The social media tortoise and hare race gets trickier to predict in 2011

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Without over-simplifying things, the explosion of social media has left businesses around the world with two options in the last couple of years:

1. Dive in to the deep end and paddle as fast as possible
2. Stay dry (to a degree) and attempt to enter via the shallow end

There are significant challenges involved with both approaches, and 2011 looks set to be the year each are magnified.

In fact, we might get some answers to one of social media’s biggest questions: Is it better to be the tortoise or the hare?

‘Hare’ brands

For brands that have been quick out of the gate, some important advantages have already been recognised:

  • Earlier adoption has increased internal buy-in, helping to make social media activity feel relatively normal / just another part of what is done from an overall communications perspective
  • Brands that have made customer service a big part of their approach have quickly established a standard with their customers, winning many over
  • Communities have been established, creating opportunities for direct message delivery, especially when amplifying campaign activity
  • Forecasting longer-term budgets can be made with more confidence after a period of trial and error
  • Customer feedback will have significantly shaped output, creating a sense of what works and what doesn’t (especially by platform)

It’s not all good news for the hare though with disadvantages also becoming evident:

  • Starting fast has meant that many businesses have had to make significant adjustments on the bounce – for example, channel consolidation is an issue facing many brands at the moment after setting up numerous profiles and recognising that more doesn’t necessarily mean better
  • Big global brands are being faced with aligning domestic strategies with a more centralised global vision after many went out on their own, potentially wasting a lot of time and money in a direction that is no longer applicable – this will be a big issue for brands in 2011
  • Some brands have established social media channels with a specific slant and which now means they are harder to use in different guises – for example, using Twitter as a predominantly customer service channel is great, but then attempting to use it for proactive brand activity won’t be received as well by the audience who were originally engaged for the service approach that was adopted
  • Inevitably, mistakes have been made which can’t be erased – while it is good to experiment and try things, major public blips will be connected with selected brands for a long time to come

‘Tortoise’ brands
The businesses, of which there are still many, that have tentatively stepped out of the gate, have reaped some rewards – the advantages they have going in to 2011 include:
  • Even the most inactive brands will have done some listening by now and will have a very specific picture of what their stakeholders want from them, making longer-term planning an easier process
  • A relatively blank slate means very little expectation has been set with stakeholders. This is great for businesses who, for example, have a specific idea for what they want their Twitter presence to embody, allowing it to be shaped as desired (as opposed to inherited)
  • Tortoise brands are less likely to have tainted relationships with key conversation drivers / influencers because they simply haven’t conducted as much engagement, meaning fewer chances for mistakes
  • Aligning domestic and global strategy ‘should’ be easier – less activity means that getting everyone on the same page isn’t as difficult and consistency is a much more realistic goal

Sadly, it isn’t all good news for the tortoise though, with just as many disadvantages lying ahead…and perhaps a lot more:

  • In a competitive space it is a bit like giving Usain Bolt a head start in the 100m sprint, he is going to be very hard to catch – vying for subject passion and connection will be much harder for brands that haven’t established a presence with stakeholder imagination most likely captured by the hare
  • Where are the relationships? Not being involved means not growing with the people important to your business as they have been learning about this space. A good example is brands that have legitimately connected with influential bloggers already who are more likely to work them in the future due to the history in place
  • Recruiting from scratch is another challenge – social media channels are already clogged up enough which makes it very hard for a new player to be pushed up the pecking order. There is probably only one way of overcoming that but money for this definitely doesn’t grow on trees.
  • Practical lessons haven’t been learnt – there is a big difference between learning from the experiences of others and pouring over theoretical examples as opposed to getting actual live feedback from your stakeholders. Your research might say that Facebook is the right platform for your business but in actuality, it might only cater to a very specific type of participant¬†
  • The social / traditional linear division will possibly remain in place for a longer period of time as the business gets its education. The forward thinking businesses have already accepted that integration is the only way to make social media work well but it takes an awful lot of adjusting to get to that point which means the tortoise is in some deep…
And the winner is…
Are you kidding? Can anyone on the planet really make this prediction with 100% confidence?
Only time will tell, but the issues raised above, and countless others all need to be considered very carefully by businesses based on their own specific set of circumstances.
For me, watching the tortoise versus hare battle could get quite enthralling.
What do you think?
Is it better to be the tortoise or the hare?

Do you have any specific 2011 social media predictions / trends you think will eventuate?

Adam
Note:#CommsChat which takes place on 25 October at 8pm UK time – visit http://commschat.posterous.com for more informnation.
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COMMScorner.com is the blog from Adam Vincenzini which focuses on social media and PR. Connect with Adam on Twitter or subscribe to his blog.
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