Our Un-Social Social Media

How Do We Take Online Relationships to the Next Level?

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Pete Blackshaw
Pete Blackshaw
In recent weeks I've been in a state of "digital detox," or better yet, "social sobriety." Ironically, I now feel a bit more in touch and conversational.

My beautiful sister Mary Grace passed away a week ago as a result of complications from heart failure. She was only 55. The extreme shock was mitigated only slightly by spending a week with her in the hospital before she died.

From the first inkling of serious trouble to last weekend's beautiful memorial service in the San Diego area, my life's been a non-stop series of conversations. I'm talking about the real stuff -- deep, intimate, authentic, meaningful, sustaining, raw, emotional, agonizing, intense. And with a diverse cross-section of audiences: my six siblings, multiple relatives, doctors, nurses, close friends of my sister, her son, my Alzheimer's-afflicted mother and others.

Needless to say, this has given me long-overdue pause for introspection. Connecting in meaningful ways over someone you have lost, or are losing, makes everything else we deem "social" seem so ... well, unsocial. Or perhaps just a bit trivial.

Indeed, looking at the word "conversation" through the lens of social media, you almost wonder whether we've allowed it to become cheapened and commoditized.

For perspective, I've ramped up a fair share of connections, thousands of followers and gobs of reciprocating "link love" over the years. Ego gratification notwithstanding, at times it all feels rather superficial. Surely we can't consider all this "social" activity a proxy for real relationship-building.

At the end of the day, social media should be a relationship vitamin and sweetener, not a destination. It should deepen bonds, not defuse or soften them. Remember, volume doesn't always translate into intimacy. Speed doesn't guarantee meaningful connections. Retweets don't necessarily confer respect. Friending doesn't always signal friendliness.

As marketers, we're just starting to emerge from the full force of the first social-media tsunami wave. We blinked, and suddenly 550 million people joined Facebook. We turned our head, and Twitter has become a national compulsion. All the world's our friend. A kingdom for a good tweet.

Moreover, our vernacular has made radical leaps to the language of "relationship" building. "Conversational marketing" is the order of the day. We're obsessed with words like listening, authenticity, transparency and responsiveness.

All well and good, but these practices and forceful words carry real expectations. Amid the social stampede, we may want to step out of line and reflect on what it means to really fulfill our new claims and promises. Importantly, how much credibility do we lose -- both as individuals and brand marketers -- if our real behavior moves in the opposite direction?

One irresistible lure of social media is that it provides an easier gateway to "relationships." A smart paid-media trigger or well-executed word-of-mouth campaign can suddenly put a hundred-thousand incremental followers on a Facebook fan page.

But there's a big distinction between "click-through" and "stick-through." It takes real work and investment -- and even tough head-count decisions (think "community managers") -- to nurture and grow relationships, and even that's not a guarantee of success. This is why getting social media right is fundamentally an "enterprise" -- and not merely a marketing -- endeavor.

I've been a big stickler in this column for "boring basics" like customer service, especially answering the phone, because such acts hit a deeper emotional sweet spot with consumers, often triggering more profitable (or destructive) word-of-mouth activity. And so I was excited to see Best Buy's Twelpforce, one of my favorite marketing programs of the year, nab one of Cannes' top advertising prizes. But looking ahead, with novelty and awards out of the way, I'm curious how the brand will truly sustain the effort. It's really hard to scale intimacy. Relationships take work, whether by handshake or tweet.

There's yet another layer to this humbling meditation. What we also have here, amid our endless connections, is a failure to communicate -- and we barely know it. Conversational discontinuities are everywhere. Few people these days ever look up in public spaces -- on planes, on elevators, in restaurants, even while walking down the street. We're perpetually looking down or escaping into our wireless devices. Heck, "Bowling Alone" seems more social than neckless social-media cocooning. Welcome to Generation Heads Down!

In fairness to social media, I was deeply touched by the groundswell of love and support from folks who left condolences about my sister Mary Grace on Facebook. I was similarly touched when my father died several years ago, and a blog I created in his honor precipitated nearly a hundred comments and testimonials. I was so moved I wrote a column titled "Death, Social Media and Remembrance."

But in those rare instances where the fuzzy fog of social-media friendship and conversation finds authentic voice, how do we take it to the next level -- with real meaning and sustained traction?

My sister Mary Grace would probably remind us that that the shiny lure of new technology can sometimes blind us to simpler steps and more obvious truths. Like my father, she nurtured and grew relationships in ways that humbled social-media pontificators like myself. That much was obvious listening to some of her friends reflect on the depth and substance of their relationships with her during the service on Saturday.

Interestingly, Mary never forgot the simple things like birthdays, and she religiously sent the family reminders months in advance for all seven siblings, a dozen or so nieces and nephews and other relatives. I never seem to remember birthdays.

Nurturing real conversations and real relationship-building with consumers isn't necessarily difficult. It might be right under our nose. But it's very easy to get distracted or even veer off the road.

Pete Blackshaw is exec VP of Nielsen Online Digital Strategic Services and author of "Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3,000" (DoubleDay). He is also chair of the National Council of Better Business Bureaus. His biweekly column looks at the relationship between marketing and customer service in the age of consumer control.
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