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Is Marketing Hijacking Social Media?

I keep a Google alert set for “social media.” It is without a doubt the most active of all my alerts. I’ve seen everything from headlines about how Fort Hood soldiers are using social media in the aftermath of the tragedy there, to a book review of Yes We Did – An Inside Look at How Social Media Built the Obama Brand, to a webcast about a Texas farmer using social media. But, by far the largest number of headlines read like this one: Social Media and CRM — The Marketing Perspective. Clearly, marketers are flocking to social media.

Yet, once you get past personal use of social media, I’d argue that the grass-roots communities are mostly devoted to solving problems and getting answers. This clearly provides an opportunity for technical communicators and support engineers to reach a receptive group of customers, but it seems like the people who are seizing that opportunity are not technical communicators, but marketers.

As Anne Gentle describes in her book, Conversation and Community, companies need to listen first, figure out what it is that will give their customers value, then (and only then) build a strategy that uses social media to provide that value. Any marketing value will only accrue when customers receive something of value to them, and in social media, that value is likely to be technical information. Unfortunately, what I see in many of these “social media” postings is a discussion of how to use social media to deliver marketing messages, with no consideration of why a customer would care.

Don’t expect marketers to wake up one day and think, “gee, let’s see what our technical communicators can do to help us use social media.” They’ve got their hammers, and social media looks like a nail. Instead, we as technical communicators must step forward and take this opportunity before social media turns into just another billboard.
To be clear, I don’t deny the importance of marketing, and getting your marketing message across. However, I think the right way to go in social media is to go to where the customer is, listen, contribute substantial technical information, and then follow with a discrete dose of marketing.

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