I’m in social media. The social media industry has matured, we all know what we’re doing, right? Ok good. Thank you and good night.

Except you’re here to hear something else. If you looked at any of my online profiles you’ll know my focus has been on enabling people to speak for themselves. While the industry standard has definitely become to have someone else do your social media for you.

My book, and my consulting name, is Speak for Yourself. Does that mean I think we can all learn social media, and proceed to fire our marketing, comms or publicity specialists? That would mean you can easily ignore me and dismiss me as naive, an idealist, because nobody has time to be on Twitter all day, do they? But it’s not that simple.

The choice we’re facing is not one between outsourced, bad social media and in-house, good social media. The choice we’re facing is between informed and uninformed decisions. No amount of colourful graphs and impressive numbers will ever replace good old personal experience of being online, as a person, as a basis for good decisions.

When social media first became a buzzword 8 years ago, forcing everyone to find some solution to having an online voice and using it to engage online, businesses were first looking to their marketing and pr agencies to help them with this. It seemed logical. They’ve always done the communicating with the outside world, so they can do this too, right?

I did social media projects too in that brave new world, and they all involved management and staff of the organisation learning what it means to engage with people through technology. Things that wouldn’t feature in traditional marketing or PR approach. If training was needed, it would be a course – someone speaking at the team for a day, and there you are. For me, I’d always show, explain, and allow for personal experiences to be had, which would deal with wrong assumptions and unfounded fears. Learning was a necessary part of a social media project, because ultimately, a strategy can only be formed together with informed staff members who feel ownership of their team’s or organisation’s online voice. That is the foundation of a project which can survive staff changes both at the top and in the team. This kind of approach was obvious to me, but not really for anyone else.

For a start, the PR and marketing approaches were fine, sure. But it’s been 7, 8 years and I don’t see the decisions getting any better. If anything, the skill levels in social media are going down. I’ve just last week been at an event with a speaker who had an outsourced personal Twitter account, which didn’t at all engage with the event or fellow delegates. Now if you’ve ever run a Twitter account for anyone, even only for a few months, you’ll know finding and following their industry colleagues is the first point of action. If you don’t take advantage of them speaking at an event, what DO you do?

I can understand all the arguments people have for not doing social media. All the times I’ve heard ‘I know it’s important but I’m too old/not technical enough/don’t have time/don’t feel like I can do this safely because I’m too important’. I can also defeat those arguments one by one. Just try me.

Why don’t your existing providers of social media services tell you that things could be so much better if you connected? Two things: it’s easier to sell into existing assumptions than it is to challenge them. And they might not actually know that much about it themselves. And ultimately it’s better for business to keep clients nice and dependent, and thinking that throwing some more money at a problem will solve it.

What are some of the consequences of bad decisions regarding social media ownership and approach? (Here comes the bit that’s supposed to scare you into action. The problem: Nobody is any good at it and we’re not working on that. The consequences of the problem: Coming up now. Here they are.) But, oops, whatever I can present here – missed connections at a conference, disappointed colleagues who wanted to talk to you, or someone with any actual knowledge in an organisation and ended up with a junior marketing executive in some Search and Social agency in Old Street; frustrated staff members who are disconnected from the online voice talking in their names, customers bored out of their minds with sanitised marketing chatter when they want some substance. Those are not things you can see in a graph. I have no numbers on how many sales you’ve lost because of this. Those are things you would see if you looked, as a human.

I can understand why the easiest decision coming out of a board meeting is: leave it to the experts, it’s too hard.

If you’ve been at a digital marketing event where you’ve listened to five different social media experts (this is a hot field), you’ve very likely heard five different sets of essential things to do or not to do on social media. If you’re following ten different social media marketing experts on twitter or read their blogs, they will confuse you even more. (How can you judge their credibility for yourself, so you know who to listen to? Easy, see what their online persona is like. You only need to google them and look at their twitter profile. It really isn’t that hard.)

Having a personal online identity and voice doesn’t just give you enough experience to separate the wheat from the chaff. Much more importantly it is an essential skill in every area of business. You will have an online presence if you like it or not, there is information people find if they search your name – and here’s the thing: the skills to own what people find and control, to a degree, and engage with what’s there about you online is something that everyone now can and should have. It isn’t just geeks any more. It’s everyone. Leaving it to others means you’re at a very clear disadvantage.

But how do we square the circle of either not bothering at all, or having to spend all our time catching up with the latest social media marketing trends?

We need something that’s a minimal set of skills to be online and be able to do normal human things online. Listen, talk, engage.

This minimal skill set allows us to be comfortable with connecting with other people through technology, and using our online voice as effectively as if we’re being in the same room with others. It doesn’t, however, include marketing – because marketing isn’t everyone’s job. If everyone is online, marketing doesn’t automatically die – there is still a role in finding and curating the important stories, making them be interesting and presenting them creatively.

Collaboration becomes an obvious byproduct of this approach. Yes we still need some information to stay within the walls of an organisation, but we actually create more trust by sharing more of the stories happening. This all takes practice. Who can facilitate the conversations it will take to conquer fears and deal with this learning process? The agencies who are now running social media could instead facilitate learning spaces.

This, to me, is a future we could work towards. Social media is not going to go away any time soon. The platforms may change, but the idea won’t. Now that we all have a taste of being able to speak for ourselves, let’s use that.

Let’s collectively do better.

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