A few nights ago, I had dinner with my wife and some of her company’s vendors. It was a fun, relaxing dinner, and I really enjoyed the conversation, given the fact that I met these people for the first time. Over the course of the evening, there were two conversation themes that were seemingly unrelated, but the more I thought about it afterward, the more they are related.
Conversation Theme #1: Early on in the evening, I was asked, “So, what do you do for work?” When they asked me what I did, I explained that I help my company set and execute on its social media strategy. Sometimes this is met with blank stares, so I give a more simple answer and talk about leveraging interactions on popular social networking sites, blogs, forums, and the like. One person asked me directly, “So, what is social media?” A brief question-and-answer response I came back with was, “Do you ever shop on Amazon.com, and before you buy, you read the reviews of other people first to make sure you’re not going to make a lousy choice?” Nearly everyone nodded their heads. “That’s one form of social media.” Wheels started to turn. They were getting the fact that frequent, easy, and rapid interactions today from consumer to company, and from consumer to consumer were radically different than, say, these kinds of interactions, if at all present, a dozen years ago.
The conversation then shifted to how many people at the table were using Facebook or LinkedIn or Twitter, among others. I don’t know for sure, but my guess was that the median age was mid-to-late 30s for these people. Everyone had heard of these channels, but few were actively involved. I was asked to “explain” Twitter by one of my dining companions, and I did so in two or three sentences. People were genuinely interested, but the common conclusion was “gee, that sounds great, but I just don’t have the time”, or “I get it, I guess, but I just don’t think it’s really for me.” And I accepted that; different strokes for different folks. The part about “not having time” struck me as odd, because – like most things in life – you get out of it what you put in. So if you invest a sliver of time, you get a sliver of reward. If you invest tons of time, you (can) get tons of reward, but often to the detriment of something else in your life. At any rate, the “don’t think it’s really for me” is the segue to Conversation Theme #2.
Conversation Theme #2: The CEO of their company had recently announced he was stepping down to pursue other career aspirations. From what I understand (from the dinner party attendees, as well as my wife who understands the broader space), their former CEO is generally well-liked and engaged with the employees. Since this news was recent, it was a rich topic of discussion. I listened for a while, and then asked, “How did your CEO communicate with the employees?” They listed a few things, but one was “well, he blogs.” I asked if it was more of a push-communication (e.g., no room for comments), or if it was open. The response was that it was open, and many people at the company followed along, and would indeed post comments. And the former CEO would comment back. And commenters would reply to other commenters, etc. One dinner party attendee happily said something to the effect of, “Sometimes, I get to reading the responses, I forget what the original topic was about!” They collectively agreed that he was well-liked, will be missed, and that his transparency with his employees was a hallmark of his career. (Here’s an example of CEO transparency at another company.)
The savvy reader will look at Conversation Theme #1 and Conversation Theme #2 and say, “Wait a second. I thought you said that ‘you don’t have time’, and that ‘you don’t get it’.” That’s exactly what I said to myself, too. Some people with whom I interact get hung up on the technology, but miss the larger point: it’s about interactions and conversations, not “friending” and “tweeting” and the like (as in, don’t mistake the means for the end). One dinner party attendee had said that there isn’t enough time to engage in these channels. Yet, time was found to read the CEO blog and the corresponding comments, replies, and the like.
Yes, I know a CEO blog is not analogous to Twitter. But the point is that they are using social tools and a fundamentally different manner of engagement (than, say, a dozen years ago) and not really realizing it. If the person who asked me, “so, what is social media?” had asked me that question after I heard about their former CEO blogging, I would’ve replied, “interacting with your former CEO and other colleagues through a blog is a pretty good example.” We didn’t have the opportunity to dig into how long it took them to get comfortable with reading the CEO’s blog post, reading comments, posting comments, and the like. But when I heard that people are posting, reading, and replying to comments, and that the people at this dinner party read the blog with regularity, it seems to me, then, that social media is, indeed, “for them”.
I liked what I heard. I liked knowing that employees are interested in hearing or reading what their CEO has to say. I liked hearing that they are making it a two-way or multi-way conversation. I like hearing general interest in this “thing” that is social media, yet they’ve been doing it and not really knowing. Real world examples often trump academia. I hope more CEOs and executives in general start to recognize this.
This was a good dinner. The food was delicious, too.
p.s.: The next day, two of the dinner party attendees created Twitter accounts and began following me and each other! I welcomed them and provided a few resources on where to learn more about using Twitter. Maybe their activity will drop off (statistically, one would be safe betting so), but maybe it won’t. Maybe they’ll use this as another channel to engage with colleagues, competition, news/buzz makers, and the like.