Why Can't Brands Connect?
Why Can’t Brands Connect?
Why Can’t Brands Connect?

So brands are chomping at the bit to jump into Google+ ?

Understandable, but the truth is most big brands — and most companies — are still struggling with the other platforms. Social media is still foreign to them, and most flail around like fish out of water.

Marketers know this problem. The issue was raised again in a nicely written piece recently in Advertising Age. The author concludes with, “In a nutshell, they need to act less like brands and more like people.”

The problem

Image by bgreenlee via Flickr

The problems is “brands” are not people, though their companies are made up of people. And in many ways a corporation is the antithesis of a social-oriented business, mostly driven by processes and an insatiable need for “results” and ultimately profits.

Rather than reinvent, we’ve shoehorned social media into our corporate framework. We’re still doing everything the same, just in new channels, disguised as social media.

“Schedule 10 tweets this week” (And make them sound real).

“Focus on driving our XYZ corporate message in next week’s blog.”

Companies should know better, given their experiences with content. Many companies are amazed to find no one’s reading their marketing materials or white papers-and why should they? The old way of companies producing content (think: 30 second commercials, press releases, clever one-liners) doesn’t work with social media.

Compare a typical fast-moving conversation on G+, Twitter or Facebook to your typical corporate marketing-speak or CEO speech. You get the point: fluid vs stiff, natural vs stilted, engaging vs boring.

I saw this first hand at Hewlett Packard, where as Editor in Chief, Enterprise, I had to create new programs to train enterprise bloggers and drive social media activity. There were a lot of bright, talented people, but many struggled to blog and engage amid stiff corporate structures and processes, non-supportive managers and incentive systems and an obsession with measurement. Years of layoffs and poor morale didn’t help.

My boss was ignorant of social media but that didn’t stop her from aggressively pushing ahead: “We need to drive HP’s share of voice,” she’d say.

“First, we need a voice,” I’d argue.

Eventually it dawned on me: “Social” is not in the corporation’s DNA. It’s all about left-brain thinking, processes and systems, marketing speak and driving results. Fear drives much of the corporate activity, something Andy Grove, my former (Intel) CEO, captured back in the 1990s with his popular battle cry for a generation of corporate worker bees: “Only the paranoid survive.”

This isn’t all bad — it’s what distinguishes our companies from other less efficient endeavors (government comes to mind) and has led to great innovations and brands over time. But trying to shoehorn in social media doesn’t work, like mixing oil and water. And as I look ahead, it’s clear to me companies will need to significantly change to adapt to a new environment … more dynamic, fluid, global, unpredictable and more human-centered.

We have moved beyond the Information Age into one where knowledge, relevance and connecting the dots in our environment are what counts: Daniel Pink, in his book A Whole New Mind, calls it the Conceptual Age.  Going forward, creativity and real innovation will play a much larger role: Make room for more right brain thinking.

The Solution

We can help the cause by first breaking away from the status quo. Quit following the herd. Quit thinking like marketers, start thinking like creative humans. How would a small businessperson handle this problem? How would an artist, a scientist?

Think about your audience first, second and last. They don’t really care about your service or product, only if it helps them improve their lives. What are the issues that keep them up at night? These are your topics.

So you need to go beyond the “best practices” and mechanics (ex: the latest Twitter techniques) and teach people to think and act socially … to be social. In our training, we always work on helping people understand how to be social — how to engage, how to go beyond the story line and so on. It’s ok to be engaging. It’s ok to be interesting. It’s ok to not have an agenda.  Let your passion show. It’s ok.

Corporate bloggers are our modern day storytellers, and once we can tap into that force we are looking at unlimited possibilities. But that means changing the way we manage our companies. Currently, there’s little incentive for the typical manager or subject matter expert to even stick their neck out and blog. Many actually see it taking away from their “day jobs,” which of course is what they’re measured by.

Ultimately it means changing the way we  think. That, according to Pink, requires more balanced thinking — processes and creativity, systems and exploration. Only then can we build companies that create intellectual AND emotional connections with our employees, colleagues and customers. (Think Apple.)

Social media can help fuel this movement and I believe it can ultimately reshape the corporation. But after many years at this, I’m also not naive. Nothing is assured. The corporate way of life has been around for decades, and social media only a few years. Change will be slow and uneven.

Ultimately we have to tap into people’s incredible need for meaning in life.

In his classic book Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl showed through his time in German concentration camps, that people are not driven by fear, pleasure or to avoid pain ,as much as a quest for meaning in life. How can we tap into this huge motivational force to help drive social media in a way that ultimately transforms our companies … and makes life a little better?  How can we bring about real corporate change?  

The comments are yours.

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About the Author

Mark Ivey
Mark Ivey is a social media consultant with the ION Group and a published author with a broad corporate background in editorial, marketing, social media and executive communications. He’s served as a Bureau Chief at BusinessWeek magazine, national media spokesman for Intel, and recently, as Editor in Chief for Hewlett Packard, where he pioneered a new program to drive its enterprise blogs and other social media activities. Besides family, friends and good wine, his passion is social media-training, strategizing, and exploring new digital paths for his clients. Find him on Twitter at @markivey.
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  • Social media is no longer new. Just like corporations needed time to assimilate television after years of marketing only in print, now they are learning social media. And some are doing a good job of it. Isn’t it up to us, the instigators, the gatecrashers, to show them the way? 

  • Emily

    Great post, Mark! Once companies realize that engaging conversation is the fuel for social media marketing, they will understand the power of it. Social Media tools are wonderful for communicating, providing valuable content and receiving feedback on your product or service — all for free! Social Media marketing should be paired with other techniques (demonstrated here: http://www.grmwebsite.com/blog/) to position the company and convert leads. 

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  • Brock Henderson

    It’s amazing & sad that corps still struggle when engaging with customers.

    The online channel can easily capture customer thoughts, preferences, concerns & aspirations. Unfortunately, many don’t b/c of a lack in priority & investment.

    If it is not accretive to the bottom line & can be proven quantifiabley…then the project either gets scrapped or does not receive the support it needs to flourish.

    This is evident in customer service. It is difficult to prove that great service will lead to higher sales (how many more widgets will we sell ) & poor service will lead to a lower sales (how many less widgets will we sell). How can you quantify this – how do you quantify great service. It will require a whole new dept that simply spends money & earns none directly. What is not appreciated is that other depts will benefit & benefit greatly. However, other depts will not support this b/c they do not want their budget reduced to fund a new dept and if successful, they do not want someone else being responsible for their success. Thus, the siloing of dept gets further entrenched.

    With this type of atmosphere & resulting culture, how can any corp connect with customers when they can not even connect with each other within their own company. I find that companies which exel at customer service tend to connect quite well via social media. They allow this great monolithic company a voice, a voice that people can understand and relate to, a voice that is also listening.

    We simply need to get the bean counters out, tear down the silos, hire those with soft skills in & leave them be.

    • Interesting thoughts, and like this point: “..that companies which exel at customer service tend to connect quite well via social media. They allow this great monolithic company a voice…” Thanks for taking the time to comment! 

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  • Hey Mark! 

    It’s really great that you mention this way of thinking. Corporations are not brands and it has been such a struggle when working with corporations to get them to realize the difference that social media is to their general outlook on them as a business. Social media is just that; social. It should be treated as such by using it to get to know one another on a more sociable level. 

    But corporations are all about profits, which is why they struggle so much with social media just being ‘personable’. 

    Great stuff!

  • Anonymous

    woww Mark.. what a post I love it! It was super helpful and you showed a lot of takeaways to big bosses! thanks to share it with us! =D

  • Mark – I have to say, this is an epic post. Extremely important to read for all marketers. One thing I’ve been thinking about is that brands would do better by describing their social media strategy as “amplifying the people we have” rather than “engage prospects and customers with our brand”. As you say, brands aren’t people.  

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  • Great post! Social Media Marketing is social! And
    social is personal. As a company you have to relate to your customers one on
    one as people. This is the paradigm shift that big corporations can’t grasp.
    Hire the right people and then let them blog and tweet and represent your
    company. Host their blogs and stand over their shoulders. Regulate good content
    by hireling good employees.

  • Great post! Social Media Marketing is social! And
    social is personal. As a company you have to relate to your customers one on
    one as people. This is the paradigm shift that big corporations can’t grasp.
    Hire the right people and then let them blog and tweet and represent your
    company. Host their blogs and stand over their shoulders. Regulate good content
    by hireling good employees.

  • One of the huge hurdles is empowering individuals to speak on the company’s behalf, without layers of nitpicky editing and vetting.

    Somehow, we seem okay with having a Media Relations team who cultivates those relationships.

    Somehow, we seem okay with having a Government Relations team who cultivates those relationships.

    Somehow, we seem okay with having a Customer Service Department who cultivates those relationships.

    Define the scope, and turn them loose to speak like humans speak. (Just be sure that if you “Like” something, either literally or figuratively, it’s something that can apply to everyone in the company.)

    • Like this summary “define the scope, and turn them loose to speak like human speak.” Unfortunately in most co’s this still goes against the grain-“we” just don’t like all those loose cannons rolling around on the deck… as if only a select few are capable of speaking… Change will come but slowly I’m afraid.. Good pts. thanks Ike

    • Makes me think that a social media employee playbook that’s encouraging (but with guidelines) is in order…

  • Social media is not corporate media. 

  • Social media is not corporate media. 

  • Awesome article Mark!

    So many big brands are jumping on the social media band wagon without thinking and completely destroying their brand!

    They really need to think of the end user a lot more than they currently do. Social media is a cocktail party not a business seminar! You have to have a drink with your clients before you can tell them about your latest offers and that is where these big brands are failing!

    They will learn eventually but will that be too late by then?

    • Good one! “Social media is a cocktail party not a business seminar” When I first got hired at Intel yrs ago I remember a senior manager telling me, “at the end of the day I like to hire people who are interesting, engaging–you know someone I’d enjoy dinner with.” So simple, yet so hard to do in the corp. world. Thanks for the comment, and raising the question. 

  • Great article, Mark. It really requires a brand to evolve in order to stay on top. If they don’t they will still survive, especially strong brands, but may not grow.

    • Dean- agree 100%… thanks for the comment. 

  • Mark, as you point out, the corporate way has been around for decades. Overall, the transition will take a long time, what is interesting will be the companies that make the first moves. Their outsized success (assuming it is there) will drive the change. It will frame being human in terms of the corporate objectives (growth and profit).

    Today, many brands want the shiny social media object, but companies don’t want to change. Companies need to want this change, not just the shiny object, before the real changes will occur.

    You sparked my two cent contribution, great article Mark. And @3f019389ffb7e8a949383ab5ba8c8d4b:disqus , I love your advice to brands in your comment!

    — @wittlake

    • Eric- thanks for stopping by and commenting…Reading your comments reminds me we all need to step back and look at the corporation from a broader view..which I tried to start doing with this post. Agree that most co’s don’t want to change, but also believe the forces of nature will ultimately force changes, like it or not. We just need to make sure we’re positioned to help facilitate positive change, creating a win/win situation (employees, customers, and the rest of the human chain)…

  • Hi Mark, I think you’re right on target here. I would change the line “Quit thinking like marketers” to “Quit thinking like corporate dolts.” As a marketer, I take pride in the fact that I approach my work from a human perspective rather than a corporate one. I’ve found in corporations that the product marketers often drive messaging, which is a mistake because they are so focused on the product that they don’t think from their audience’s point of view. At fault though, is not the just the product marketer but the corporation itself. Corporate culture, especially in the era of regular layoffs, creates a culture where people are afraid to look and sound different from their bosses and from the company line. So to advocate for the consumer view is often a risk people are no longer willing to take. I do think social media is changing that, little by little, because the risk of not sounding human in social media is too great. So, it’s an interesting shift–one many corporations are having difficulty making. But they’ll get there…I hope. 

    • I like it! “Quit thinking like corporate dolts.” You are so right about many co’s creating a fear-based culture-this doesn’t work with social media (imagine being scared to open your mouth at a dinner party?) Your pt about product marketing managers is a good one too- reminds me of when I was writing executive speeches; they try to pile every bit of product data and messaging on..too deep in the trenches. Someone’s going to have to lead the way in these co’s to make fundamental changes, and for now it’s the marketing forces (and in some cases a visionary senior manager, rare though). Yes they’ll “get there” but it’s going to take awhile. thanks! 

  • Mark, 

    This such a well articulated article and hits on some really important points that I think the corporate world needs to pay more attention to. Your point that brands are not people is spot on. The irony of course is that brands are made up of people. For the last 18 months I’ve had a job where was in charge of the social media efforts for an online travel company. When I was tsked with starting the blog my boss said “I don’t want our blog to like the other blogs in our industry, because they’re all terrible.” That was actually fantastic for me because I got to put personality behind the blog. Rather than model what people were doing with corp blogs I decided to model the best practices of personal blogs. Most corp blogs are like digital graveyards because the content is dry. I was shocked that the travel industry (a place rich with stories) had some of the worst content ever. Corporations miss out the storytelling component. Instead of talking about your products, tell the stories of the people who use them. Tell the stories of the people behind your organization. Too much red tape basically kills corporate social media efforts. 

    On the solution, we really need to start thinking more like publishers and less like marketers. We need looser editorial policies and people in charge of corporate blogs need more creative freedom. That is why in many ways, despite not having million dollar marketing budgets, personal blogs  grow like wildfire, while corporate blogs have no engagement. Hopefully we’ll see a change soon. 

    • Great story and observations. I’m finding the same problem (bad content) across many industries. Storytelling is a big one-I wrote about it recently for SME, using Steve Jobs’ Stanford commencement speech as an example. But having fought the battles inside big brands, I can tell you it’s not an easy task to turn corporate managers into compelling story tellers.. Still, this is the direction we need to go and we have armies of marketing and communications specialists who need to be leading the charge. Great comments, thanks. 

  • Spot on ~ Your social media connections want to interact with a human being. Ever dialed into customer service and rolled your eyes as you spent 20 minutes in a one way conversation with a computer?
      Bring it to the human level and success will follow. One of the reasons small businesses succeed, create connections and new business in Social Media is they are so accustomed to ‘gorilla marketing’ tactics ~ doing it themselves, humanly.
      Love this article, Mark. Now how do we drive adoption in the corporate status quo?

    • Yes it’s clear people/customers want to deal with humans vs an anonymous brand yet most are failing the “human test”. Small biz may actually lead the way here, partly because they must to survive…and partly because they’re smaller, more nimble, flexible.. Thanks for feedback and compliments 

  • Mark, I just love this.  I think you are channeling me! Whenever I talk to someone from a big brand I (not jokingly, and perhaps not kindly) give them the following advice about how to behave on social media:  “pretend you’re human.” 


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