Understanding Social Media

I just cannot stand companies who want to be on the internet and social media but don’t understand how it works. In many cases you can see companies who probably have some bigwig or PR team somewhere that has decided to be on social media but not want to spend any time or money on it, let alone understand it.

I started out on the internet way before it was ‘a thing’. This was when Arpanet was just for defence, and later on used by academics and scientists to share research and their hobbies, and no one else was interested. Who had the time to learn Lynx and Pine when no one you knew was on it and it was not pretty to look at? And companies did not give it a second glance because they could not see money in it.

Then boom! Windows arrived, it was all pretty and the WWW took off. Suddenly companies realized there was money to be made and there they all were, wandering around this new world like pioneers, not knowing how it worked and creating rules as they went. Unfortunately for them in many cases it was the users who made the rules and not Big Money.  Huge newspaper companies, for example, could not understand that people did not want to pay for news on the internet. It had always been free so why pay for it suddenly? Initially they did not want to invest in it because they could not see financial return. But then when everyone else was on it they felt they had to be on it too. Only those who understood the medium made a success of it. And the ones who succeeded realized they had to update fast and create a community. The immediate return was not a financial one. The money had to come via different channels – not by charging for content.

In my case, I was one of the team who brought the internet to Africa in November 1991. I worked at Rhodes University in South Africa and I used to have to beg people to get an email address. They would say to me ‘What’s the point? No one else has one!’ Sometimes I would have to send people a fax to tell them they had an email! Some academics used to love it as it enabled them to share research with colleagues all over the world. But it passed most people by.

Then Guy Berger returned from political exile in the UK to the Rhodes University Department of Journalism and Media Studies, saw what we were doing and offered me a job because he had taught me journalism many years previously. I learned HTML, found some likeminded people in the department and was itching to put a newspaper online. None of the big papers were interested because they could not see the money in it. In the end the first newspaper to be put online in Africa was not a famous one but a township paper called Grab, put online by a group of township teenagers we had trained. No one else was interested for a long time.

I taught the first Computer Aided Reseach and Reporting (CARR) course in Africa, teaching students how to research and report online and how to write for online readers. They were eminently employable when they graduated. This led to newspaper companies hiring me to teach their staff CARR as well. I even taught Nelson Mandela’s staff CARR – he was very forward-thinking in that regard.

IT 1994
The team that brought the internet to Africa in 1991. I am in the blue shirt and grey jeans at the front, and in the middle of the back row is my then-boss Mike Lawrie (pronounced Lorry). Miss Carr and Mr Lawrie used to cause great hilarity. Prior to that I used to (I kid you not) work at the Transport Office and after that I taught CARR (Computer Aided Research and Reporting)
The New Media contigent at Rhodes University University of Journalism and Media Studies. From left to right the Director of the New Media Lab, Roland Stanbridge,  the Head of the Photography section, Monty Cooper (he died of malaria after a trip to Angola and Mocamebique to teach New Media), me (Network Manager and CARR lecturer), Brett Lock (developed the first African search engine, Gogga and taught Destop Publishing) and Guy Berger (now Director of Press Freedom and Media Development at UNESCO)

Similar things were happening in Europe. Mark Comerford at Stockholm University was in much the same position. None of the Swedish papers were interested in going online. In the end he put Aftonbladet (the first online newspaper in Eurpope) online in 1994 as a research project. As soon as the other newspapers realized it was popular they started complaining about him putting Aftonblade online and not them – despite the fact that no one was interested before!

Mark in grey sweatshirt

The upshot was that in 1998 I was named one of the top women worldwide in New Media and was invited by Mark Comerford to Sweden to present a paper on the impact of the internet on journalism and democracy in Sweden. I ended up marrying him and changing my career to what I do now, but that is a story for another time. I am no longer an expert in social media apart from as a user. But I use it quite a lot.

To a large extent the problem with internet shopping and social media presence at the moment is the same as it was in the 1990s. They don’t understand the medium. Companies who answer their phones and deal with customers in their shops often don’t understand that a web shop or a Facebook account is the same thing. You need to interact, to engage and to do things such as answering messages, mails and posts. The customers think you as a company are on social media so I should be able to ask you questions on your Facebook page and receive an answer. The companies think okay we are on social media. Let’s get someone to spend an hour a week posting press releases to Facebook, Twitter etc. That’s all we need. Don’t waste more time or money than that. They see it as a traditional one way medium – we advertise, you buy. But instead it should be we all interact with each other and you may buy eventually after building a relationship I wonder why they don’t realize that you need to be there engaging with your readers regularly and frequently?

Ashton Kutchner was really big on Twitter until he said a few unwise things and his management and PR ‘team’ look over his account and took all the personality away. Mulberry chose Cara Delevingne to design their bags this season and be their face NOT because she is any great shakes as a designer (she isn’t), but because she has a gazillion Instagram followers who hang on her every word. It is free publicity for Mulberry. Artists such as One Direction and Justin Bieber interact personally with their enormous fan base in a way that was not possible for artists before. Fans soon realize if that task has been taken over by a faceless PR team. And they don’t like it.

I am regularly asked to do social media for companies. But they seldom understand how it works. Their first thought is always how do we make money from this? And if they cannot directly see a financial return they are not prepared to invest time or money. And sometimes the people they choose to do this do not understand how it works either. The number of companies on Facebook who register personal accounts and then join groups which they spam with ads instead of interacting and then wonder why they are banned all over the place, is staggering. Or companies allocate a fixed time for social media. Say an hour or two a week – for Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, a Blog, Facebook and YouTube videos. When you explain that it is constant – updating, interacting, answering questions, writing articles, filming videos, chatting, answering private messages – they look at you blankly. What they want is for you to use these channels to distribute press releases. What they need is for you to interact and build communities. In these cases I say no. It is not enough to be able to say you are on social media and put the icons on your web page. You have to BE on social media. It takes a lot of time and effort.

Some of the common mistakes I cannot stand are:

  • companies who act as though answering emails is optional. To me an email is just as important as a phone call.
  • companies who ignore emails about problems or requests for refunds but always answer quickly when you want to buy something. Unusually often the cause is said to be ‘server problems’ or ‘disappearing emails’. Strange that only the complaining mails cause this to happen.
  • companies who have a Facebook page or Twitter account but use them as a channels to publish press releases. They do not answer any questions posted on their  accounts and in some cases, do not allow people to post on their pages, except when responding to press releases.
  • companies who use a personal Facebook account as a business account, joining groups to spam their products
  • companies who don’t realize that fans of a product collect in interest groups and blog, Tweet and Instagram about good service, bad websites and mediocre products.
  • companies who don’t realize that good feedback on social media is worth more in sales and goodwill than every single PR company you can hire to spin your product.
  • companies who do not take their web shop seriously. In many cases an online shop will sell more than a brick and mortar shop so you need to have good photographs, have easy to find pricing and shipping details and answer your emails.
  • companies who choose form over function for their web shop. I don’t want to have to negotiate minutes of  splash pages, noisy audio or award winning bells and whistle images from PR and web design agencies to attempt to find the products in a webshop – I want to find the product, be able to see it from all angles and be able to buy it. Quickly and easily. I want FAQs, easy to read text and colours that don’t make my eyes bleed.


Author: Janet Carr

Fashion, beauty and animal loving language consultant from South Africa living in Stockholm, Sweden.

5 thoughts

  1. I have been having a problem with a UK company… and funnily enough it wasn’t until I put a message up on their FB page that someone got back to me.. Strangely they had a lot of old phone numbers on their website and wondered why no one was calling them regarding courses….. wait for it they taught business management… as well as other courses… Nobody knew or knows why the numbers are wrong yet expect the general public to know which phones are active or not… Crazy ….

    1. That is really interesting. I find that more of my students respond to FB messages than emails. They say that they get too much spam via email and things disappear into junk folders so they don’t trust it

  2. Thank you so much for your reply! It is so nice to hear others feel the same way. I cannot tell you the number of people who say to me ‘I want to start a blog so I can make some money’. They are looking at it from the wrong end I think.

  3. Totally agree. I own a small business myself and have to manage my business FB. Fellow SME people always ask me ‘how much return you get from FB a year?’
    I always say I don’t know.
    Because it’s not about direct money return, there is no concrete figure. I can’t show you the return in a chart or excel or whatever. But I established a community. I have close to 1000 followers who are all passionate about one thing – cat. And we all chat on daily basis. Some of them turn into customer of course, but some might not need my service but will tell their friends about me, etc. So the return might not be direct.
    Like you said, FB is like a shop front. It’s like asking how many customers entering your shop before one buy sometime. Who knows? On a good day, everyone of them; on a bad day, no one. Some might browse and come back later in a year time, some might tell their friends about your shop, etc.
    More importantly, companies don’t understand FB has become the new ‘testimonial page’.
    I am seriously considering removing the ‘testimonial page’ on my business website coz no one is looking at it! All of my new customers for the past 2 years told me they check on FB and see I have real customers chatting with me and they seem happy and they seem to like me a lot. They shoot me an email and book my service. The end.
    You are right, many old fashioned PR people can’t get their head around it though. They are still about press release to newspaper or radio etc.
    I don’t know anyone under the age of 35 reading an actual paper newspaper…

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