Two years ago, I went on a 10-day silent retreat at a Buddhist monastery in the middle of the Thai jungle. One morning at 5am, in the first of the day's meditation sessions, with bites on my arms from the spiders I wasn't allowed to kill and cramps in my stomach from the food I wasn't allowed to eat, I finally achieved my revelation on the impermanence of all things. Praise the universe, I thought. Glory to the fickle world. In only 48 hours, this too will end, and I'll be able to go back to my blinkered, base, absolutely wonderful life of electricity, box sets and beef.
Back in London, I endeavoured to bring the lesson of eternal impermanence into my day job, because social media is surely the viparinama-dukkha of the corporate world. The once-startling pace of a Twitter feed feels positively sluggish compared with newer tools like Snapchat, the photo-messaging service which deletes users' images after 10 seconds, or Vine, the six-second video app which acquired four million users within two-and-half months of launch. Every day we're bombarded with start-ups promising to be the next global sensation, plus a raft of updates and tweaks from established platforms. For users, it can be a little bewildering. For businesses, it's hell.
Over the recent years, brands have gone to great lengths to ensure they can successfully manage and grow a community in social media. They have invested a lot of resource and budget into developing their 'owned social' strategy and considering how they can track and measure success, respond to their community outside traditional working hours, and continuously engage through daily editorial. They have created ethics policies, content calendars and process flowcharts. They have argued with legal. They have consulted the interns.
Most of them have needed to find a new employee, or even a new team, to turn the strategy into a reality. The skills possessed by the 'community manager' or 'social team' are a unique mix, requiring a deep understanding of the organisation alongside knowledge of social platforms, professional writing skills, and, most importantly, the ability to talk to people in a natural and human way.
But just as soon as they thought they had their head above water, a tidal wave of innovation – and the concomitant change in consumer behaviour – comes and knocks them back under, flailing and spluttering. Twitter smarts, good copy and flexi-time are no longer enough.
Throughout 2013, we have seen a rise of new platforms and new features on established platforms, which add a plethora of new skills to the checklist. Creative, design and production demands have skyrocketed, particularly when it comes to mobile. The ability to whack out hi-res and appealing images, GIFs, Vines, pins and videos is now essential if brands are to progress their community management efforts.
Text updates enhanced by the odd lo-res asset will no longer suffice. Rich media assets are now part of a staple content diet needed to realise the ambitions of a solid social marketing strategy and achieve the required KPIs around views, engagements, sentiment, click-throughs and audience reach. As I write this, I can see two people from our production department crafting a Vine for one of our clients. The skills, patience and time required for six glorious seconds of stop-motion animation are very real indeed.
Led by social technology and consumer behaviour, brands and agencies need to keep pace and acquire the relevant production and communication skills, not just for their existing presences but for the emergent communities that they wish to engage. Our hunger for ever more digestible, engaging and accessible content is only going to grow, and we will start to see content production skills that are currently quite novel become a regular feature both within internal social teams and on agency service menus.
Moreover, just as brands struggle with the impermanence of social media, they fret about its permanence too. Nothing ever really dies online. What if they make a mistake as they scramble to participate on these new platforms? Will they be forever haunted by knee-jerk comments continually resurfaced by Google, or screen shots of embarrassing etiquette fails?
The unwelcome fact is that a truly social approach is, by definition, never finished, never comfortable and never entirely fit for purpose. Organisations must design a team and a way of working that is flexible, curious and confident enough to embrace continually changing technology and skills.
Hey, nobody said it was going to be easy. Just be grateful you don't have a pillow made of wood.