Explaining Social Media. Contact, Port Side!

Sunday, August 12th, 2012

About to hit the road for several weeks of discussions with senior executives. This duty is a main ingredient of my new role in my period of transitioning to retirement (actually, a planned lay-off, but I’m assured of not being laid-off over the next 18 months). Don’t get me wrong, this is a good job in a weak economy. My mission is to make the most of it, for everybody.

I write to think about Social Media or the client request of “Tell us about the adoption of social media in our industry (finance).’ And, of course, the “Show Me the Money” statement.

I want to answer them this way: much of my naval service centered on looking for submarines. Not personally, from the crow’s nest or such, but with a lot of expensive equipment and a team of young men positioned at a variety of computer screens in the lower sections of our ship. I had two such assignments, by the way, both based from ports in the Pacific Ocean. As Senior Chief Hicks, a brilliant and troubled soul would advise the young sonar men, “You cannot find a submarine. You must understand the environment of the submarine, then it will reveal itself to you.” So, our sonar gang spent many hours studying bottom contours and sound channels as well as listening for crackling shrimp and whale bellows. The former creates a lot of white noise and the latter travels quite far. Both can be easily confused with the sounds and electronic signatures of actual ships and submarines.

Social Media to me is not a menu of tools and techniques such as Twitter or Pinterest or Facebook or Foursquare. Productively used, Social Media is about participation and collaboration and the connection of like-minded people, often far away from and unknown to one another. “My friend is your friend” notion creatively multiplying itself without formal introduction.

I switched from thinking that Social Media is all about “Dude, I’m having a latte” to a useful venue for exchanging information when an English start-up described how they use Twitter to exchange information about client meetings. They could not afford a proper software tool for collecting client info and agreed to use Twitter to share perhaps valuable info about clients amongst themselves (theirs was a company of ten). When I described this to another, he agreed with this concept, saying “Twitter is about contributing to learning so that one can ask when one has the need to know.”

I agree with this description and believe that this is the valuable outcome of a wisely chosen social media tool, i.e. it contributes to learning. Just think about a comparison of email to texting. Email is good when is good, but much chaff must be sorted through for the wheat. A text is pretty efficient and reliable for the value of its information.

So, I suppose that I’ll try to impress upon the senior executives that Social Media, at its root, is something different; that the tool matters less than a the sincere effort to participate when using the chosen tool; and that contributing to learning is the goal, not only listening, and usually anonymously, to what others are saying.

I’ll try to suggest the wisdom of Senior Chief Sonar Technician Hicks by recommending that they use the tools and techniques of Social Media to understand the customer environment. More than investment, commitment in the form of active participation is required. When you understand the noise, the target or opportunity reveals itself.