Social media and business: new media vs. old

In an article on The Telegraph website (4 Aug 2012), the newspaper’s Digital media Editor, Emma Barnett, discusses the relationship between business and social media. The lead-in to the article reads: “In the same week Twitter has been forced to apologise for prioritising commercial gain over its users, a new study has found businesses are reducing their investment in social media marketing. It’s totally understandable says Emma Barnett”.

It seems to me a poorly written article on an interesting subject. A hint of the article’s weaknesses is to be found in that lead-in. The phrase “In the same week” attempts to present the article as coherent, whereas the author is really yoking together two quite different occurrences. 

The structure of the argument (if it may be called that) is as follows:

1. Twitter has had to apologise to a journalist for criticising the coverage of the Olympics by one of Twitter’s partners;

2. “Such are the growing pains of a company which has yet to crack its revenue model.” 

3. There are lots of tweets and some of them make negative comments about brands…

4. which is “why it is understandable that some companies are beginning to withdraw their investment in promoting themselves on social media sites”…

5. as shown in a new study, “shown exclusively to The Sunday Telegraph” of financial services companies.

6. last month, banks and others suffered a major outage.

7. Twitter overtaken Facebook as a marketing channel of choice.

8. Companies don’t know how to monetise their social media followings.

If you can find coherence in all that, you’re doing better than I did.  I’m glad I wasn’t the editor tasked with the job of giving the article a headline. I would not have been able to find one that encapsulated the article as a whole. In the event, the editor made the best of the bad job and chose a headline that represented just one strand of the article.

What interested me most about the article was the irony of its online publication. For the text is followed by a number of readers’ comments. Thus the publication not only deals with social media but also constitutes an example of social media in action. The irony lies in the value added by the social media component, i.e. readers’ comments – for they are clearly more intelligent than the article itself.

The comments raised the following issues:

1. there is an unresolved tension between the lead-in and the claim in the article that all companies must maintain a social media presence;

2. is this article dealing with a  national or global issue? (Social media is global);

3. financial companies can’t make negative comments go away simply by closing their eyes (“social media didn’t invent fiddling Libor rates”);

4. companies jumped on the social media band wagon without understanding it or developing effective metrics;

5. companies were previously over-investing in social media, which can be used simply and effectively without large investment.

Here are my two favorite comments.

  • “I’ve just applied for a course for lazy, headline grabbing, sensationalist, misleading  journalism.” “Lazy” seems to me exactly the word to describe the writing and editing here. Note we’re not even given a proper citation for the report. Nor are we told anything about its methodology or the number of companies surveyed. Towards the end of the article, it’s not even clear where the journalist is paraphrasing the report or, rather, speaking for herself. The editor should surely have said, “It may be the summer season and our readers may be on holiday, you’re not…so go away and rewrite this!”.
  • Companies “blow their own trumpet using Social Media but don’t like to do customer interaction…I really wish companies would learn that i do not want pushy salespersons, I want good service…and good customer interaction”. This comment rather undermines the phrase ‘totally understandable’ in the lead-in. It seems not to have occurred to Barnett that businesses might be abusing social media.

In short, the social media elements here are sharper, more imaginative, and more articulate than the Telegraph‘s supposedly professional journalism. And they are thus playing an important role. Were The Telegraph to turn its back on social media, who would hold its journalists to account? 

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