Umair Haque wrote a very thought provoking post The Social Media Bubble for the Harvard Business Review where he talked about social media’s inflationary effect on relationships and with it the devolution of the value we can expect from them. He argues that while we may have a lot more relationships, they are very superficial. Far from creating a new democratic groundswell, the new channels are just creating new gatekeepers. Added to that, he notes the propensity for hate and exclusion that online environments can create.
I think a lot of what Umair points to is definitely taking place but I also think Umair has not articulated the value that weak links do have and social networks capacity to use that value in efficient ways – even if that value is not huge. I also think he threw the baby out with the bathwater – meaning there are online environments where real and lasting relationships are developing, they may just not be as obvious looking at the majority of activity happening on Facebook, Twitter, and Linked because many of these deeper relationships take place in more narrowly defined online communities.
What I loved about the post is that it forces the question of value – as businesses what value do we really need and/or what from our relationships? It’s a great additional perspective to add to the conversation about the difference between social media and community management. If the goal is to develop awareness – social content that people will share with their weak links is the most useful mechanism. If we want to ensure satisfied customers that will make repeat purchases of products that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, there has to be some kind of deeper relationship – and the deeper the relationship, the better the ability to address issues and delight someone. Social media is not going to be sufficient to build that kind of relationship – it requires the investment of time, building shared experiences, and some face-to-face interaction. Social software is a great way to increase the number of interactions with someone, maintain ambient awareness, and help in building strong relationships but it will not be the social software that binds the relationship – it will be the people involved. Two years ago I wrote a post that addresses this point – Relationship Development is a Process, Technology Can (sometimes) Help.
Understanding what type of relationships are required to meet your business objective and then matching that with the modes of communication – both online and off – that are best suited to build that type of relationship is critical to operationalizing your goals. Building a network map of your organization and all of its relationship needs (with customers, employees, partners, the public, investors, suppliers, etc) will help you see which tools span the various needs. Mapping your relationship needs to your business strategy and priorities will identify where you are likely to see the biggest payoff for your technology investments. Technology, of course, will not be enough – having human resources to manage the relationships that are enhanced or enabled through these new ‘social’ channels is absolutely critical and the deeper the relationship needs are, the more human resources you will need to develop and maintain them.
Clearly articulating business priorities and strategies is the underlying key to effectively investing in relationships that matter – and the associated technologies that will help get you there faster or cheaper than you would otherwise.