I was talking with some friends about the changes that this past decade has brought and we got to the topic of Facebook and Twitter and all the other social media platforms, and how easy it has made it for us to communicate with all of those distant relationships we have. And even how it helps us create new relationships. As our conversation, as it always does, turned to the question of “how could we have lived without this,” it really got me thinking about other types of communications we have had in society that are similar; their strengths and weaknesses and the lessons for today’s businesses with all the tools we have.
This thought process was running around my brain for a few days until I was out a renaissance fair, and the wandering minstrels crystallized it for me. For much of human society, we’ve had some form of social media – some much better than others.
The minstrels are a great example. They wandered from town to town telling people news from far away. And then listening at each village to pick up new stories to entertain and educate at a future stop. Dropping the old and updating their “act” with the new. Much like your Facebook news page is constantly scrolling with the new.
But then movable type came along and made the minstrels obsolete. The newspaper and then movie reels, radio, and TV made telling the news easier. These mediums were the “social media” in that they gave us the ability to have a shared experience. But it was really a shared listening/watching experience. Not so much about listening to us or letting us communicate with each other.
For a last 100 years or so, the telephone filled that gap of news & entertainment without the ability to provide immediate feedback. We could watch TV or listen to the radio and stay in touch with our voice. As a teenager, how often did you lie on the coach watching a show and talking to a friend on the phone who was watching it too? (Now my kids sit on the couch watching TV and texting their friends – same result, different technology). We adopt the tools in the way we need to be social. And at first the telephone truly was a social network – think about the old “party lines” where everyone heard each other, but it quickly became a 1:1 communication method.
In the 70s, what I think is truly the first modern social network came along. The CB radio. With the CB, you had a way to communicate with people you didn’t know (but who had a “handle” so you could identify them), about information that may be truly valuable (where to eat, where the cops were hiding, etc). It was a medium that let you talk and listen to relevant information and then be able to act. But of course it was a public medium, and like the early telephone party lines, offered no privacy for 1:1 conversations. The CB is still out there for a niche market, but with the creation of the cell phone, the internet, and the resulting merger of the two into a smart phone, it has faded into obscurity.
So full circle back to our social media tools for today. We now have a way to communicate that is multi-modal in that it lets us speak, share pictures and video, and text, and as important, get feedback and inbound communication. And it lets us do this in near real time. Whether you are tweeting, “book-ing,” or blogging, you can share (publish) your thoughts, observations, and opinions. But the thing in all of this that I think is most important for businesses is that you now have a really good way to listen.
That's what's truly, absolutely new and critical for small businesses. You can listen to what customers and potential customers care about – without having to talk directly to them. You can uncover trends that let you get ahead of the competition. You can find the unmet needs. And you can react to them in way that wasn't possible before at the budget most small business had for research (usually zero).
We get asked all the time, “Why should I invest my time in social media?” “Listening” is another of the good reasons. Not because everyone is doing it, but because you can do it, get insights, and react to the market based on the unique value that you and your company bring to the marketplace.
I’d love your thoughts on this… Are there other historical “social media” outlets you can think of? What are the lessons from those that apply today?