Tom Webster, writing and speaking

Social Media And The Theory Of The Firm

Added on by Tom Webster.

Robert Scoble posted an interesting encounter with Steve Kovak at Ford, in which he told Kovak that he drove a Prius, and was pleasantly surprised at Kovak's reaction. There is a passion and an honesty behind Kovak's response that really makes you believe there is something special going on at Ford right now, and Scoble is correct: it's passion and honesty like this that builds trust, and goes a long way towards creating new fans for Ford, one person at a time.

Scoble mentions this as an example of a trust agent, the subject of Chris Brogan's new book. Certainly, the actions of employees like Kovak and Ford's head of social media Scott Monty are starting to turn a lot of prospective car buyers into prospective Ford buyers, and I myself will certainly consider a Fusion Hybrid whenever I decide to replace my Camry Hybrid. But the atomic unit of the trust agent is essentially a one-to-one communication--witnessed by potentially thousands of voyeurs. Choosing the right conduits for these interactions is important, but the essential interaction is tactical--a great customer service story from Zappos, the speedy resolution of a Southwest Airlines issue, an encounter with a Ford employee that rings true. The fact that millions can now witness these interactions gives social media its power, but the "strategy" employed is not a social media strategy, it's a customer service strategy that (ideally) was in place well before Mom and Dad joined Facebook. Social media magnifies a tactical interaction, but that interaction should be informed by a strategy that goes beyond a given company's decision to get a Twitter account--it's really the theory of the firm.

I don't think smart proponents of social media like Scoble and Brogan would argue with this, but sometimes I think that other would-be Internet and social media 'experts' are really only now just discovering what great salespeople have known and done for 100 years. The only difference is that someone filmed it and threw it up on YouTube. Listening to the customer and responding like an actual human is not all that new, and certainly not the exclusive province of social media. I've read Chris Brogan's book (you should too), and have no doubt that he would consider Ford's Kovak a Trust Agent. So would Zig Ziglar!

So, here's my real question about social media--and I ask this as someone who makes his living as a researcher, not a social media expert (I'm little more than an enthusiastic practitioner and student.) Is there such a thing as a social media strategy? Or is audience the strategic component of what is essentially a tactical interaction? Brogan has noted before that social media doesn't scale. Indeed, it's his thought leadership strategy that scales, and social media is a channel, just like his book is. Without that, he could Twitter all he wanted to, and no one would care.

In a way, whenever I encounter someone offering to sell me social media strategic consulting services, I wonder if they are not in a very similar role to one I occupied two decades ago, when I taught Rhetoric And Composition to incoming freshmen at Penn State. If I had a student that could already express themselves in reasonably good English, then we were in business--we could work on logos, pathos, ethos and all the good stuff that goes into a classic argument paper. All too often, however, I found myself correcting subject-verb agreement, misplaced modifiers, and spelling (readers of this blog know I'm hardly immune from those, myself!) For those students, the damage was already done--all the rhetorical strategy in the world wasn't going to improve a college-level paper written by someone without at least a grade school grasp of English grammar.

Similarly, if your company isn't already a customer-focused, listening entity, all the Twitter lessons in the world aren't going to help a tone-deaf company foster trust agents. Over the years I've heard a lot of social media experts at conferences who are excellent tacticians, but lack the wisdom and business experience to help with the real strategic issues that inform the theory of the firm. Many can help a listening entity make the transition to social media, but telling a company that isn't founded on transparent customer service to get everyone a Twitter account isn't likely to be so helpful.

So what do YOU think? Is there a true strategic element to managing social media? If so, what would a social media strategy look like?