Are we at a similar stage to 1780? – Have we just completed a cycle of 230 years? Back in the late 1700’s the shoots of the Industrial Revolution began to appear. Factories started to emerge and dot the landscape, and the whole fabric of society started to change significantly in a way that shaped our modern world.
With the impact of second stage web development, dialogue through connected global networks enabled through social media, has created a fully interactive dynamic that provides a live connection between the customer and business owner. This matters on account of its visibility to the market and its resonance amongst their respective communities and stakeholders. It’s this combination of potential mass and common interest that creates a powerful wave, a force that can change the tide of markets, opinion, and buying behaviour – and that’s why business owners need to understand the true import of the ‘social media’ development, and how it has to be considered when formulating business strategies, marketing programmes, or communication approaches. Social media is not just an online communication channel, but a strategic driver that affects culture and how organisations need to operate to remain relevant, valued, and competitive. Remember the arrival of web as we stepped from the 1990’s into 2000’s? The web initially viewed as a communications platform, very quickly became a sales platform, a delivery channel, and opened up the global market that introduced new business models and brands we hadn’t dreamed of. And in turn redefined market models that saw the rapid decline of some traditionally strong sectors (e.g. postal services), shifted customer buying behaviour into new environments (air travel, book and music retail), and reinvented sectors that had been restricted by legislation and traditional niches (gambling). So how is this similar to 1780?
Well, this occurred to me listening to the undercurrent of bubbling enthusiasm in many quarters, and observing many attempts to capitalise on the developments happening as we speak. Noticeably in the entrepreneur space where new start-ups are looking for the next ‘big thing’, and given the dramatic successes of online and digital product, social media fulfils the next logical step. It also appeals to the small business owner because it focuses on the individual, has minimal upfront cost, and has the potential to propel an individual onto a global stage thereby attracting the attention and rewards this exposure potentially offers. You just have to look at the phenomenal success of Lily Allen who used MySpace to launch her music career, and the reaction of the millions to Susan Boyle’s appearance on UK TV talent show Britain’s Got Talent through YouTube to appreciate why those with an entrepreneurial mindset would be excited by the possibilities social media can offer. Social media itself has attracted those from the marketing communications disciplines – public relations, digital marketing, online – who have all collided and are trying to make sense of, and work out where it fits in the marketing armoury. While doing so trying to establish who ‘owns’ the social media function, determining how to make it successful, while setting out an accepted culture and learning behaviours of best practice along the way. And out of this cocktail of activity you get very excitable debates about the ‘New World Order’ with pronouncements heralding the end of the ‘old ways’, and declarations that;
- “Now businesses need to engage with everyone on an individual basis, and value one-to-one relationships”
- “It’s no longer ‘one-size-fits-all’ when creating product, or communicating with customers”
- “Recommendation and advocacy of your products and brand by a networked community is critical to commercial success”
- “The individual voice is now empowered by their connectivity, and businesses need to appreciate the implication of their engagement with an individual”
- “Personal reputation needs to be cultivated, and managed – the individual needs to invest in their reputation through open dialogue, and reinforce a credible presence by maintaining transparency, and a sharing mentality demonstrated by contributing what is deemed to be of value”
- “Accept that ‘complete control’ around the messaging and discussion about the business, brand, or issue, can no longer be dictated by the owner”
- “Be mindful that everyone in your business is an ambassador and may express themselves in their own way, so under the scrutiny of an increasingly transparent business environment, employees need to be given the appropriate guidance and support so their conduct enhances business reputation, not compromise it.”
To some many of these developments appear very new, even groundbreaking. To others, it’s just another twist in the ever-changing evolutionary push forward. However, the notable departure is from the status quo of the 20th century into which we were born and brought up, a world we’ve accepted as normal – where standardised one-way communications, supporting mass market produced goods, where brands were nurtured and guarded within a corporate fortress, and a ‘command & control’ culture ensured the big-hitting corporations became impenetrable vehicles that shaped the markets in their favour. Word-of-mouth was inconsequential to the juggernauts of big business, and criticism from individuals would bounce off with little effect. But now social media has galvanised the voices of the many and turned word-of-mouth, the oldest and most relied upon means of doing business across the globe, into a highly powerful force that can now punch its weight and take on big business, governments, and global brands and win. And this is where I see the correlation with 1780 at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Business was conducted through who you knew, where personal reputation was paramount, where alliances and advocacy were the order of the day. Coupled with the arrival of technology, water and steam powered machines that drove production, and the delivery platform of the British Empire the small manufacturing business could reach out and do business with the rest of the world. In doing so, this introduced a step-change in history changing artisan driven, local economies into industrial national, and international orientated economies.
In 2012, we now have the benefit of learning from the past 230 years. Faced with a similar situation our predecessors faced in 1780, key questions arise – How should we proceed? Will any paradigm shifts occur in our thinking or approach?