It’s time to break the broadcast habit

Posted on December 18, 2007 7:54 am by | Internal | Participatory Communication | Social Media

The habit of communicating via broadcast is hard to break. Even as some companies embrace the ethos of social media, they employ broadcast models in their efforts to participate in it. Facebook apps, for example, are a means of injecting a message into a medium used primarily for conversation. There’s nothing wrong with that; in fact, a study from the American Marketing Association suggests a lot of people like ads and apps in social networks: 47% of social network users would use their network to download coupons and 45% would be happy to get information about store promotions.

But getting a message in front of people in a manner that appeals to them isn’t the same as participating in the conversation. And even when companies do participate, a lot of that participation is forced even if it is sincere. Blogger outreach campaigns, for example, broadcast invitations to carefully selected bloggers in the hopes that they’ll help create buzz, get people talking. Again, that’s fine, and there are plenty of case studies that show blogger outreach can be done right.

Jonathan Crow’s experiment

Jonathan Crow’s experiment in driving messages through social media got me thinking about these things. Crow joined one social network after another, rapidly populating them with contacts, then tried to push out three messages through those networks. First, he wanted to identify a case study to include in a magazine interview. Second, he wanted to distribute a press release along with some blog posts. Finally, he wanted to establish some connections in Latin America in hopes of driving some business.

The results, Crow reports, were not encouraging. The first two, he says, “were unqualified failures.” He did make some Latin American contacts, thanks to the more influential members of the circles he had joined.

Crow has assembled a panel of communicators to evaluate five aspects of his experiment. Their commentary makes for good reading.

I’m not surprised that Crow’s experiment mostly failed. The whole basis of the experiment was broadcasting to an audience of contacts through the networks to which they belonged. Meanwhile, the members of those various networks aren’t engaged in a lot of individual broadcasting. They’re engaged with one another in an ongoing relationship. How much better would Crow’s results have been had he been a long-standing member of the community sharing things that interested him rather than an online Johnny Appleseed, dropping by every network he could find to try planting seeds?

Influence through example

While organizations do need to convey messages, broadcast is becoming a less and less effective way to get them across. Influence happens in conversations these days. Organizations’ best chance to ensure messages are consistent and understandable is through engagement. Albert Schweitzer wrote, “Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing.” A more organic business approach to participating with customers and others online affords companies the opportunity to influence through example.

Here’s what I mean: About a year ago I posted an item to my travel blog about Park ‘N Fly, the off-airport parking service I patronize. I was not a happy guy, left standing at the curb after midnight waiting nearly an hour for a shuttle that was supposed to pick me up within five minutes of calling. The first comment to the post was from Caryn Healy, who works in sales and marketing at Park ‘N Fly. She apologized, insisted that the company was working hard to get its customer service act together, offered some free parking coupons and asked for a second chance. The comment was sincere; it was a real person talking with me. When I talk about Park ‘N Fly these days, I talk about Caryn, not my hour in the cold. And if Caryn happened to reach out to me now with information about new customer service initiatives, I’d be very receptive to them—far more so than if she cold-friended me on Facebook, the hit me with a press release.

Another example: Years ago, Adobe employed a group of tech support specialists whose job was to troll forums and message boards looking for people having problems with their Adobe products, then jump in with the solution. (I don’t know if the group still exists, but I can hope.)

The big mindshift

Still, even among most of the companies involved in social media through blogs and other networks, broadcast prevails. At Southwest Airlines, for example—a company with a very good blog, an apparent solid understanding of social media, and employees who are passionate about their employer—employee access to YouTube is blocked. That prevents employees from (among other things) commenting on videos about air travel. (A search of “Southwest Airlines” turns up 728 videos.) That’s a wasted opportunity.

This doesn’t mean companies should just turn employees loose. In fact, it means there is a critical new role for employee communications professionals to play. Internal communicators need to…

  • Help employees understand the scope and nature of the social media space and the kind of impact their participation can have
  • Ensure employees have access to information and resources that help them share accurate information in their posts and comments
  • Clarify the organization’s positions and priorities
  • Keep employees up to speed on news and issues people outside the company may be interested in or talk about

While it’s impossible to control conversations employees are engaged in, their authentic participation is what customers and others are looking for and ultimately will have a greater impact than the broadcast approach at the heart of Crow’s experiment. Organizations are made up of people and it is people who are exchanging information and ideas online. The organizations that succeed in social networks will be those that view themselves as participants, not interlopers. It’s a significant mindshift for organizations, requiring them to trust their employees and encourage access to social networks rather than block it. Even those companies not ready for that leap need to encourage those who do represent the company online to do less distribution of information in favor of dialogue. Those organizations that make the shift while still applying traditional communication models that still work, however, will be poised to win.



  • 1.Naked PR’s Jenn Mattern had a great post yesterday that pretty much sums up my attitude about Twitter.
    I’ve struggled with Twitter. I want to like it. Some of my best friends (and “friends”) are Twitter-ers. So, a couple weeks a...

  • 2.It seems like your thinking has evolved quite a bit over the last twelve months. Looking back at the Stowe Boyd brouhaha, you took a pretty strong stand on the value/importance of message targeting (imo, your position was right on target). Also, while somewhat participatory, the blogger relations campaign you did for was basically the kind of campaign that you mention in your second paragraph.

    To go from those two examples to "It's time to break the broadcast habit," seems like a pretty fundamental shift in thinking. Am I misunderstanding what your getting at? If not, what's changed your mind?

    Paul | December 2007

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