Social media are all the rage, every company seems to be getting onto Facebook and other social networks to interact with customers and find potential new recruits – and, transfixed by the new technology, the developments that are currently bringing about changes are misunderstood.

Some companies have not yet arrived in the present world of social media contacts, most companies and people have not yet come around to an understanding of what living in this world, especially ecologically, means.

In effect, there are now three different ways of corporate social interaction, from the social media strategies that amount to nothing much more than standard marketing using additional channels, via the social businesses that try to realize they actually consist of people, to the socialization of businesses as constructive members of societies (which still tends to be more of a hope and proposal for future success than a reality).

1. Social Media Marketing

The radio got into households, companies started advertising there. TV sets became more commonplace, and TV programming soon included commercial breaks and product placements. Now, people are also – if not rather – online, and advertising has followed them into cyberspace.

Online dynamics are different from those in earlier mass media, however. Those who are reading this probably don’t need the reminder, but Web 2.0 offers – and its users expect – opportunities to interact.

Companies can shout their marketing messages all they want, but people who have used the product and are willing to comment on it are probably just a short search away or even among one’s circle of friends, and their opinion will count for more than that of the brands who, of course, would want to present their products in none other than the best possible light.

Thus, companies on-line may have gone from having websites to having social media profiles. As long as they continue to just be companies doing marketing, their use of social media (and social media’s usefulness to them) will be limited. There is no escaping online opinion, though.

“Shouting the loudest in a crowded marketplace is no longer possible as the number of channels in which people get their information has increased. Business in order to differentiate itself must listen to the consumer and hear what they want.

Consumers now set the parameters that were once left to business. Every single tweet, status update, blog and hash tag is an opinion. … [O]nce an opinion has been formed by an online community, it is important for a company to go with the grain if it is positive, or change the brand in the hope it will change peoples’ views.”


The simple but foremost problem this presents to companies, and that social media strategies tend to completely ignore, is the need for businesses to become conversation partners.

Most of the conversation is not being brought to their social media profiles, let alone caused by the marketing messages put out, however, but happening on individual’s personal profiles and blogs, with the review sections of shopping websites – and if companies do not get into the conversation there (and in ways that provide value and are not mere marketing babble and unwanted intrusions), they give their tacit agreement to whatever is being said.

Really, it takes people rather than corporate entities for that, though. Individuals, even when representing companies, may be accepted as conversation partners; even “liked” companies’ messages are often not really wanted.

2. Social Businesses

The same way power dynamics are shifting to make the online social capital of a brand more important for purchasing decisions than its advertising, social media also cause a shift to a new realization that even corporations are made of corpora – bodies, people.

For one, this may shift power dynamics internally, because…

“embracing social technologies, these [leading edge] organizations are also creating a new business culture that encourages employees to tap into the expertise of their colleagues and clients, to communicate and share ideas across departments and geographies, and to learn from others to create new products, respond to problems, and build the brand.”


Most importantly for the role brands play in this world, companies as entities on social media are spoken to as people – and increasingly expected to react as people. Corporations aren’t people, though. They do, however, consist of their employees.

Thus, similarly to how satisfied customers can become the best brand advocates, engaged employees may become the best representatives of their companies. They can’t be forced to it, and the hired guns of outside marketing communicators who are not truly in touch with the company will probably be found to just do what they are told, say what they are paid to – but not even know enough of the products and the lifestyles that surround them to really answer what (potential) customers would want to know, and put out messages that would resonate with their intended audiences.

For social media strategy, this has two implications:

  • For one, as Jeremiah Owyang points out in this post, strategists should disappear once the company has found employees who are allowed to and well capable of representing their companies themselves – especially as the up-and-coming generation of employees grew up with social media and will want to use them.A company better be good, though, or office politics and disappointments will spill into circles of friends, at least, instead of the excitement and engagement that a brand probably wants to have associated with itself.
  • Secondly, when people making up a corporation also represent that company, they are less easily replaced than when they are just to perform a function outside of public view.Not everyone will want to be associated with their employer, not every employer will want to have its employees’ faces shown – but there is a tendency towards that, and quite some potential in it.

Interacting with other human beings still  creates a stronger bond than just seeing advertisements, and having someone you know by name and face to ask about a product, help with problems, share suggestions with, is of particularly strong an effect.

3. The Socialization of Companies

In the end, if a company’s future business success – or even survival – depends on it being promoted by the people who interact with it, it has to go through a socialization. Children learn to become functioning members of a society in the various roles they’ll play as adults; corporations, at least so far, were allowed to act like sociopaths who did not have to care about anything but their profits.

As the proponents of the “Net Promoter Score” suggest, the world of social media makes for a simple question to become decisive for the future: “How likely is it that you would recommend this product (or service or firm) to a colleague or friend?”

And thus,

“The new bottom line of business is customer delight. If a firm isn’t delighting its customers, the prospects of its long-term survival in today’s highly competitive low-growth economy aren’t promising.”

The products themselves will, of course, play a dominant role in that – but so might the company’s behavior in the world, towards its employees and its customers. Are they seen as mere factors of profit or loss, or treated as people?

Once again, as Owyang partially points out, social media strategists may disappear because of that. They may change to have all digital technologies in their purview, or even to look at the entire customer life cycle of the products.

However, as they are in a position which is not only there for marketing – or, in light of the above, needs to become about something more than just marketing – they may even move to connect the different stakeholders and different concerns.

This is the point that is of particular interest to me, coming from the background of cultural anthropology and ecology: the actions of companies, especially as regards their resource use, are already coming to be recognized as (other) factors that will limit their future success, if not addressed appropriately. Levi’s, for example, has been looking to minimize its overall water use, from cotton growing to the jeans’ production and wear.

Patagonia has gone a step further, to both continue to work towards a reduced ecological footprint in its production, and even to help the users of its products to actually buy fewer of them new, and reuse or resell more of them.

It is not yet recognized as good business to look at such things while having to keep shareholders happy. The need to increase corporate/brand social capital may become particularly effective in supporting more corporate social (and ecological) responsibility if it is good marketing, however – and that is likely.
When resource limits and similar challenges to business operation also come to be of effect – negatively, if not taken up; and positively, if they are taken up appropriately and come together with the chance they offer for delighting customers – it will be a game changer, beyond what has been happening through social media alone.

Making profit while it remains easy is one possibility – but it’s already less easy. So, what’s your strategy for the future?