New class explores social media for business success

Social media has demonstrated its ability to grab an audience and hold it as more people become users of Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and other platforms to share their lives and interests.

allen_johnston_webFor example, Iranian dissidents turned into news reporters in summer 2009 after the re-election of their country’s  controversial president. They released information, photographs and video of government brutality through Twitter after the government banned foreign media from reporting on protests. And a fan campaign through Facebook was the impetus that lead to 88-year-old actress Betty White hosting “Saturday Night Live” this past May.

So if social media devices are sufficient to fuel a small insurrection and resurrect the career of an elderly Hollywood actress, surely they can advance business goals.

That’s the premise of the Social Media and Virtual Communities in Business course taught by Allen Johnston, Ph.D., professor of information systems. The cutting-edge course made its debut this past spring and will be offered again in spring 2011.

Johnston found only two other institutions in the United States — the University of California-Berkley and Emory University — that offered a similar course this past year. A half-dozen schools have contacted Johnston asking for a copy of his syllabus as they begin to construct similar courses. In another show of its mainstream business use, Harvard and Columbia now offer a social media course in MBA curricula.

“Using social media as part of a business plan is so new, there’s no consensus on the right way,” Johnston says. “Some companies do a good job with it, but many companies struggle.”

Johnston has spoken about those struggles to business owners, both locally and around the Southeast. He led a discussion on social media for businesses at a Teaching Technology Workshop in Huntsville this past spring; a recurring theme is that confusion reigns supreme.

“Everybody has this pressure or feels like their business needs to have a Facebook site, a Twitter account and be on Foursquare,” Johnston says. “They think they need to do all of these things, but the question is why? Why do we need it, and how do we use it to meet our goals?”

Many business owners and leaders say they are using social media because their competition is using it and because it’s a cheap way of advertising — or both.

Johnston’s students learn that if businesses aren’t using social media platforms strategically to meet a goal, it can backfire just as quickly as they can help you.

Johnston repeats a story he heard a cable company executive tell during a presentation in South Carolina. The company created a Facebook page and set it up as a supplemental help desk. They did not anticipate customers using the site to complain about service. The company’s reaction to the posts only complicated matters. At first, they ignored the negative posts. After a week they deleted the comments.

“Big backfire,” Johnston says. “They didn’t establish a Facebook site to field those kinds of comments. They did it because it was a cheap solution for a help desk, and it enabled them to put together a serve-yourself function for their customers to come and look up their own answers. They didn’t anticipate or know how to manage the negative feedback they’d get. Once they started deleting the messages it became worse. People started saying, ‘Where did my postings go? That’s just like this company. They can’t handle critical advice. We were just trying to get good service, and all they want to do is mute the people who are dissatisfied to make it look like everything is OK.’”

Digital branding

Johnston’s class, which brings together students from marketing, medicine and information systems, defines four pillars of social media and the ways in which they can represent a business: communication, collaboration, entertainment and education.

Social media also has key uses for students, Johnston says. They may use the platforms to help with their own career management and to establish a digital identity.

Yes, social media enables the user to digitally brand him-or herself. And just as businesses struggle to determine how best to use these sites, students can be unaware of the extent of damage these sites can do to their brand. This should concern students, Johnston says. Photographs taken in a bikini holding a firearm should not top of the list for Facebook profile pictures — something one student in Johnston’s class learned this past spring.  

A local attorney who works in social media asked Johnston if he could speak to his class on digital branding. The attorney asked Johnston for a class roster prior to his talk. When he addressed the class, it didn’t take long for him to grab the students’ attention.

“He walks in the class, introduces himself and starts talking, and then he points at several students, saying, ‘You, you, you, you and you will never be hired,’” Johnston says. “The students are sitting there going, ‘What?’ He said, ‘You won’t get a job with your profile pictures on Facebook.’ And he was right. If you think for one second you’ll go on an interview and leave there and that’s all they’ll ever do — talk to you, look at your resume and hire you based on that — you’re fooling yourself. They’re going to look at your social media postings. They’re going to look at your Facebook site — every place you’re represented — they’re going to look and see what they can find out about you. Those places probably will better represent who you are than your resume and what they can attain from talking to you.”

No blueprint for success

Why do social networking sites leave so many flummoxed? One reason is there is no consensus on how to set up and run these sites for business or personal gain.

“There’s not an academic textbook on the best way to do it,” Johnston says. “We used white papers and articles from businesses to inform our students. Academics hasn’t caught up to it yet, and even the business com-munity — which is on the cutting-edge of it — is trying to figure it out.”

Johnston says local advertising agency Big Communication helps local businesses raise their social media presence, but he says even they admit they are learning as they go.

“It’s a bit of a trial-and-error thing,” Johnston says. “It’s not the technology — that’s the easy part. It’s setting it up and managing  in a way that you can pay attention to comments, respond appropriately and use the criticisms and positive feedback to make a difference.

“That’s what we’re trying to teach,” Johnston says. “How do you want to use your social media site and for what purpose? Who is your audience? What are your goals? Those are the questions we’re challenging our students to answer.”

Academics