It’s been said before, but the biggest problem facing any organization that wants to use social media is striking the right tone.
Tone (which includes everything from the mediums/platforms chosen to the words/media used) is terribly important because interactions within social media are highly personal and yet lack many of the nonverbal channels that face-to-face communication provides. As a result people are hyper-sensitive to what few nonverbal messages they can glean from an interaction.
The best metaphor I’ve come up with so far to describe the ideal tone is to think of every social media interaction as (1) a conversation at (2) someone’s kitchen table, and (3) the media is standing in the doorway listening in.
Breaking it down:
- A Conversation: every interaction online is a conversation because people have come to expect that communication is now individualized and two-way.
- At a Kitchen Table: social media is more personal than even the front porch or the foyer, it’s taking place in the interior of one’s home. People are disclosing more personal information about themselves, and they expect reciprocity. They also control the venue; if they don’t like your message or approach – they can have you forcibly removed (so behave yourself and be respectful). Finally, being up close and personal means that both you and your message had damn well better be authentic or they’re going to be able to tell.
- The Media Listens: sunlight can fall on virtually every aspect of an interaction with relative ease (most times all it takes is a Google search) – and the evidence of one’s behavior has a virtually infinite shelf life. [Actually, “the media” is more of a placeholder for those who don’t fully comprehend the power of social media to make transparent the opaque. Up until the last decade or so, the only other entity that could easily assemble a mass audience was the traditional media – to hell with individuals. Now the opposite is rapidly becoming the case – “audiences” are too diffused for the traditional media to reach and the power now lies with those whose messages have merit (which can come either from relevance of the message or the credibility of the individual speaking). Citizen journalists can expose disingenuous behavior ].
Apropos of the idea of tone, here are three bits of suggested reading:
- Metaphors we Live By: Words are important ( (it’s a classic and still worth a read) and the way we frame the world with them can determine how successful we are.
- Brian Solis and Deirdre Breakenridge have an excellent section of their new book “Putting the Public Back in Public Relations” where they describe the gravity of the changes PR professionals are facing by arguing that we need to change something as basic as the words we use to describe social media (they suggest striking the words “pitch,” “message,” “audience,” and “user” from one’s vocabulary). I agree: thinking of the world in those terms threatens to derail the tone one must strike within social media.
- How to Lose an Argument Online: in this blog post, Seth Godin perfectly encapsulates the consequences of not heeding the new conventions of social media.