your industry.

Introducing Topic Hubs

The heart of this strategy is what I call “topic hubs.”  A topic hub aggregates a collection of information sources (web pages and RSS feeds) to form a new information hub around a particular topic.   An example that I created, the B2B Marketing Zone is a topic hub on … you guessed it … B2B Marketing.  It brings together more than 50 of the top bloggers including Mark’s efforts on  {grow}.

In the world of eLearning, a similar topic hub has been created with amazing results.   It has grown to be one of the Top eLearning Sites in the world, represents a significant referral source for my own blog and puts me at the center of the eLearning bloggers network.

But this same opportunity for amplified exposure exists for bloggers on any subject really.  For a topic hub to work, there simply needs to be a critical mass of content being created on roughly the same subject matter.  Generally, I’ve found you need 30+ bloggers all writing about the same industry, geography, niche, etc.  Looking at fellow blogger’s blog rolls might indicate those who could be included in a topic hub.

Once you’ve decided on the specific topic, you can create a hub using one of many different services such as Browse My Stuff (what I use), Individurls, MySyndicaat, Feedbite, Planetaki, Protopage, Netvibes, PageFlakes, or even community oriented solutions such as Ning and WordFrame.  Each of these solutions has different characteristics, but they all allow you to aggregate content from many sources and either manually or automatically curate it.

Blogger Relations

From there, you will need to contact the bloggers you want to feature on your topic hub. I recommend that you start with a couple of key bloggers and get them to agree to participate.  For the B2B Marketing Zone, Tom Pick, a well-known blogger in the space agreed to support the effort.  Once the first blogger agrees, convincing other bloggers becomes easy.  After all, you are offering them the opportunity to get additional visibility and traffic.

Doesn’t this take a lot of work?  It takes some, but not much more than what you probably are already doing to promote an individual blog by yourself.   It’s likely that you already know the essential bloggers in your space and are already connected to them through various social media platforms. You’ve probably already accomplished some of the leg work on creating relationships with bloggers you know and respect.

Results from Topic Hubs

By creating a topic hub that is associated with your blog and your company, you are going to get several interesting effects:

  • Get your name in front of B2B Searchers.
  • Provide a rich source of content without having to create it yourself.
  • Easily create a relationship with bloggers and other key influencers in your industry.
  • Build expertise and credibility with your audience through association with industry experts.
  • Be seen as an innovative company that is closely tied to the newest happenings in the industry.

The net effect of all of this is that you will greatly amplify your blogging.  You will expand your reach – especially with people already searching for your topic. You’ ll create a rich source of content without having to create it yourself, you’ll expand relationships with fellow bloggers, you will get a halo effect through association with industry experts, and you will put yourself at the center of the industry conversation.

I want to thank Mark for his input into this approach and the opportunity to contribute this guest post.

I certainly welcome your thoughts on this approach.  And if you happen to be a blogger participating in the B2B Marketing Zone (or would like to be), it would be great if you could weigh in on your experiences with this aggregation concept.

Dr. Tony Karrer is CEO/CTO of TechEmpower, a Los Angeles Web Development firm, and is founder of Browse My Stuff, a social publishing solution that helps B2B marketers reach buyers and influencers.  He has 20 years’ experience as a CTO including at eHarmony and he has consulted with many Fortune 500 companies.   His well-known blogs include eLearning Technology and SoCal CTO, and is a frequent speaker at industry and academic events.

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