Is Corporate Social Media Losing its Human Face? -

Shel Israel inContext

Is Corporate Social Media Losing its Human Face?


There is simply nothing better than a face-to-face meeting. I doubt there ever will be. As an early social media champion, it may surprise you that I feel this way, but the whole movement has been to use technology to humanize all sorts of enterprises.

For a while, I saw great evidence that social–and other contextual technologies such as mobile, data, location and sensors were driving toward corporate humanization, but I am fearful the direction has changed. There seems to be a trend away from loving the human at the end of the supply chain and away from the human faces that can build brand trust, loyalty and retention.

For six memorable years, Scott Monty was the human face of Ford Motors, the world’s eighth largest enterprise. He was certainly not Ford’s only face, nor was he the most senior spokesperson, but for millions of us who whose relationships with brands was moving online, he was the most trusted face.

Admittedly, I had a personal agenda in the middle of the last decade. I had written a book called Naked Conversations, with Robert Scoble, who had himself put a human face on Microsoft, which at the time was among the enterprises in the greatest need of a human face.

Our book argued the case that social media was good for global brands. It showed how digital technologies could scale personal relationships. We explained how companies could use the new web-based media to conduct conversations with stakeholders, rather than just use new media to hurl one-directional messages, through ads, press releases and perhaps junk mail.

Monty was among the early poster children for what Naked was talking about. There were other companies like Dell, Comcast, SAP and even Hitachi Data Systems that started building social media teams where mid-level employees were trusted freely to talk about their work and to posted about it on corporate digital properties as part of their jobs. Significantly, they were allowed to use their own voices rather than the corporate we, which Scoble and I had argued was a form of Corpspeak, which few people trusted or believed.

At the time, Scoble was employed at Microsoft. His day job was to be one of the first social media practitioners to use video. He walked around talking to the best and brightest of Microsoft’s technologists showing not only their humanity, but that they were often far cooler than they were generally perceived to be for a company often referred to as the Evil Empire. At night,  and on his own with video interviews and his legendary Scobleizer blog, where he once complained that he had Mac envy for the products of Microsoft’s most bitter rival in consumer markets. What surprised many people including me is that the comment did not get him fired, nor did he get ordered to stop blogging.

But these were the early days when people and brands, readers and investors and stakeholders and developers were all trying to figure out the potential and the limits of the new digital conversation platforms, when blogs and Wikis ruled and Facebook was just for Ivy League frat boys looking for week end dates. Enterprise social media was merely an experiment and social media teams were relegated to skunkwork operations, existing outside of organizational structures.

At first marketing departments disdained social media as irrelevant, then they would complain about them for being off-message. Eventually, marketing officers began to insist on owning—and controlling– them.

The problem with this in my view is that if marketing owns social media, then social media becomes marketing. It becomes one-directional. There is an agenda. The point is to get messages out rather than information in.

MenchacaIt also becomes a one-way mechanism that erodes or destroys the magic of human faces and voices, the credibility of a Lionel Menchaca saying “We are so sorry. We will try to do better.” Dell customers angered by poor customer service and products that occasionally burst into flames during normal usage. There was a restoration of credibility that happened simply, speedily and directly when employees admit the envy competitive products or express regret and embarrassment when products fail.

When social media gets folded into marketing it stops helping to support customers in the way that Frank Eliason once did when his former employer allowed him to start a Comcast Cares campaign on Twitter. After he left, it became apparent that Comcast didn’t really care: it had been Eliason. Comcast started using telephone wait time to up-sell to customers calling to complain that the stuff they were already using was broken.

In the six years or so, that small, passionate teams of social media professionals were free to interact with customers, partners, stakeholders, employees, prospects, potential hires and journalists, I watched and often reported upon a new trust building among customers and in ecosystems, a trust built upon two-way public conversations.

Monty, was the highest ranking of these practitioners. A Harvard-educated medical student, fond of bow ties, impeccable grammar and firm handshakes, he somehow found his calling \ in the PR agency business—of all places. When he got a headhunter inquiry from Ford to head up a social media team, he jumped on it. By all reports, he loved his work. He clearly had access to the top. In the above photo taken several years ago, he is discussing a blog post while sitting on the floor of an automotive show chatting with CEO Allan Mullaly. He did not report directly to the CEO, but he clearly had access. When people praised or complained to Scott online, there was a sense that you had access to the real decision makers at Ford. This was strikingly different than waiting to tell the Comcast guy online that your Wifi wasn’t working while getting a recorded offer for Xfinity Premium services.

Earlier this year, Mullaly retired. A new CEO came in and social media was subsequently folded into marketing. A short while later Monty elected to depart. He has since started his own strategic consulting business where he is doing quite well consulting on digital strategies with other global organizations.

I don’t think he has lost much audience online. Personally, I enjoy his slightly loosened style and increasingly diverse topical coverage. His new Sunday night  The Week in Digital is becoming a must-see for growing thousands of people. Monty, like Scoble and so other digital luminaries such as Brian Solis, Joel Comm and Bryan Kramer are becoming their own media companies. In so doing, their clients benefit from the digital credential these consultants bring with them. In so many ways, they are an emerging breed of digital media in a world where boundaries are blurring all over the place.

In short, these social media practitioners are becoming media companies into themselves. If they step out of companies, as Monty has done, they take much of their audience and credibility away from the corporate brand and retain it in the form of personal brand.

In my view, however, the brands are almost always diminished by such departures. They lose human faces and the input with stake-holding human constituencies. When Microsoft—for the most part—left the conversation and the perceptions of humanity and accessibility diminished. Subsequently, Scoble was recruited by Rackspace, where he has done a good deal to humanize the brand of a cloud storage company—not an easy task.

I have kept my eye on Ford social properties since Monty has left. What they have been producing, reminds me of a couple of terms we coined in Naked: brochureware and corpspeak.  The corporate we has replaced Monty’s voice. Instead of seeing Monty sitting on the floor with Mulally, we now see logos and Photo-shopped output. There is some attempt to show humans who look like everyday people, but I doubt viewers are seeing much authenticity.

trainI find most of Ford’s social properties to be about as valuable or interesting as I would find reading train schedules of Gary, Indiana, a city that I have not visited and have no plans to see.

In my view something is being lost here, something that is extremely valuable. It is the human factor, the ability to use social media, mobile, location technologies, the Internet of Things and data to provide every customer, prospect, partner and investor with unique and personal experiences.

We live in an era when data is driving just about every aspect of the enterprise: it is the oxygen of the modern ecosystem. But data is not the objective. That remains to use technology to make customer experience unique and personal based on who people that matter are located, what their intentions are and how closely the modern corporation can provide people with the sorts of experiences that they only have these days in local shops. The goal of all our digital tools is to allow human relationships to be globally scalable.

One Response

  • Dec 11, 2015

    Just to clarify, Hitachi itself was exploring social media in the early 2000s with one of the first web video series that employees and others could blog about. Also the company had a 800 customer service line that began in the early 90’s giving voice to all manner of customers. Hitachi Data was just one of 77 Hitachi companies in the Americas. I oversaw the launch of Hitachi’s global web presence in 1995 and subsequent social media programs.

    Gerry Corbett Dec 11, 2015

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