Some eighteen months ago, the Firm Voice ran a piece highlighting resistance to social media and cautioning firms not to ignore conventional forms of communications outreach. It’s worth revisiting the point, not for the sake of prophesying doom and gloom, but with an eye to examining how we can make public relations activities even stronger.
Mashable recently wondered if Facebook use was “plateauing,” citing a global study that found declining use in several Facebook activities, including virtual gifting (down almost 13% in the US), messaging to friends (down almost 15%), and searching for new contacts (down almost 13%). According to a Gartner report for the UK, “25% of 18 to 29 year-olds say their social media use has declined.” Facebook certainly seems to appear less juicy to investors; the company’s market value recently saw its first ever consecutive quarter-to-quarter decline.
A Facebook representative quoted in the Mashable piece explained the user data by citing its limitations as well as seasonal fluctuations in usage. The fact is that Facebook does remain wildly popular, and its membership is slated to increase this year, albeit at a lower rate than in previous years. Whether or not Facebook’s revenue streams in developed markets are maturing, we might still take the opportunity to increase the “stickiness” of social media by developing new tools and techniques that keep consumer engagement high. That some consumers might find Facebook “boring” represents a challenge, and our campaigns will only be better for trying to meet it.
Consumer “fatigue,” if it exists, might plausibly go beyond Facebook to encompass social media generally. A glance across the web reveals that concern about social media remains strong among academics, journalists, and other commentators. Observing the revolutions in the Middle East, commentators on both sides of the Atlantic have suggested that social media might actually prevent rather than enhance social activism; apparently citizens content themselves with virtual participation and don’t translate that to boots-on-the-ground activism. In the wake of the riots in the UK, policymakers are questioning whether government needs to shut off social media, including Facebook and Twitter, at times of heightened tension, as administrators of San Francisco’s transit system recently did.
In fact, public ambivalence right now seems to extend to all of digital life. More than one commentator has worried about the addictive quality of digital media; as a blogger for Techcrunch proclaimed, “technology is the new smoking.” A recent article in USA Today spotlighted concern about the costs of constant connectivity on everyday behavior; among other things, the article cited Intel research finding that “91% of adults have seen people misuse mobile technology, and 75% say mobile manners are worse today than in 2009.” As one Intel researcher was quoted as saying, “We haven’t yet worked out for ourselves, our families, communities and societies what all the right kinds of behaviors and expectations will be.” Athletes and others in the sports world share concerns about digital technology, linking it to what they perceive as the dwindling of traditional team spirit.
Such misgivings are hardly signs that people are re-tooling their engagement with digital communications. We can’t simply turn back the clock on a revolution, nor do most people want to (if you need evidence of this last point, just observe the crazy behavior of iPad users, over a third of whom admit to taking their tablet computers with them to the bathroom).
Still, it’s possible to take negative media attention swirling around technology and turn it into a spur for positive action. We should remind ourselves that social media still isn’t everything to consumers and other stakeholders, and that more traditional means of communication retain an important role in public relations strategy. Simpler, more traditional means of reaching out actually carry more meaning today, not less. A recent Wall Street Journal article noted how tech-savvy women—including a top Twitter executive—are now sending hand-written letters on homemade stationary to forge strong connections with others. Similarly, we in public relations should consider ways to insert ourselves better into the increasingly precious emotional ground lying beyond social media, even as we continue to define the cutting edge of social media practice.
Social media likely isn’t losing much of its zing, but that doesn’t mean we can’t up the spice quotient even more; doing so is just good business. By the same token, it’s always smart to rediscover older means of connecting that never truly go out of style.