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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