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Published October 15th 2018

Martin Thomas on the Importance of Being Boring When it Comes to Social

Martin Thomas is the author of the recently released 'The Financial Times Guide to Social Media Strategy.' Here he shares one of the central issues – the importance of being boring.

When I first started visiting social media agencies it was almost as though everyone had discovered a new religion. There was a sense of evangelism – social media was going to change the world.

It could do anything. The creative possibilities were unlimited. It was new and exciting.

The problem is that most organizations don’t really do ‘new and exciting’. They may aspire to do innovative things and their agency briefs will be peppered with instructions to ‘think out of the box’ and ‘break the rules’, but when it comes day-to-day business, they are far more cautious. This encourages the temptation among some social media evangelists to dismiss these organizations as corporate dinosaurs that just don’t get it, or as too stupid to embrace the wonderful possibilities of social.

The reality is that they are dealing with complex organizational challenges, the competing agendas of compliance and legal experts and a healthy cynicism to unproven ideas. In this climate of caution and over-analysis, even something as compelling as social listening – to my mind one of the most obvious ways in which social media can make a significant impact on corporate performance – can be dismissed as too novel and too risky.

“Social media has become boring”

In his influential book on the impact of technology on human behavior, Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky suggested that “communications tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring.” In a sense, social media has become boring: part of the fabric of everyday business and everyday consumer behavior. It is no longer a novelty technology or a passing fad. This is why it has started to be taken seriously and also why I felt it merited a serious book. The Financial Times Guide to Social Media is designed to be a clinical, sober and hyperbole-free guide to making the most of social. It has been written for an audience that has transitioned from ‘why social?’ to ‘how social?’

The questions I tend to be asked about social listening reflect this transition – people no longer need convincing that it might be useful but want to know how best to analyze, interpret and apply the mountain of social data that is available. It helps that some of the world’s largest brand owners have started to champion its use – for example, in my book I describe how Unilever claims that the use of social listening delivers the same quality of consumer intelligence in half the time and for half of the cost of a conventional research study.

Businesses such as Unilever thrive by being boring – by applying proven, empirically-rigorous techniques to their multi-million-dollar brands. They have some creative fun around the periphery – the occasional PR stunt or outrageous creative execution for one of their less important brands – but boring wins when it comes to sustaining their most important brand assets. They do not take stupid risks or waste money on flimsy research which might give them a false reading of the consumer and market conditions. They do boring stuff like television commercials that have been copy-tested within an inch of their lives, supermarket promotions using proven techniques and new product developments underpinned by exhaustive customer research. In the same way, they no longer see social media listening as experimental, innovative or brave, but as boringly sensible.

The Financial Times Guide to Social Media Strategy: Boost Your Business, Manage Risk and Develop Your Personal Brand, published by FT Publishing International and featuring an (anything but boring) interview with Brandwatch CMO Will McInness, is available on Amazon and from all good book stores.

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