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THE SOCIAL MEDIA SIDE DOOR
How to Bypass the Gatekeepers to Gain Greater Access and Influence
By IAN GREENLEIGH
McGraw-Hill EducationCopyright © 2014 Ian Greenleigh
All rights reserved.
Gatekeeping and Access
The First 3,000 Telephones
Mr. Watson, come here! I want to see you!
—ALEXANDER GRAHAM BELL, March 10, 1876 (the world's first phone call)
—JACK DORSEY, March 21, 2006 (the world's first tweet)
Shortly after a new communications medium arrives, side doors of access are created by the confluence of low adoption and technological immaturity. These side doors do not last forever. The excitement and the mutual opportunity that initially pass through them eventually become costly—and sometimes a liability. The fortunate few who discover these doors get in early and make out like bandits before the rest of the world finds out. Side doors soon become crowded and unreliable, while the people who originally left them open see no choice but to seal them against the oncoming crowds.
Social media has created an incredible array of side doors, and all of them remain open—if you know where to look. Right now, social media is the telephone before there were secretaries and voice mail. It's e-mail before spam and autoreplies. History tells us that this degree of access is not sustainable, and side doors don't stay open. Sometime soon, we'll be telling "remember-when" stories. It's up to you: do you want to be the storyteller, recalling how good the social media side doors were for you, or do you want to be the audience, wishing you had known—and acted?
One year after Bell invented the telephone, the world had 3,000 working telephones. Think about the calls placed to and from those first 3,000 telephones, the excitement with which they were placed and received, and the elite circle that one instantly entered just by placing one of them. A person could connect with those who were all but unreachable by other means, an exclusive channel of access that opened up for these early adopters alone—a technological side door.
The normal rules of polite society would, of course, apply to early telephone communication—no foul language, no harassment or violations of privacy. But outside these limitations, one would have free rein to explore a brand-new communications channel. The voices on the other end were no doubt tinged with the excitement of early adoption. Most calls were between familiar parties, and the telephone was a new way for existing contacts to connect. For the most part, it helped maintain and build relationships, not start them.
Doubters, Evangelists, and Opportunists
There were certainly a lot of doubters of the telephone's potential. Among them was Western Union, which dismissed the technology in an 1876 internal memo: "The telephone has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us." On the other end of the spectrum, there were early evangelists, who trumpeted the telephone's invention without much evidence of its eventual success—some of history's lucky guessers. In between the two extremes were the early adopters, who focused on the telephone's utility at the time and stayed out of the predictions business.
This is where we find the opportunists throughout history. They're busy putting the technology of the day to work for them. Whoever made the world's first sales call was among this group. I imagine this person taking a deep breath as the operator connected him to his intended prospect. The recipient answers, expecting a familiar voice, only to find a stranger on the other end. An exchange of greetings and then the moment of truth. Does the prospect hang up or cut the conversation short? Or does the prospect sit and listen to what the stranger has to say? I suspect it's the latter. The recipient has no concept of phone solicitation. It probably hasn't yet dawned on the listener that this new network could even be used to conduct business between people or firms. To the prospect, the person on the other end of the call is not a nuisance but a member of a limited circle in which having access to a connected telephone is the sole qualification. And people do business with those in their circle, even if the circle was entered through a side door.
When the telephone enters mass production and prices drop, and as a national telephone network is built, the circle widens. The exclusive privileges of circle membership wither away, and the cost of being accessed shifts in a way that repeats itself each time a successful new communications technology climbs the adoption curve. The party seeking access is able to find it more cheaply and easily than ever before. The party being accessed begins to find this access problematic, and the side door starts to swing shut.
Exclusive No More
It isn't the work of an elite cabal with grand designs on limiting access; instead it's a gradual, decentralized process that begins whenever this access becomes problematic in the eyes of those granting it. Consider what happens next. New Haven, Connecticut, receives the first phone book in 1878, which contains fewer than 50 listings. In 1894, Bell's patents expire, allowing new companies to enter the telephone production business. Six years later, in 1900, 1.35 million telephone lines can be found in the United States, and Americans are making nearly 8 million calls per day. Before sales calls were established, marketers were using phone books to locate the most qualified prospects for mailers. JNP Cramer, president of Multi-Mailing Co., tells Printer's Ink in 1903, "The rural telephone sorts out the influential classes in every community, and lists of names made up from telephones are excellent for high-class propositions." In 1935, Willy Müller invents the first automatic answering machine. At some point along the way, secretaries begin to screen calls. Unlisted numbers are offered to those who cannot be bothered. The circle of access expands rapidly with the rise of telephone use, and what was once a proud, exclusive club becomes a free-for-all.
Understanding the Gatekeepers
Trailing not far behind the introduction of a successful new communications technology are the human and technological gatekeepers. Human gatekeepers include receptionists, executive assistants, recruiters, bureaucrats, budget managers, script readers—anyone who has the power to slow, stop, or accelerate access to someone or something. These gatekeepers are used to taking messages that they'll never actually relay, used to deciding whether inquiries are worth the attention of the people they work for, and, above all else, used to saying "no" and "not interested." Their ultimate charter as gatekeepers is to keep the people who are paid to focus on important things from having to make hundreds of tiny decisions every day that threaten to derail productivity. It's easy to see this work from a cynic's perspective. After all, these are people who are paid to stop others from getting through. But the reality is more nuanced. Great work requires sustained concentration and the ability to devote high-level resources to the projects and tasks that merit this attention. Everything else can be more efficiently dealt with by subordinates or no one at all. Making those calls is a necessary role, and probably thankless.
While it still plays a big part in society and business, human gatekeeping needs to be supplemented or replaced by technological gatekeeping in order for organizations to scale. Some technological gatekeeping is put in place to hide or remove public information. The CEO's direct line can't be listed on the company website, and his or her e-mail address shouldn't be something easily guessed, like firstname.lastname@example.org. The Radicati Group finds that while the average number of business e-mails received per day is tracking upward, the average number of spam e-mails received is plateauing, thanks in part to automated filtering. This gatekeeping comes at a significant cost, however, as the same report found that medium-size to large companies are each spending millions fighting spam.
Social media is giving a voice to some of the smallest populations on the planet, most of which have few dedicated media providers printing or broadcasting in their native languages or covering topics of direct interest to them. IndigenousTweets.com indexes data about tweets and Twitter users in nearly 150 "indigenous and minority languages" from around the world. The site's profile for the Asturian language, a native language for some in the Asturias region of Spain, lists 738 users and 191,539 individual tweets. These Twitter users hail from some of the most marginalized and disenfranchised groups in the world, and yet they have found a way to connect and engage in the new media landscape, the most remarkable feature of which is the absence of barriers. In the words of Kevin Scannel, the professor who leads the effort:
[Social media have] allowed sometimes-scattered communities to connect and use their languages online in a natural way. Social media have also been important in engaging young people, who are the most important demographic in language revitalization efforts. Together we're breaking down the idea that only global languages like English and French have a place online!
Early Adoption and Social Adstock
The technology adoption life cycle has been studied exhaustively ever since Everett Rogers developed his famous Rogers bell curve in 1962. As more of a population adopts a technology, adoption becomes less expensive. However, as a communications technology edges closer to saturation, other costs emerge for its early users. Increased activity volume requires more attention and follow-up. The exclusivity that once appealed to early users—and the related benefits of being in an elite circle—all but disappears. As more people start using the innovation, access is given to anyone and everyone. This is when gatekeeping kicks in as a set of tools and practices that preserve the value of the innovation while reducing the costs associated with being accessed more easily.
Most decision makers aren't actually early adopters, and they're usually not even in the early majority of users when looking at total adoption. But they can be considered early users within their peer group. Executives, for instance, actually tend to lag behind the general population in personal social media use. Of the Fortune 500 CEOs, only about 19 are active on Twitter—less than 4 percent, compared with 34 percent of the U.S. population.
Let's consider one Fortune 500 CEO's use of social media. Jack Salzwedel of American Family Mutual Insurance Group has tweeted thousands of times; he has over 2,000 followers, and he is mentioned seven times per day, on average. He's extremely engaged with AmFam-proud employees on Twitter, and not only does he respond to their tweets, but he chimes in about everything from the weather to books to sports.
But what happens when 7 mentions per day shoot up to 20? Or 78 (the average number of e-mails received by corporate users daily)? Being accessed becomes burdensome when the number is big enough.
Adstock is a way of talking about advertising's influence on what we buy. At its most basic level, repeated exposure to advertising rapidly increases awareness, until the rate of awareness building first slows due to saturation and then plateaus. A similar effect can be found in social media, but the effect permeates more than just influence. Let's call it social media decay. Social media decay occurs on both the individual and systemic levels. When a user first ventures into social media, every event seems significant. Friend requests, Twitter mentions, LinkedIn messages, blog comments—these are all events that excite for hours due to their relative infrequency at the early stages of social media use. There is also the payoff aspect; the effort we've been putting into building a blog readership or into growing our Twitter networks is starting to yield a return. My first few blog posts received almost zero interactions. Then, on my fourth or fifth, out of the ether, a blog comment appeared. I remember how it felt—like it was all up from there. This one positive interaction resonated throughout my entire day, and I could barely wait to write another post and see what would happen next. You'll see this degree of excitement lead to a lot of sad exchanges with spammers on early-stage blogs. An automated spambot will leave a generic, barely intelligible comment like this one from "Dentist Barry," pulled from the spam filter on my blog:
Hello your website is great. I am with your side that you are making your horizontical knowledge. I would love to know more of your site. Will come back!
And the new bloggers, bless their souls, will approve the comment and leave enthusiastic replies:
So glad you liked it, Barry! Thanks for your kind words, and I hope you like my next post, too!
But the real comments and social interactions keep you going, making you hungry for more. The follower and friend counts climb alongside the number of retweets.
Shutting Off the Fire Hose
At a certain point—different for everyone—you become saturated with activity. Influence over your actions and thinking, ease of access, and level of engagement begin to taper off.
Influence starts to diminish in that each piece of content, interaction, or social contact holds less power to influence your behavior; it's competing with more and more demands for your attention, and it's less likely to be the basis for any action on your part. For example, say we're looking for a new vendor. We ask our Facebook friends (or Twitter followers or LinkedIn connections) for recommendations. The power of each recommendation to ultimately influence our selection is greater when we're relatively new to social media, and that power gets weaker over time due to volume. Two recommendations are easy to research. Twenty recommendations are not.
We also put less stock in social signals as time goes on. It's not necessarily cynicism—rather it's more of a realism that takes hold with regard to our perception of the motivations of others across the social web. When we're new to the world of social media, we're amazed at how friendly everyone is, even if we find the prevalence of hyperbole and multiple exclamation points a bit odd. Hang around long enough, and we will have been on the other end of a few bad sales pitches that start as social interactions. Maybe we meet someone offline, at a conference, and we're surprised at the incongruity between the person's social media and offline personalities. These things happen more frequently the longer we spend in social media, and they eventually dispel some of the naiveté we had toward the intentions of others, including the extent to which we should trust what they say, what they recommend—and even who they say they are. It's a process that leads us to a healthy, mature understanding: people are still people on the social web.
A reduction of access is another natural consequence of social media maturity. Part of this is due simply to information overload. Too many inputs, not enough processing power, not enough time. Keeping up with what our social contacts are doing and saying is not without costs, and when those costs become too much, it's time to regulate the flow of information. We can do this by trimming our connections, defriending, unfollowing. We can also adjust the settings of our social networks by telling Facebook, for instance, that we don't want updates from our crazy cat-lady cousin appearing in our feed. The other reasons we typically limit access to ourselves concern privacy and abuse. After a few phone calls or e-mails from people we don't care to interact with through those channels, we'll hide our contact information. More nefarious—but all too common—are phishing scams that use social media to propagate and exploit access.
The flow of inputs is tapered off, and our use of social media starts to look more like our use of e-mail. We don't read everything aimed at us. We respond to things selectively. The name in the "from" field helps us judge how much attention to devote to the message. Senders we recognize and value will get our attention. Those we don't, won't, unless they catch us in the rare moment where curiosity and free time intersect. This is social media decay, and it's a part of the journey for people who spend enough of their time online. It's also something that anyone trying to access them will need to learn how to deal with.
Excerpted from THE SOCIAL MEDIA SIDE DOOR by IAN GREENLEIGH. Copyright © 2014 Ian Greenleigh. Excerpted by permission of McGraw-Hill Education.
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