Thoughts on a recent German social media debate

Recently a debate emerged among German social media mavens.  The question was whether social media can be successful when companies that use social media channels don’t respond to consumer comments or otherwise enter the conversation.  The debate was ushered in by a post from Mirko Lange on his talkabout blog entitled, Social Media Myth Buster: Successful Social Media Doesn’t Require a “Dialog” (Social Media Myth Buster: Es braucht keinen “Dialog” für erfolgreiche Social Media).

Two aspects of Mirko’s post bugged me.  First, he was fairly unspecific about defining “successful.”  It seemed simply to be the number of fans on Facebook or the number of followers on Twitter.  So one of his successful examples was Lufthansa Germany’s Twitter page.  Lufthansa has 20,000+ followers.  Is that a success?  Perhaps.  Some context would help.  How fast was the growth in followers?  How many of those followers actually engage with Lufthansa via Twitter?  On the face of it, it doesn’t look that good compared to Southwest Airlines, which has over 1 million Twitter followers.

The other point is that as far as I can tell, Lufthansa is indeed “dialoging” with customers via Twitter, much the way Frank Eliason has done with Comcast Cares, by identifying customers with problems and helping out.  One difference is that Frank identifies himself by name to leverage a key strength of social media, the opportunity for companies to behave like people, by having real people with real names engage on behalf of the company. As  Southwest’s Twitter bio aptly notes, ” Airplanes can’t type so @ChristiDay and @Brandy_King are piloting the Twitterverse!”

Nevertheless, I fundamentally agree with Mirko, as well as with Timo Lommatzsch, who, on the current edition of his Social Media PReview Podcast, which discusses Mirko’s post, points to the example of Die Zeit’s Twitter page, with nearly 25,000 followers.  Die Zeit is an erudite German weekly newspaper that covers a broad range of topics including politics, culture, economy and sports.  There’s no dialogue on their Twitter feed, it serves merely to inform followers of the online edition’s latest articles.  But one can imagine that these followers are the type of people who will retweet a post on Die Zeit to all of their followers, which is an effective way to spread the paper’s content across personal networks and potentially bring new readers to the site to the delight of the publication’s online advertisers.

Consider also that consumers aren’t as puritanical about demanding dialogue as social media “experts” assert.  I recall recently a study quoted by Shel Holtz on his For Immediate Release podcast.  It found that the main reason people become fans of brand Facebook pages is to find special deals and price-off promotions.

As long as a social media provides value based on how the community defines it — be it  special deals, product information, help with problems, or the pleasure of sharing one’s passion for the brand with others — the community will grow.

In writing this post, I remembered something I included in the “Who’s on the soapbox?” section when I started this blog in July, 2008.  It said, “I’m Steve Rothman … I have a passion for new media, social media, web 2.0 — whatever your preferred label for the way people are using the web to connect, share and empower each other on the things they care about. And that includes the products and services they buy.”  I didn’t write that those people necessarily had to include the company or the brand.  That’s as true now, as it was then.

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