Monday, October 25, 2010

Different States of mind

I’ve just returned from a break in San Francisco – the place that can be considered to be the centre of the tech and social media industry with its proximity to Silicon Valley and the HQ’s of the industry’s biggest players. It was a holiday, but working in and around social media we’re always told “you never really switch off”.

I coincidentally met and spoke to a few industry people whilst out there, mainly in social settings. What struck me was how different their outlook on these technologies is. I’ve lost count of the number of articles, conversations and discussions I’ve read and had in the UK about social media’s value to business, reasons to get involved, measurement…the same issues recycled ad nauseum.

These people I was meeting weren’t having the same conversations. Nor were they concerned with the same issues. They were talking in much more practical terms. Implementation, strategies, methods…the “how” rather than the “why”. They had gotten over our issues and were looking past them.

But if the people I was talking to were true industry insiders they would naturally have gotten past the why and should have been discussing the how. So I sought to find out what conversations other groups where having.

The weekend I was there coincided with a Nike sponsored run. Union Square in San Francisco had a giant marquee as the focal point of the run and the Nike store was a beehive of activity. I mingled with the crowds and discovered Nike were using all sorts of social media channels during the event. Twitter to track activity and comments, Facebook and YouTube to share media and content, Foursquare to track locations, maps to track routes - a truly integrated social media implementation.

What was most impressive about it was the consumer engagement with these channels. It was as if there was an acceptance and a ready expectation that this was the way for it to be done.

At which point the reasons for the differences in outlook between the UK and the US became clear. It was not an issue of acceptance by the business community, it was the acceptance by consumers.

A market oriented business will always gravitate towards its consumers. Their strategy will always be dictated by what their consumers want, where they want it and how they want it delivered. Basic marketing and 3 of the 4P’s of the marketing mix. What I was seeing was that the consumers “got it”. They were switched on and plugged in. They were using these tools freely already, so businesses were less concerned with the why and were dealing with the how.

I checked in to a few locations out there. San Francisco airport, a city with a population of under a million people had over 200 check ins when I flew in. London Heathrow in a city of over 12 million and one of the busiest airports in the world had no more than 20.

Little wonder businesses in the UK are yet to be convinced of the merits of social media when the public aren’t convinced of it themselves.

This is the biggest barrier we face. We can talk to clients until we’re blue in the face about why they need to embrace social media and how it can benefit them. Many of them will appreciate what we’re saying and buy into it. But when we get the consumer population to think the same way, we won’t need to tell clients why; they will already know. We can then collectively move to the next stage – the how.

That is the real battle.