Is Social Media a Waste of Time?

August 23, 2010

Talk to a normal human and ask them how much of their day-to-day activity is controlled by Twitter, Facebook and other social media tools. They’ll likely back away from you slowly while offering you a nice tinfoil hat to wear.

This response isn’t because you’re crazy – or because anyone who leverages, relies on or works solely with social media is foolish or ill-informed. It’s because a lot of the world still doesn’t pay attention to or understand the ways in which social media tools can be used.

I usually tell a story during my SPJ trainings. It pertains to how everyone should approach Twitter…with no expectations. This is because you can never tell if anyone is listening before you foist a message upon them. The story goes like this…

One day in Boston, a couple friends and I decided to go get coffee after filming an episode of NomX3. We thought that Starbucks made good coffee and agreed to walk to the local ‘Bucks for a cuppa. While walking down the street, I Tweeted out “Going to Starbucks near Borders in Downtown Crossing – join us!” That message got one taker and the gentleman who saw it showed up and we all enjoyed marvelous conversation and beverages.

But the point of this man’s appearance was what he told us when he showed up.

“Guys,” he said. “I almost missed your message. I had Twitter open on my screen and had just gotten back to my desk after lunch when I saw your Tweet. A few seconds later and I would have never known you were here.”

To that point, a few seconds earlier and he wouldn’t have known either. And that proves my point. Which is….

Twitter and many other tools are haphazard in how they engage people. If you are not already having a direct conversation with them, Twitter often fails as an information-sharing tool. You can’t depend on it to share your message with all your followers because at no one time are all of your followers paying attention to your missives. Not everyone gets that.

Not even Leo Laporte. He of the mini media empire. He of the 24-hours-a-day podcast network simply didn’t understand that what he experienced this week was exactly how social media behaves all the time. And the fact that he didn’t know how social media works really scared me.

But then I turned the lens on myself. I have expectations that are also out of whack. I need new tires. I know a guy who runs the Twitter account for Sullivan Tire. I sent them a note either earlier today (August 23) or yesterday (August 22) announcing that I’d be going to their Nashua store on August 24 for new tires and other work. And I asked for their help. Take a look at this picture taken at 10:30PM on August 23.

If you can’t read the tiny type, their most recent tweet was on August 18 – FIVE DAYS AGO!

What that shows all of us is that even companies that believe in social media either fall down on the job or come to the realization that they can’t be online all the time. Sadly, all it takes is the one missed Tweet or the missed engagement to put a chink in the social media trust I had in that brand.

I’m still going to get my tires and my brakes and even my oil changed. But I’ll probably be more hesitant to share Sullivan Tire’s Twitter address now that I know they let days go by without any engagement.

Worse are the companies that get into social media and then back off. These are the firms that went whole hog into Facebook and Twitter and started offering specials and events and then decided that since it wasn’t working they were done conversing with customers. That’s idiocy.

Take Summer Shack for instance. I was excited to go there for dinner tonight (and we did go – and spent $70 by the way). But before we went I hopped over to their Facebook and Twitter pages to see if they could save us a seat at the bar and if they were offering specials.

Not since July 14 (Twitter) and May 21 (Facebook) had they conversed using these media.

So, what’s that mean for social media? What’s that mean for consumers? What’s that mean for businesses? A lot. With the proper education, there are companies and brands that are selling more products and making more money than ever because they are reaching out to consumers using these tools. There are also legions of consumers who have moved away from traditional information sources and now rely on the Web and social media to inform them of deals, events and happenings in their physical community. And these same folks are focused on only buying from companies that have a social media presence.

It’s a new kind of activism I suppose. Where you might have only bought milk from the guy who had the farm in your hometown, you know only buy groceries from the shopkeeper who shares coupons online. And you might only get your tires at the place that would give you 10% off when you Tweeted their name. And you might only eat at the sushi place that shares its specials on Facebook.

I’m not saying this revolution is full-fledged or that it will have a significant impact tomorrow or the next day. But we’re moving to a time when the business that ignores communication channels will get left behind because its competition will understand that online works, and works well.

Social media might be about timing, in fact it often is. But I believe the time for social media is now. I just hope the brands I liked before are listening.