Social media on trial

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I recall a seminar in which several hundred business leaders discussed the value of social media as a marketing tool. The title of the meeting - Is social media overrated? - was designed to put bums on seats, and it did. There was, in the room, a palpable sense of frustration, a feeling that this wonderful technology, this gateway to a vast new audience, was failing to deliver. What did it matter if a 14-year-old’s hair-and-beauty blog was being watched by a million YouTube viewers if a Swindon sheet metal firm was having to ask its own staff to ‘like’ a video explaining the properties of  titanium? The message the spiky-haired moderator wanted everyone to hear was this: you’re doing it wrong! You’re not investing enough time! Be more targeted in your approach! But I’m not sure anyone was convinced. Rumblings at the back were of an emperor bereft of new clothes. A salutary tale, perhaps, but not - in truth - a recent one. The seminar in question took place in 2008.  I was working as a business journalist at the time and the extravagant claims of social media were already in question.

Interesting, then, to hear similar debates rumbling on, 11 years later, only this time in relation to international associations. There’s an added dimension this time, of course. For associations, social media is not only presented as an opportunity (to reach a gazillion potential members), but an existential threat. Networking platforms like LinkedIn and Facebook can render formal membership structures obsolete and erode value, the argument goes. But, as time passes, it’s an argument whose bark looks increasingly worse than its bite. If social media were such a threat to associations it seems strangely reluctant to show its teeth. It is the monster forever lurking in the shadows.

Conversely, if social media were such a membership goldmine, for most organisations it is proving fiendishly difficult to tap. Even those associations who boast thousands of followers online are left pondering the emptiness of such boasts when engagement rates are practically zilch. In the world of business, it is often said that turnover is vanity, profit is sanity. If we were to update this  maxim for social media it might go something like this: likes are vanity, clicks are sanity, or reach is vanity, engagement is sanity. Either way, most of us aren’t getting nearly enough of the latter.

The question is, when will we stop trying?

It is worth reminding ourselves that social media has been ‘a thing’ for more than 15 years – and, for the vast majority of organisations, it has neither been a revelation nor a disaster. Merely  something else to think about, an occasionally useful marketing tool. Until now, it has been viewed by most users as relatively benign. We have been aware of the transactional element – a ‘free’ service in return for a little information about ourselves – and have been happy to go along with it. But recent revelations about the harvesting of  data by third parties – specifically around Facebook’s relationship with Cambridge Analytica – have made us question our relationship with the companies behind social media. So, too, have revelations about social media’s role in spreading fake news, its reluctance to tackle the spread of extremism online, and how social media companies get to act as publishers – with impunity - while purporting merely to be ‘technology providers’.

So, the jury, it seems, is still out on social media. But the question now is not just, ‘does it work?’ but, ‘is it worth it?’

James Lancaster
Written By
James Lancaster

AMI editor James Lancaster is a familiar face in the meetings industry and international association community. Since joining AMI in 2010, he has gained a reputation for asking difficult questions and getting lost in convention centres. Proofer, podcaster, and panellist - in his spare time, James likes to walk, read, listen to music, and drink beer.

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