Social Media Snake Oil

There are far too many snake oil salesmen in the social media business. If you believed their marketing claims, you might think that social media tools are the remedy for everything that ails you. Unfortunately, as more companies and individuals are finding out, that’s simply not true. Equally, there are far too many uneducated consumers and enterprises who hope that by throwing a social media tool at a problem they might get lucky.

Social media tools are nothing more than tools.  Just like a hammer is useless if you need a blender, social media tools won’t help if the functionality they provide is not what your situation requires.  In This is about that other thing, right? Jack Vinson recounts an incident in which his client had the epiphany and realized that the issue they needed to tackle wasn’t the project they had planned but rather inadequate communication within the enterprise.  If you have a foundational challenge like inadequate communication or few distinct, active internal social networks, you might find that implementing social media projects are more challenging than they should be.  While social media tools can be transformative in the right situation, Steve Radick notes that they often simply reflect your corporate culture and any of its inadequacies.  A command-and-control organization won’t turn into an open, emergent, dynamic enterprise overnight merely through the introduction of social media tools.

Don’t get me wrong — social media tools are fantastic and do open up new possibilities for education, innovation and growth.  However, they are just tools, not miracle workers.  And, they work best in the hands of educated, experienced craftsmen — not snake oil salesmen.

[Photo Credit:  OutlandArmour]


19 thoughts on “Social Media Snake Oil

  • June 22, 2009 at 10:07 am

    I agree that there is more hype than medicine in enterprise social media. Part of it can be blamed on the same things knowledge management is trying to cure: the lack of sharing knowledge in the organization.

    There is a culture change. But I think part of that culture was created by technology.

    In the days of paper, it was hard and expensive to send a paper memo to everyone in the organization. Even if you did, it would be hard for them to find later. (Anyone remember the use of colored paper to designate important internal memos.)

    Email made it cheaper to send that same information to everyone, but it did little to help organize the information and make it easier to retrieve. Email overload discouraged firm-wide email blasts.

    Intranets were supposed to cure the storage and collection problem. They didn't. They were hard to use and generally controlled by IT or people out of the flow of communications.

    There was no sharing, because it was hard to share. Technology was in the way.

    I see social media in the enterprise as a way to remove the technology barrier. It is a way to improve communication, to make easier to find those communications when you need them.

    But it is a paradigm shift in communicating. Much more so than the transition to email. It was much easier to see relate sending an email to sending a letter or memo. We were trained that way since we were little. Most social media tools are much different than sending a letter. It is a bigger transition and harder to make.

    I think technology is needed to change the culture.

  • June 22, 2009 at 2:30 pm

    Technology is never the first answer. First, you need to develop good practices. Once everyone is used to collaborating, for example, you can then look at tools which may help smooth existing processes. E-mail inboxes are not the right place for a team working together to draft a document – once they have that figured out, they may be open to the idea of a wiki. A smart team will figure it out quickly.

  • June 22, 2009 at 6:02 pm

    Mary, totally agree about the snake oil vibe that is all too prevalent.

    I just talked about this today in an interview with Inside Counsel…for many firms, Social Media is a solution in search of a problem. It is incumbent on the firm to figure out which problems it's trying to solve.

    Specificity is the cure for the snake oil syndrome.

  • June 23, 2009 at 10:34 pm

    Doug –

    Technology definitely is an important tool in culture change and business process improvement. However, I'm not sure it can single-handedly change culture or business process overnight unless there has been a complete technological shift in the way we do business. For example, the advent of e-mail in law firms was facilitated by client needs and forced changes to firm culture and business process. That was a paradigm shift. I haven't yet seen a comparable impact in most law firms of social media tools, although wikis do seem to be gaining traction.

    – Mary

  • June 23, 2009 at 10:39 pm

    Wendy –

    You're right that we need to start with the people and processes first and then match them with suitable technology. What I'm less sanguine about is that smart teams figure out that e-mail doesn't work. I've seen lots of people in corporate America use e-mail because it's there, it's easy and it's familiar. They haven't taken the time to think about whether it is the appropriate tool for their needs. In part, the problem may be that the users are so removed from the technology acquisition and implementation process within firms that they don't think strategically about various apps as tools for the practice of law and aren't aware of the range of tech options available to them.

    – Mary

  • June 23, 2009 at 10:42 pm

    Truer words were never spoken, Chris. You need specificity and you need a certain level of tech sophistication to evaluate properly the technology that's available and viable in your firm. And, you need consensus within the firm that there is a problem worth solving. Otherwise, I'm not sure the solution will fly — even if it is a cool social media tool.

    – Mary

  • June 23, 2009 at 11:39 pm

    Often, a good way to reduce some of the moving parts is to find the smallest, simplest problem you can solve. It's easier to build on small successes than to get buy-in to a single massive (and thus risky) push.

  • June 24, 2009 at 5:36 am

    I didn't say that technology can single-handedly change culture. My theory is that existing technology helped create the existing culture and nutures that culture.

    If you are going to change culture, you need to change the technology that goes along with it.

  • June 25, 2009 at 2:04 am

    A symbiotic relationship between technology and culture? You're right.

    – Mary

  • June 27, 2009 at 12:48 pm

    Nice post, Mary. I agree with you. I'm very surprised at the number of people want to follow me on Twitter calling themselves 'Social media guru'. Why would you call yourself a guru anyway?

  • June 27, 2009 at 2:46 pm

    You're right, Chris. In fact, your advice is a good strategy for life

    – Mary

  • June 29, 2009 at 10:10 pm

    Thanks, Samuel. Perhaps the next question is, why would we ever take a self-proclaimed “social media guru” at their word? Talk is cheap, but actions and expertise do become apparent over time.

    – Mary

  • July 30, 2009 at 10:48 am

    You might take a look at Don Tapscott's work, Grown Up Digital. Puts the new in a bigger cultural perspective. The Net Generation is going to change all.

  • July 30, 2009 at 2:48 pm

    You might take a look at Don Tapscott's work, Grown Up Digital. Puts the new in a bigger cultural perspective. The Net Generation is going to change all.

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