A Glimpse of the Future

I think it’s fair to say that the world of social media has a tendency to drown most people in the details. Conversations with friend and clients on the topic are often about the latest tools and trends rather than how they are fit together in one coherent strategy. I think this is happening because, for all the chatter, there is still not a coherent vision as to where it all might be going. I’d like to take a stab as to how this might all work out, at least when it comes to selling products in a new kind of economy.

Creating a strategy around all the new tools available to us is a topic that I love to teach people about, preferably as paying clients. It’s not all that hard if you approach it properly. Primarily, it’s like everything else that I write about – connections between people and each other, connections between people and ideas, connections between people and products. In all cases, it focuses on people and the spaces inbetween, gaps that are usually filled by the ability to tell a story. Teaching how to make use of this is a process of empowerment.

We’ve seen a kind of empowerment model change the way businesses operate once before, at the beginning of my career as an engineer. In the 1980s, the manufacturing world was swept by the ideas of W Edward Deming, a visionary in what we now might call “Total Quality Management” or TQM. Before this change, the old system of assigned quality to a distinct “Quality Control” group, a small number of people who managed from the top down accepting or rejecting widgets that were produced by workers whose jobs were narrowly defined as production.

TQM made quality everyone’s job. Any one worker could shut the whole operation down if there was a problem they couldn’t fix because everyone was completely responsible not just for turning out a product, but a quality product. This meant that workers had to be taught a few basic skills, including some elementary statistics, but that challenge proved a lot easier than originally thought. The old QC Department took on a coaching and auditing role that oversaw the development of skills as much as products.

How might this apply to social media? By giving a role in crafting and distributing the sales message to everyone who works in an organization. The tools to do this are all in front of us right now in social media.

The center of any good social media strategy is the community, the people that define the business. It goes without saying that the team of employees who make up a company are at the core of that community, especially in industries that involve retail or service. Any successful message will involve them heavily, meaning that transparency from employee to customer is very important. Once you have employees writing blog entries telling the world who they are, what they do, and why they love it you have the core of a community that reaches out to customers rather than tell them what they should buy.

That’s when social media becomes effective. That’s empowerment.

It may seem strange to compare the future of social media marketing to TQM, but they have always been closely aligned. When the auto industry started adopting the new quality systems, one of the first outward signs were commercials such as Ford’s “Quality is Job One” that featured line workers telling the teevee world what made them proud to be part of the new organization. We could see in the recent downturn how a generation of such changes helped Ford when they were the only car company to say, “No, thank you, we’re OK” when bailout money was offered. Quality was job one, but telling the world about that quality was a close second. With new tools and a new focus, any company can do exactly the same thing.

That doesn’t mean that the traditional advertising systems will go away. What it does mean is that, much like the old QC department, advertising will move towards a process of strategic focus, skill development, and monitoring how effectively the message is getting out. The old days of telling people what to buy will be over.

I call this approach “Total Marketing” in a nod to Demming, but I’m sure that as it develops a better handle will come along. For now, this is what I teach my clients. Yes, it means that your employees in all functions have to learn a little bit about how it all works, but the skills of telling a story and social media are not all that hard. It’s not only empowering, it’s invigorating. And it’s a lot more interesting to dive in and do it than discussing a bewildering array of details.

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