November 23, 2009

Oh the Horror! Weighing Legal Fears Against the ROI of Social Media in Business (Part 1)

Posted in Best practices, Courts and social media, Criminal activity, Employee issues, Facebook, LinkedIn, Productivity, Social Media Tools, Social networking policy, Twitter tagged , , , , , , , at 1:15 am by bizlawblog

Social media use for individuals is becoming harder to ignore all the time. Some, like me, long avoided it, based on worries about spam and identity theft. In fact, the theft can actually exceed one’s identity. I feel concerned, when I see friends, neighbors, and clients posting online, telling the world they’re about to go on a trip for five days. Isn’t that like broadcasting to burglars? Some apparently think so. Rebecca Camber reports Facebook and Twitter users face pricier insurance as burglars ‘shop’ for victims’ personal details on networking sites.

The social media investment decision is much more complex for business strategists. So, when considering jumping into or increasing your business social media campaign, how do you weigh the potential return on investment against all those horror stories you hear about the bad things that can happen?

Less than a year ago, I received an e-mail from a business associate inviting me to “link” to him on LinkedIn. He is a client and also my associate in a “virtual” consulting business, so I “trusted” his invitation and clicked on the link in his e-mail. “Poof,” with a few clicks of the keyboard, inputting some relatively low-level contact information, I became a member of LinkedIn, my first real social networking experience. Less than a year later, I have started two LinkedIn groups, manage another one, have started a companion Facebook group, and am regularly recommending social networking strategies for my small business clients. I just had my flu shot, but sounds like I’ve caught at least one virus, doesn’t it?

We’ve all read those stories, like The Social Media Revolution is Changing the Way We Do Business, presumably leading us, as entrepreneurs, to the conclusion we should jump on the paradigm change and invest heavily in social media marketing for our company. After all, as the article says:

The number of texts sent and received every day exceeds the Earth’s population! It took radio 38 years to reach 50 million people, yet Facebook added 100 million users in less than 9 months! If Facebook were a country, it would be the fourth largest country in the world, after the U.S.  Ashton Kutcher and Ellen DeGeneres have more Twitter followers than the entire population of Ireland, Norway and Panama! These astounding facts were published recently in the YouTube video, “The Social Media Revolution”. The world of social media is exploding, bringing people to people and businesses to people in a way never before imagined; and it’s having a profound effect!

Social media is no longer a casual social interaction. Businesses nationwide are jumping into the arena, not merely to gain the ear and attention of their constituents and clients, but more importantly, to create one-on-one relationships with the public at large.

But what about The Social Media Fear Factor? Rachel Happe’s article points out that “there is plenty to be anxious about in considering using social media for business.” Among other things, there is:

  • knowing your legal and cultural boundaries and limitations;
  • being prepared to respond proactively to criticism;
  • being sure enough of your intellectual property assets to engage in sharing them, to some extent, with competitors;
  • having enough interesting content

Of course, like anything else, if you don’t know what you’re doing there is always the chance of making yourself look like an idiot. Unique, relevant content is always appreciated, as Joe Hall points out in his article, Cup of Joe: How Not To Go Viral and Look Like an Idiot.

There are, however, much worse things to fear. One of those was telegraphed by the title of Jordan McCollum’s article, Are You Breaking the Law with Social Media Marketing? Her article focused on what some consider to be new regulations or changes in existing regulations by the Federal Trade Commission with regard to self-advertising. In fact, these new guidelines, available from the FTC, really clarify existing law, which provides that if somebody is paying you to endorse a product, you must disclose it or face a substantial fine. Unless you’re trying to pull a fast one on your customers, this really shouldn’t be a problem and the “new” guidelines should be seen as assisting in preventing mistakes, rather than imposing new regulations. Nothing to fear there, so what’s the problem?

One issue is that once we publish on the Web or the social media equivalent, if we’ve made an error, it never goes away. As Eric Enge’s article points out, The Web is a Permanent Record. Once published digitally, our error is always there, lurking just below the surface (if we’re lucky and it is not on the surface) for some customer, competitor, or regulator to discover.

Years ago, I discovered the Wayback Machine, which I found very useful in litigating trademark and trade secret cases, using it to prove information posted on an adverse party’s Web site. The site’s FAQ says:

Visitors to the Wayback Machine can type in a URL, select a date range, and then begin surfing on an archived version of the Web. Imagine surfing circa 1999 and looking at all the Y2K hype, or revisiting an older version of your favorite Web site. The Internet Archive Wayback Machine can make all of this possible.

The Internet Archive Wayback Machine contains almost 2 petabytes of data and is currently growing at a rate of 20 terabytes per month. This eclipses the amount of text contained in the world’s largest libraries, including the Library of Congress.

Which of us had not clicked “Send” on an e-mail we wished we’d checked more closely before sending? Likewise, what company Web site has not posted something it wished had never seen the light of day? Knowing it can always rise from the archives to haunt us, can cause a chilling effect among the prudent. You say you are prudent so it’s not a problem. Well, can you say the same of all your employees? What about your customers and competitors? You will likely be “engaging” them by simply putting up a Web site, let alone pursuing an interactive social networking strategy with your customers and prospects.

David Berkowitz tells us there are at least 100 Ways To Measure Social Media. Is that helpful? It has to be if you know what you’re doing, but this is hardly a case of black and white. As Berkowitz says:

Some entries here can be interpreted several ways. Depending on how you define them, some of these metrics may seem redundant, while others may seem so broad that they can be broken out further. Many of these can be combined with each other to create new metrics that can then be tracked over time. It’s a start, though, so dive in and consider which ones may apply to programs you’re working on.

Sounds like we may need an “expert” here to help us determine which metrics will tell us what we need. The search for such an expert, however, creates its own set of issues, to some of which I alluded in a previous post, Is Everyone A Social Networking Expert? Robert Strohmeyer came to similar conclusions in his article, Beware the Social Media Charlatans:

For anywhere between a few hundred and a few thousand bucks, you can hire a social media consultant to come to your office and put on a training seminar for your staff. They’ll spend an hour or two pontificating about the power of social media to raise awareness of your brand and the magical benefits of building closer relationships with your customers in 140 characters or less. They’ll probably even offer you a few “insider tips” based on their “deep expertise” in the field. The only problem? It’s a load of bull.

Unless you define success by the sort of loosey-goosey standards that might make your horoscope appear to actually predict the future, the real measure of any business undertaking is that it increases your profits. But in the vast majority of use cases, neither Twitter nor Facebook stands any significant chance of doing that for business users. And if you’re a small business that depends on, say, actually selling real products and services to actual paying customers, wistfully tweeting about your daily specials is almost certainly a waste of resources.

Admittedly, I’ve probably raised more questions than I’ve answered in this initial post in a series. This is a complex, ever-changing subject, which is one reason for this blog and the LinkedIn group I started, Social Media Search and Forensics. We have just scratched the surface of trying to weigh social media fears against the Ashton Kutcher comlex. We’ll turn next to a more detailed examination of the validity of social media fears, before going on to methods to weigh those risks against the potential return on investment of employing worthy social media strategies in your business.

That’s what I think. Please leave a comment and let us know what you think.

If you are really interested, I just started yet another free group on LinkedIn, Social Media Search and Forensics. Many of these articles and discussion about them are posted there. Please join us.

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