I wasn’t born a digital native; like others of my generation I’ve had to learn the language of technology and the social media age.
As an old-school journalist I’m fascinated by the rapid evolution of communication tools, and the deeper shifts their arrival is driving in human behaviour. On one hand, we've never been more connected. On the other, that very connectedness risks diminishing the true connection of person-to-person interactions.
I've just had the privilege of chairing the Australian Social Media Best Practice Toolkit – a think-tank that brought together an array of leading digital communicators. The insights shared highlighted key changes impacting our world right now - some subtle, and others more in-your-face.
The rules of news have changed. Back when I was a reporter, we’d sell our grandmother to get a story first. We even jostled within our own organization – in my case a TV station – to get our story higher up the running order for that night’s news. Getting the lead story was the ultimate prize, especially if it was an “exclusive” that none of the competition had.
Now, with traditional media platforms shrinking and news organizations channeling their efforts into the social space, the measures of an effective news story have shifted. What’s an “exclusive” any more, when the whole world is one giant media outlet? Chances are, if you report on an issue, it’s already appeared somewhere on social media. And who cares about making the front page when most people are no longer reading newspapers in physical form?
One journo from a major mainstream media outlet commented recently that it’s now far less important that he gets a story before his competitors. For him and his employer, it’s all about the likes and shares the online version of the story attracts. Clickability is a key measure of newsworthiness.
Thumb-stoppers are show-stoppers. Our attention spans have shrunk in proportion to the roar and speed of information storming through our devices with every heartbeat. The world has gone mad for video, as long as you can get people’s attention in the first three seconds.
This has given rise to terms like “thumb-stopping creative” – which you need if you have any hope of getting someone to glance at the opening seconds of your digital creation while they’re scrolling through their news feed. In that instant, you need to offer up an object so glittering it compels immediate, if fleeting, interest.
Customer service is now on steroids. Large service-driven organizations with traditional customer service structures are smashing through their own conventions and approval processes when it comes to social media. No-one wants a bad rap online, and some are going a very long way to avoid it – pulling off extraordinary feats of customer care in the way they respond to posts and tweets.
“We want to be able to fix what people are saying in that very moment,” said one speaker at the Toolkit event. In some cases, people are posting on social media while they’re on hold to the business’s call centre, and their problems are being addressed instantly, before they even get through on the phone. In that organization, the rule of thumb is that any response to a post with an audience bigger than a thousand has to get approval from someone higher up the chain of command.
Social media behaviour is directly influenced by the business leader. If the boss is social-savvy, there’s a good chance the organization as a whole will be on the front foot in that space.
“Creating a social business needs to be leadership led,” says Dionne Lew, author of The Social Executive – how to master social media and why it’s good for business. The bad news? Depending on which report you read, only about 12 per cent of leaders in Australia are using social media.
The words of strangers have phenomenal clout. Five years ago, if you’d told me I would soon seek out the opinions of people I had never met - expressed through one-sentence comments - before spending thousands of dollars on travel bookings, I would have called you crazy. Peer to peer credibility has soared to dizzy heights.
"We value virtual trust as highly as face to face trust," says Ms Lew. There's recognition that the third party recommending a particular hotel or restaurant has no investment in the outcome. They don't even know who they're recommending it to. "For millennials, virtual trust matters even more. Legitimate views are one of the most powerful drivers of behaviour around the world."
* * * * *
It's easy to get caught up in the excitement, wonder, or just plain overwhelm of the technological onslaught transforming our world. Look deeper, beyond the tools. Those businesses that recognise critical shifts, rather than simply dwelling on the surface changes, are more likely to stay ahead of the herd.