Social Media Meets Main Street–Or Does It?

April 16, 2009

Don’t miss Robert Scoble’s great piece on how leading tech bloggers and tech gurus often utterly fail to communicate effectively with Main Street businesses.  Here’s his question, which is part lament: 

It’s to the point where I’m wondering if I’m missing something. Is anyone doing a good job of explaining how to bring a business into the modern age?  

AxisPortals suggests taking the time to read the ensuing comments, as well. There, Ken Camp proposes a provocative alternate take:

I’m not convinced every business needs or wants the web. It’s a tool and has value, but if the return on the value is minimal for a business doing well . . . the ROI/ROE may not be worth the investment to embrace social media.

Five minutes on Twitter means encountering scores of tweets pointing to web sites and blog posts about how to increase social media followers or how to transform a blog into a money making venture.    That can get to be a long five minutes.

In many respects, tech blogs and the tweets that relentlessly point to them form an enormous (and growing) echo chamber of tech-to-tech noise. There’s not much opportunity for a Main Street type business owner who is not interested in becoming the latest and greates tech guru to learn anything of specific value to his or her business enterprise.  Worse, the chatter can be confusing.  

It strikes me that to the extent that tech bloggers really aren’t connecting with business owners, this is true because tech bloggers deal in broad trends and issues. Conversely, how (or whether) a blog, a Facebook presence, or other embedded web interactivity can serve a given business is all about particulars.  

Exploring those particulars with a business owner, and guiding a given business toward building an overall IT profile that is effective,  economically feasible, and flexible enough to evolve along with the business requires rolling up the shirt sleeves and digging in.  It’s a matter of nitty gritty details. It’s a matter of practice.  

Often, too, it’s a matter of teaching.  

It can be difficult for tech leaders and trend setters who are wont to focus on a much bigger picture to manage this down and dirty teaching effectively. Imagine your favorite tech guru taking on the following teaching tasks: 

  • Defining Social Networking: Never mind that “Web 2.0” is a term so overused that many of us are loathe to invoke it yet again.  There are still plenty of folks who just don’t get it.  At all.  A person who wants to persuade a business to have a go at the thing will often have to begin with the basics, and then to cope with the inevitable fears and objections:  Won’t interactivity open my product up to criticism?  Won’t this all be terribly time consuming?  Won’t this entail giving away ideas and approaches that I should be selling?  Won’t my competition too easily be able to take my measure?  
  • Defining Blogging:  Yes, most folks have at least heard the term, but an incredible number of them still haven’t the faintest clue, really, about what a blog is or what one can be.  Even the bits and pieces that typically make up a blog will likely have to be explained.  Then comes the challenge of explaining and demonstrating that blogs can actually function in many different ways–practically as many as a person can dream up.  
  • Explaining Search Engines:  Again, everyone uses Google, but few grasp even the basics of how to get a site to show up in search results.  I’ve seen business owners spend hefty sums on web sites that are not only poorly organized and difficult to navigate, but also unlikely to yield desirable results in any popular search engine. Often, these sites are, at first glance, rather pretty.   Not many folks are really equipped to lift the hood and kick the tires, and that lack of technical knowledge makes them vulnerable to the allure of sweet little flash effects that ultimately can’t hide a paucity of content.  The secret?  A person really doesn’t have to be able to make heads or tails of the “neath layer” to make smart administrative decisions.  It’s enough to grasp what ought to happen when the name of the company or its chief operatives are entered into a search engine.  Still, even acquiring that basic end-user ease and confidence can require instruction.
  • Pushing Past Text-Based Understandings:  Not long ago, a business acquaintance who was working on developing a new website proudly informed me that, because he’d selected the basic “look” of his new site, he was essentially finished–well over half way home, he figured, and he couldn’t wait to be done. When I asked about the content and how it would jibe with the look he noted that not a shred of content had yet been developed.  In my experience, this colleague is fairly typical of business owners who are actually attempting to engage with today’s web.  In short, as these things go, his understanding is fairly advanced.  Notice, though, the difficulties.  First off, he’s thinking that a web site is the whole of the task, and that web presence is something that can be finished.  You create the look–just a container, really–and then you stick content inside of it, and then you publish the thing, pass the web address around, and that’s it.  I suggested that there was a good way to go yet, and explained that, unlike a print publication which is developed in toto and then distrubuted, web presence (of any sort) is never really done, and is constantly being distributed even as it’s in the process of being constantly developed.  Sounds simple, but that’s a great big new idea for lots of business owners, who are often deliriously happy just to have a reasonably sharp looking website up and running, and who often pay a pretty penny for sites that will be designed once, published once, and entirely forgotten about for a few years, when the whole process will begin again.
  • Halting the “Just Throw Money At It and It Will Be Okay” Phenomenon:  It’s all too easy for folks who are just looking to make money to take advantage of the technologically interested but overwhelmed.  It does seem to me that someone who is really interested in helping businesses discover how to thrive with today’s web tools has to begin by being ethical.  Not everybody really needs every single shiny new toy, and there are plenty of free and inexpensive tools that are well worth exploring.  The deeper cost of becoming a technologically sophisticated business–taking the time to explore these things first hand, to seek the support of more experienced users, and  to develop an approach that suits the business’s goals and culture–is intimidating.  It can seem easier to write a check.  Plenty of folks out there will take that check and leave the harder work undone.
  • And so on:  Working with a group of partners or a sole proprietor?  A former C-Suite type gone entreprenuer or a self-starter from the get go?  A family business or start up? Are there any tech savvy folks among the trusted employees, or no?  Has the owner historically managed his or her own web site?  What other kinds of advertising and marketing campaigns are or aren’t already underway?  Is there a dream of rapid growth, here, or a happily boutique mentality? How clearly defined are the product or service lines?  What kinds of networks (digital or otherwise) have already been established?  All of that really matters.   Which basics to teach and which services to champion depend on the answers to such questions, and no matter which direction proves best, sheparding a business into the technological present requires tact, patience, and a deep appreciation for what it means to be a beginner in this sphere.

There are plenty of folks out here who are, indeed, working hard to bring businesses  into the modern age. That’s the very service AxisPortals sells.  It’s fun and satisfying work, but in some essential ways, it’s not really a tech blog deliverable.  

(AxisPortals is, though, a huge fan of CommonCraft’s series of “In Plain English videos, which promote exactly the sort of learning that’s wanted here, and in delightfully approachable fashion.)

AxisPortals Aphorism:   Bridging the chasm between the Tech Bloggers and the Main Street Merchants requires remembering the very beginnings that Tech Gurus all too easily forget.