This blog post comes from a discussion on the business case for social media hosted by the IIA Social Media Working Group with well known UK-based communications consultant Neville Hobson. We were joined in what turned out to be a worthwhile and sometimes heated discussion by a collection of people (in person and virtually via onlinemeetingrooms.com) from many sectors of business and social media practice. Roseanne from the IIA posted a good review of the meeting which is worth a read.

The question we were discussing was whether there is a role for social media in business that can be expected to deliver a real measurable return. I was planning to write this review of the meeting as a single blog post. As I started to write, it has grown legs and I’ve now decided to break it into a mini-series. It is now not so much a review but a reorganisation in my own mind of the various themes we talked about.

The series will be broken down as follows:

  1. The context of where we now find ourselves and the contention that we are witnessing a revolution in communications.
  2. The challenges for business are twofold; regaining control of the message and cutting through all the noise.
  3. The opportunities that now exist for business who engage with social media. I’ll offer a model that will help business think about what social media can mean for them and how they can measure it.

Here’s the first part. The others will follow shortly.

Part 1: Context – A Revolution in Communications
We are witnessing a revolution in communications called Web 2.0. Social media technologies are facilitating wider social interaction and helping individuals to grow their networks of friends and spheres of influence to extents that simply could not be imagined even twenty years ago. Calling this a revolution is appropriate since we are in the midst of an unprecedented shift in the balance of power within communication.

The “digital natives”, those who have grown up with Internet technologies, but increasingly the rest of us “digital emigrants” also, are the revolutionaries. One-to-many corporate communications are being ignored in favour of peer-to-peer conversations. One-to-one private conversations have been replaced with open public discussions. Everyone is publishing or broadcasting. Social networking websites such as Bebo, Facebook, or Nimble.ie boast Irish membership in either the millions or hundreds of thousands. There are thousands of Irish people who write their own blog.

This quiet revolution is resulting in the democratisation of communications. The tools are making it easy for individuals to broadcast and publish. Control of the message is dispersed to the masses. Traditional word of mouth communications are being amplified. There is now much more “noise” but people who never had a voice that could be heard now have a voice.

I believe we are still at the start. It is a revolution that no one really knows the final outcome of. We can take the position of wait-and-see, however the potential is already being realised by some. Barack Obama’s spectacular defeat of John McCain last week is being dubbed by many (Irish Times, Business & Leadership and NY Times for example) as a victory for the masses facilitated by the social technologies he employed right from the start of his campaign. He announced his intention to run on the Internet. He fought his campaign using his own social network on his own website; raising more money through it from individual donors than any candidate in history. He brought his campaign to YouTube, Facebook, MySpace and the myriad of other social utilities that exist. He gave a voice to people who never previously had their voice heard. If he continues in his presidency in this manner he will surely be dubbed President 2.0 – a new type of president for a new type of society. John McCain on the other hand professed that he didn’t use computers or email.

The world is changing because of social media – are you there yet? If you are not then there’s a good chance you will very soon be your competitors’ own John McCain.

I’d love to hear your views on this so please leave a comment. If you agree with everything then read Part 2: Challenge.