From the outset, the world wide web was designed to be a medium for collaboration and interaction: indeed, one of the main triggers for its initial development was to allow scientists to share their information and research with each other online. This line of thinking has been traced back to a historically significant essay, As We May Think, written in 1945 by Dr Vannevar Bush, the US Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development (a copy of this essay is still available online). Having directed the American scientific community to support the wartime effort, he was concerned with the peacetime application of technology to more constructive means: his ideas included a (hypothetical) model for a ‘collective memory machine’. The video clip below shows an animation – itself made in 1995 – that shows how his machine, the ‘memex’, might have looked and worked: it’s hardly as coolly iconic as an iPad, but modern technology has still barely scratched the surface of some of the ideas his essay contained.
We usually accept that widespread take-up and adoption of different technologies can be unpredictable (we’re still using fax machines, for example, but the idea of micro-payments has been explored for at least 20 years with little sign of mass take-up), but the speed – or lack of it – with which we adopt them can still be surprising. Sci-fi writer William Gibson once memorably observed that “The future is already here – it is just unevenly distributed”, and a look at the invention dates of many everyday items does prove his point (sms messages, 1992; digital camera, 1975; GPS, 1978; credit card, 1950; mobile phone, 1947; microwave oven, 1946; robots, 1921; radio, 1895; battery, 1800).
While new inventions sometimes need mass acceptance to make production costs feasible, in other cases it takes time for people to latch on to the potential applications of a new idea. Sometimes ‘network value’ plays a part: in 1992, you wouldn’t have had many people to send a txt too, even if you had a mobile phone. Yet even after the World Wide Web – which can be seen as bringing many of Vannevar Bush’s ideas to life – was initially created nearly fifty years later, its own early years saw most organisations (whether in the public or private sectors) use it as mostly a broadcast medium that combined approaches drawn from print and television. Most organisations thought of messages only as things to be sent out: if customers got in touch –and most didn’t – it was mostly because they had a problem.
Although academic and computing communities have used online bulletin boards and conferencing systems since the 1980s, it is only in the last few years with the widespread uptake of broadband connections and the dramatic rise of social media that the web has become much more truly interactive. The rise of Facebook, Twitter and blogs have made ‘speaking out publicly’ online a normal part of our lives: we have more opportunities, and fewer inhibitions about taking them. The ability of these new technologies to support direct, quick communication has also started to influence organisational thinking. Marketing departments have begun to see the potential in hearing from customers directly; sales and support teams have latched on to the merits on allowing online communities to create themselves around a brand and its products. Even national and local government department agencies have recognised the advantages of online interaction as part of the broader e-government initiative.
Take, for example, The Government’s Spending Challenge website. Launched in collaboration with Facebook, it has invited suggestions about how to reduce public spending and the Treasury has been surprised at the enthusiastic level of response. So far, over 100,000 contributions have been posted – which the use online technology makes it easy to capture into databases and applications where they can be ‘data mined’ in ways that would never be possible if everyone has simply written to the MP.
Yet even this is, in many ways, a modest example: the site itself is low-key – and currently closed for new comments (as is the Facebook page, both of which – like the corresponding YouTube channel – have attracted satirical contributions). Much as the Spending Challenge has been an interesting experiment in allowing the wider public to contribute their own voice and opinions, it has – at least in social media/marketing terms – missed an important trick. The approach has been to effectively reverse the ‘broadcasting’ model: the public has broadcast at the Treasury, who will now (it seems) go away and ponder its reaction in silence. Of course, a country and its economy are more complicated things to run than most organisations: the parallel is unfairly onerous. Other organisations provide examples that may have slightly lower public profiles – the Spending Challenge was recently the lead news item on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme – but provide more helpful models.
Many companies provide products or services that are of significant professional or personal interest to their customers – and these can be as diverse as festivals or charity events, musical instruments, software packages, cars, reality television programmes, health care or baby equipment. And anything that can have a fan can have a fan club (US marketing guru Seth Godin refers to these as ‘tribes’). Social media – online forums, Facebook groups, Twitter feeds, YouTube channels – create places where these tribes can gather and talk – not just amongst themselves but the organisations that have brought them into being, intentionally or not! (Most of these systems also have rating systems as well as means of adding comments: if something generates immediate appeal – or disapproval – it can be easy to identify.
Although all these channels are opportunities for criticism, organisations should also remember that they – and their products and services – will almost certainly be discussed online, whether or not they join the conversation. Most organisations have traditionally complained that it is difficult to understand their market and their customers’ real reactions and needs: while the rise of social media means that the criticisms are now often ‘out there’ for everyone to see, an organisation’s lack of response will also be visible (and a company that appears to be ignorant of what is being said about it may well attract further criticism). As Oscar Wilde noted, decades before Facebook (or the PC), “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”
The Internet is not about to go away, but it is changing the focus of reputation management from ‘minimising the damage’ to ‘trying not to cause the damage in the first place and building something more positive instead’. Given the feedback that can be gathered – and the constructive or helpful feedback that can be provided – actively embracing social media should be a positive move for many organisations. Using the web’s abilities to support interaction and engagement will require a commitment of time (and a commitment to transparency and honesty), familiarisation with social media etiquette and the development of social media guidelines for staff, but the benefits in building an active community that supports on-going relationships with existing customers – and attracts new ones by power of demonstration – are worth serious investigation. The Treasury Spending Challenge may have been an exercise in ‘crowdsourcing’ – drawing together the ideas and suggestions from a wide group – but this doesn’t have to be just input: it can be dialogue too.
The web is now also a much richer experience: broadband means streaming audio and video are practicable options for getting across highly engaging messages that go far beyond just text and pictures – product demonstrations, ‘how to’ videos, even 3d flythroughs of proposed building developments. A glossy brochure through your door from your local authority with a 2d picture of a proposed new shopping centre or bus station may encourage you to let them have your comments, but that means writing a letter, finding a stamp and posting it. A local authority website or YouTube channel with a video showing the new building in 3d not only gives you a much clearer idea of how it will look and the impact it will have on your local community, but it also means you only have to scroll down a centimetre or two and start typing your comments. What’s more, you can read and respond to the existing comments of others, and the responses from your local authority. All without anyone walking to the postbox.
If you’d like to talk to us about ways in which integrating social media and other ways of engaging greater interactivity into your online presence can help your organisation, please contact us directly.