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22 May 2009

Social Media: overhyped fad or essential tool?

Attended an MBA Association event last night:
Social networking for business – overhyped fad or essential tool? Speakers: Mireia Fontbernat, Paul O’Nolan & Paul TannerLocation: Strand Palace Hotel

In a few words, the speakers confirmed what I already knew or suspected: No one has a clue where online social media is really taking us (and these 3 speakers were no exception). It is not about having a crystal ball but about having a clear understanding of the effects that these social tools have on our societies, and what their generic objectives are.

When the telephone was starting to spread around the world many years ago, one could understand the effect on the society (connect everyone synchronously and speed-up information flows between individuals) and foresee an end-game (everyone being able to call directly anyone else from anywhere). You can't do that for social media today.Maybe it's because it is too soon after the first of these tools were created. But that is my point actually, we need more time to make real sense of it all. In the meantime, if it is important to embrace this online social world, it is no less important to be wary of potential pitfalls. For instance, the more you interact with this world, the more it knows about you. So, for a start, what you need to really keep private, don't put it online (but these pitfalls were not really addressed at the event yesterday either, it was more about what you can effectively do today for your business or for yourself).

I think that what can be said today of the effect (benefit!) of social media is that it transfers power of influence to the individuals, and by extension to communities of individuals.Each of us has potentially the power to influence comparable to politicians or journalists. Recently, Ashton Kutcher (Demi Moore's husband) managed to reach 1 million twitter followers before the News network CNN. I am certainly influencing many more people with this blog than through my physical networking.

What does this mean to businesses? Well, it can be summarized like this: Your company can choose not to know about its customers through social media, but your customers will certainly learn a lot about you online and it won't always be nice stuff! And that, they did illustrate it well at the event last night.

So embrace online social media yes, but not in haste and choose the right tools for the intended audience and purpose.

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