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ALTOM: A voice of reason amid the craze over social media

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Tim Altom

Jason Cohen is a blogger. Not a particularly well-known one, and not all that prolific. He runs Smart Bear Software (http://smartbear.com). I selected his blog (http://blog.asmartbear.com) for discussion almost at random out of hundreds that say essentially the same thing—you have to start tweeting immediately. Or blogging. Or Facebooking. Or all three.

Cohen’s blog entry is titled “Why you have to engage in social media, even if you don’t want to.” He provides a little history to support his thesis, and since I lived through that history I can attest to its rough accuracy.

In the beginning was the Internet. Mostly, it was text on a screen. Then the Web came along. Actually, that statement is a little tame. The Web detonated in the business world like a huge dirty bomb, saturating the entire business world with a new set of “gotta haves.”

Within a couple of years, if you didn’t have a Web site, you didn’t exist. The domain name gold rush was intense and very hot. Cybersquatters bought trademarked names as domains and held them hostage until the federal courts intervened. Suddenly newspaper ads and the Yellow Pages were passé for finding goods and services, and online companies seemed poised to eviscerate the brick-and-mortar firms. Netflix (www.netflix.com), for example, is often credited with toppling industry giant Blockbuster, but that’s not really what happened, even though Cohen repeats the myth in his blog entry.

There is no question that the Web changed the face of business. Serious companies needed a site to appeal to the upscale market in particular. No site, no perception of solidity. Then search engines changed the game again, by making the actual domain names all but obsolete. Much of the Web market now arrives from Google searches, so the smart money goes to search-engine optimization to get the company listed as far up the Google ranking as possible.

The seeds of failure are sown in the fields of success. Now there are hordes of sites in every industry, for every region. If you use your site to attract business, you’re a snowflake in the world’s biggest blizzard. Google can cut the problem down to size, but it works imperfectly. Those who pay for particular keywords have an advantage. If you can’t buy keywords, you’re not really in the game. Page rankings can change capriciously and unexpectedly, and search-engine optimization is an expensive solution that doesn’t always work very well. The Web today is a bazaar of roaring babble night and day. Just getting noticed can be an impossibly high goal. That’s where Cohen’s advice comes in.

He identifies as “social media” almost any kind of two-way online interaction between company and customer. There are some kinds that have proven themselves over decades to be effective, such as regular newsletters and e-mailed reminders. Others are newer and less certain.

For instance, he mentions customer reviews on product pages and cites Rubbermaid’s successes in particular. But he doesn’t give any numbers to back up the claim. Reviews are expensive to code, monitor and respond to, and being a numbers guy, I’d like to see some ROI for it.

 I’ve advocated for product reviews in past columns, but I know they’re a crapshoot, especially for smaller companies. Cohen lists Nike’s custom shoe application, Fog Creek Software’s blog and Zappos’ Twitter habit as examples of successful social media. He doesn’t list any cases where social media was tried and failed. In fact, I have yet to read an eager blog entry advocating social media that also offers counter-tales of overspending, embarrassment, misuse or disappointment.

Social media must be done well and consistently, and even then it may not work. Web Strategist (www.web-strategist.com) has a long list of social media missteps, and doesn’t come close to listing them all. In many cases, the company itself wasn’t even at fault for the failure. A pizza-delivery company found itself staring one day at an unauthorized YouTube video of employees blowing their noses on pizzas.

I’m still unconvinced that most sites must have social media. Most can benefit to some extent, yes. But just how much is an open question. A lot depends on the nature of the business and its relationship with its customers.

Enthusiasts such as Cohen often ignore that the majority of sites are mere adjuncts to physical facilities, functioning as lead generators and pamphlets for very small companies. These don’t depend on their sites for most of their money, but on aggressive personal sales. For such organizations, it’s still the old days, just with an online piece of collateral leave-behind somewhere out there in cyberspace. No social media will help them very much. Their social media is handshaking and phone calls, and likely always will be.•
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Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com

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