The ‘unauthorized’ image: Is this a social media disaster, or opportunity?

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slipforming site
slipforming site
This social media image would not likely qualify for any corporate site.

As business-to-business (or business-to-government, or business-to-consumer) marketers, our primary goal is (or should be) to sustainably improve our enterprises’ profitability. We can achieve these results by (a) increasing sales or  (b) reducing sales costs. The challenge here is that the best marketing often produces indirect results. Our brand-building initiatives may increase client trust so that sales resistance is lower (and repeat business is higher) but the relationship between the marketing initiatives and overall business strategies and relationships is often quite hard to measure.

Then we throw social media in the mix. I’ve seen plenty of businesses and organizations set up sophisticated “social media strategies” but when I ask them if they have measured any meaningful business results from the initaitves, I get blank stares.

On the other hand, I’ve seen some intriguing business/marketing successes resulting from social media — but these are in the informal, rather than formal space.

Consider my conversation this week with Brandon Gambini, a concrete slip-forming machinery consultant, whose home city is Sudbury, but has spent the last few years travelling around the world (he is currently in Australia) teaching companies how to use the specialized heavy construction equipment. (Note: Gambini certainly did not send me the picture I used here — I discovered it on my own through a simple Facebook search.)

My video from our conversation is less-than-perfect in quality. I reached him via Skype in the early hours of the morning (Australian time). However, his story explains something about how social media is changing the way we do business.

Gambini says he originally joined a Facebook group started by another user of one manufacturer’s slipforming equipment. The users, not the corporation, started the site, sharing knowledge, tips, practical information, and lots of pictures (some of which might not meet corporate approval standards, like the one I selected for this post.)

The group combines personal jibes, practical discussions, and images — and a bit of hockey talk. Through it, Gambini says he has made connections which have resulted in his international consulting contracts.

Conversely, I’ve viewed a number of “official” architectural, engineering and construction social media sites from companies and organizations. They are bland, boring, careful, often ignored. They lack heart. They are focused on “protecting the company brand” and “remaining in touch with social media” but anyone viewing these sites can see they are utterly disconnected from their clients.

Other businesses — especially in the retail and business-to-consumer sectors — have spent small fortunes to “get it right” and to some extent they do. They have some more interaction, a more natural feel and perhaps some constructive connection and relationship with clients. As well, of course, there are some businesses which live by and for social media — Facebook is a business itself (a big one, at that.)

Nevertheless, the more I study this phenomena, the more I realize that social media is best practiced as a grass-roots-down-to-earth activity. For individual businesses, this means that the corporate controls need to be lightened and employees have to be trusted to do their own thing without looking at the corporate rule-book. Of course, this can be risky — a loose cannon can create havoc with ill-advised or offensive activities or postings. On the other hand, the informal communities will occur regardless, perhaps even in the most unexpected places — and these will always have far more authenticity than those controlled by corporate-speaking marketing executives.

Sure, we can spend a small fortune on an effective social media strategy. That fortune, however, will only be well-spent if we truly create that informal feel, or respond to the spontaneous and client-generated activities, even when the images may not meet corporate quality control standards.

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