A man goes into a shop to look for a new electronic product. He’s already been researching his new purchase online via the manufacturer’s website as well as news sites, product review sites, blogs and by asking his online and offline friends about which brand and products they know and recommend. Armed with this store knowledge he knows exactly what to look for when he goes into the shop and is, in fact, much better prepared on the subject than the sales representative he’s just about to ask for help. Some of the customers calling the retailer’s help line for support are similarly empowered with the latest information and frustrated when the customer service reps don’t know what they’re talking about. A journalist calling the marketing department for an interview already knows about a product recall that has so far not even been communicated to the shop floor. However, some of the company’s staff have already found out about the recall via Internet chat and so have started to post jokes about it on Facebook. Meanwhile, it comes as a surprise to the customer service team that a disgruntled customer has aired his colourful views on the company’s service via his blog and that this has attracted a wide audience and much agreement from dissatisfied customers.
The company management takes a long hard look at its communications and concludes that an increasing number of communications about the company, its services and its products are completely out of its control. The more difficult reality to come to grips with is this is perfectly normal and will, in fact, become increasingly the case.
Social media is bringing changes at every level of organisational communications. And this is not simply online communication either. Increased consumer access to information and opinion means that customers, employees, investors and other stakeholders engage with organisations with the benefit of knowledge gained from a wide range of other sources. Organisations now have much less control over what their customers see, read and hear about them. Customers, on the other hand, have an almost infinite choice of information sources. More and more consumers decide when and how they access news and information, and then access it via their preferred media platform. They also become conduits for information, creating their own content channels: filtering, sharing and recommending content to their own contacts, forums and audiences.
In the past organisations have focused a great deal on putting out what they want to say and far less on what their audiences want to hear. In the age of social media, where people have an overwhelming choice of content, every organisation needs to be in the content business – and that means carefully considering the content consumption habits and needs of its stakeholders. Those that fail to meet the content challenge may see third party content, well informed or not, fill the vacuum.
The consequence of this shift in communications is that many organisations are likely to find that focusing on information or messaging control as a core strategy is going to become less and less effective as time goes on. Some will simply find that the battle for control is simply not worth fighting, since the Internet provides so many ways for content to be created, copied, edited, shared and commented on that are outside the possible purview of corporate control. The new challenge for organisations is to ensure that their own content is the most compelling, most easily accessible content available and therefore the most appealing for their stakeholders. Ensure that your own content is the most copied, shared and commented on by your key audiences and suddenly the ubiquity of content channels becomes an enormous strength.