social media by business, using the Best Buy case as an example. The benefits of social media in the business context are explained, as are the downsides. There are also recommendations with respect to the use of social media by a law firm, and in this case it is recommended that the law firm should not engage in social media. Compared with a retailer -- especially one with a connection to technology -- there is less upside for a law firm and more downside risk. Understanding the benefits of social media as well as the business context is essential to developing an effective social media plan.
Best Buy has successfully embraced social media, something that fits with its brand image, but also something that has helped to enhance its business. This report will outline the principles of successful social media usage, the value that social media has to business, and also provide a blueprint for social media success for the law firm.
Overview of Social Media
Businesses use social media for a number of reasons, not the least of which is promotion. There are a number of reasons why businesses utilize the promotional power of social media. One of the most evident ones is that social media is widely used. Certainly as a promotional tool, there are very few ways to promote a company, brand or product. There are over 1 billion members of Facebook, and tens of millions of people using Twitter. Facebook for businesses is usually a limited promotional tool, akin to an enhanced Yellow Pages listing. While many businesses have Facebook pages, few will make regular updates, so the page becomes static and serves little marketing purpose. Twitter utilizes updates, which are limited in size to 140 characters, and these updates are the basis for sending messages to the target audience, which consists of the organization's Twitter followers.
Social media in particular is a powerful tool, because the message can be amplified, where people "like" or "retweet" messages, sending them on to other users who would otherwise not see the messages. This amplification can be a powerful tool especially for limited promotions. When a message is amplified substantially -- if it goes "viral" -- then the message will reach millions. There are other forms of social media in addition to these two mains sites, but for most businesses Facebook and Twitter -- or the Chinese equivalents -- are the most popular social media forms. Social media, it should be noted, has a relatively low cost and that is one of its main attractions. However, the company needs to actively monitor the account, because social media relies on frequent interaction.
A company like Best Buy has succeeded with its social media approach for a few reasons. The first is that social media is a good tool for dealing with customers and for reaching potential customers. Firms in retail are typically seeking as large an audience as possible. Social media allows them to reach than audience for a relatively low cost. However, it should be noted that retailers benefit from social media in terms of bringing in a wide audience -- using it for promotion allows the brand to become exposed to as large an audience as possible, something that appeals to companies that are seeking a large market share as part of their competitive strategy.
There is a code of etiquette that goes along with social media, and this code of etiquette can be quite different from in other forms of promotion. Many companies, when they struggle with social media, struggle because they fail to understand the unique nature of social media communities. Social media communities are self-policing with respect to behavior and culture. In a sense, this is how free markets behave when there is immediate feedback and barrier-free communication. Messages are passed along rapidly, and potentially can be passed along exponentially. The downside is that the choice of messages to receive the most significant amplification are not necessarily the ones that the company would choose. Negative messages -- where the company commits a social media faux pas, are more likely to be passed along than positive messages. In addition, when the person in charge of the social media account fails to take into account the social dimensions of social media, there is greater risk of bringing negative publicity to the firm.
Thus, firms that enjoy the most success with social media are the ones that learn the informal code of etiquette and work within it. Consider the case of Best Buy, when the company had an employee how produced videos and posted them to YouTube, and these videos sometimes highlighted customers in an unflattering way. Normally, such activity would earn the person immediate dismissal. However, social media etiquette encourages less censorship of speech, and because the employee was responsible for a video that had gone viral, there was an increased likelihood that dismissal of the employee could have led to a backlash on social media. The company had suspended the employee but ultimately chose to reinstate the employee, thereby avoiding the social media backlash against the company. Outside of the social media context, that employee's dismissal might upset a few of his/her friends, but within the social media context there might be thousands of people upset by such a decision. Again, the amplification of the message is something that needs to be taken into consideration.
It is also worth noting that Best Buy is a retailer of technology. This is a company that is expected to be halfway savvy with the uses of the technology that it is selling. Indeed, by demonstrating that the company's CEO is an avid user of mobile technology and social media, Best Buy achieves a strategic need, in that the company is able to position itself as an active part of a community that is comprised of many of its customers. This is to the benefit of Best Buy, especially because expectations among social media users of CEOs are generally low.
Downside of Social Media Usage
The ability of social media to amplify a message may be its greatest upside, but it is also a downside as well. As noted, where the company does not understand the culture of the social media community, it can receive negative publicity. This is more a problem with having people using the social media who are unfamiliar with it -- no technology is effective in the hands of an inexperienced user. The real downside is that when those who are unfamiliar with the conventions of social media are using it, that the company can face significant downside liability. The risk of a negative event or comment going viral is greater than the risk of something positive going viral, so unless the firm's social media is run by someone experienced with the company, with PR, and with social media, the firm could experience more downside than upside. Further, social media accounts that are left unattended perform no useful function at all, and may give the appearance that the company is no longer in business.
Recommendations for the Law Firm
Law firms are not in a position to fully leverage the power of social media. Most law firms engage in little public marketing to begin with, so immediately the basic function of social media is reduced. Further, there are significantly more issues with client sensitivity in the legal environment -- there are stricter limits on what constitutes acceptable communications for a law firm than for a retailer. Further, there is little expectation for a law firm to excel in social media. There is simply less upside for a law firm than for a technology retailer like Best Buy or an online retailer like Zappo's, and there is more downside as well. Further, clients would…