Social media: Politics 2.0 and the changing face of business

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I recently attended two very different social media events. The first, the ‘London think-tank summit: at the intersection of traditional and social media’ hosted by the European Parliament, discussed the role that social media can play in influencing public policy and driving awareness campaigns. The second, hosted jointly by Facebook and the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry looked at how businesses can use social media – or more specifically (and rather unsurprisingly), Facebook, to grow a business.

At the EU Parliament summit Cicero’s Chris Jackson compared the business world’s experience of social media to sex – we’re all talking about it, a few of us are doing it and even fewer of us are doing it well. It was also remarked that social media is where the internet was in 1996 – we recognise that it’s incredibly important but we are also still at the beginning of the journey, nobody yet knows where it’s going.

While that may be true in some regard – social media certainly is still young, it makes it all the more exciting and means those who do it best will really reap the benefits.

Time to engage

What is also increasingly apparent is that neither businesses nor policymakers can ignore social media. Tweetminster founder Alberto Nardelli noted that when he launched the platform there was only two MPs on Twitter. Now there are 336, and counting. Social media has reshaped the stakeholder landscape and enhanced accountability. As Nardelli warned, politicians and businesses can ignore what people are saying about them online, but it won’t stop the conversations from happening.

Policymakers are finding new ways to engage with their public. The fact that both events were attended by the incredibly influential – from senior government ministers to Chatham House policywonks shows just how much has changed and how seriously social media is now taken. A few years ago you would have only expected tech enthusiasts.

Colin Stanbridge, Chief Executive of the London Chamber of Commerce, pointed out that Facebook contributed £2.5bn to the British economy last year and referenced a Deloitte study which found it also supports 18,400 jobs. This is the reality of social media now – it is no longer just way to idle away a few hours, but a major economic player. Businesses can ignore that at their own peril.

Campaigning

A social media presence is only the first step on the ladder. The difference between success and failure can come down to how well you execute your campaigns. Both events highlighted great examples of innovative social media use by brands and issue groups alike.

What’s refreshing is that the most eye-catching and creative campaigns aren’t necessarily the most expensive. Often the most successful are those that capture the heart, and emotions, of the public, stakeholders and audience.

The award winning #PastyTax hash tag that led to a very public government U-turn is a great showcase for the power of brevity and exemplifies how important it is to get your message across succinctly. Social media amplified the public voice and broke down the walls of power. It is not simply a broadcast mechanism, but a dialogue.

I learnt that on the other side of the world Sudan Change Now have also been employing fantastic social media ingenuity. The activist group have been crowdsourcing to create live crisis maps of conflict zones and warn citizens of possible dangers, admirably saving lives in the process.

Businesses too can reach out to their market. Many think that only large firms can afford to invest heavily in social media, but I found that Facebook have a dedicated SME team to help smaller enterprises who have fewer resources. They have advised many businesses, such as Tropical Sky, a travel agency. Tropical Sky have since gained over 25,000 Facebook fans owing to a highly visual and interactive page that encourages users to share their wanderlust.

The Challenge

Increasing your social media presence is only part of the challenge. The real task at hand is to engage your audience and develop a level of interaction that in turn delivers tangible results, whether your goals are influencing a policy or selling a product.

Social media is well established but it is still rich in potential. In the future, anybody with a public, be they brands, think-tanks or politicians will have to meet their audience online. Those that apply daring innovation and a receptive ear will best succeed.

Ross Gill is a consultant at corporate communications agency Fishburn Hedges and can be reached on ross.gill@fishburn-hedges.co.uk