Back in the mid 1990s, it was quite common to hear people say “I just have no need for e-mail” and “I believe in doing everything face to face.” The verbal emphasis on the “e” in “e-mail” was one of rolling the eyes or sometimes derision. A bit later, it was common to hear the same attitude toward internet privacy. At the same moment people thought viruses could jump out of the wall and attack you if you were even connected to the internet, internet privacy sounded like something only suspicious types would want. “I have nothing to hide”, people would intone. And if you said, “great, I’m sure you have no photos of your kids on your hard drive, or any personal information about them, so no need to be cautious”, they didn’t like it much, but they thought that only people who bothered to learn too much about computers were dangerous. “Hackers”, they called them – people who took technology seriously. That despite the fact that hackers virtually designed internet security as we now conceive of it. “Geeks” is the new parlance, and we’re not considered creepy anymore. That was web 1.0.
A lot has happened since then, but the knowing, eye rolling disdain for the next thing is still prevalent at the nascence of web 2.0. Corporations respond to SAS (software as a service) and cloud-based applications with “that’s just not practical for business” or “companies will never do that in signficant numbers”. They don’t see that the days of enormously costly software purchases and installations, company-wide training, the pain and the turmoil of re-training when new tools are adopted, are over. Giant, proprietary software rollouts are like ash trays in airplane arm rests. No, some companies say, “we’ll never stake enterprise-grade performance and security on the web”. First off, the performance and security of the apps they were buying was already pretty dubious. Second, the cloud is coming – companies will compete by getting on board, or die from too much overhead, inflexibility, lack of agility, and just outdated and outmoded ways of working. Sorry, but you really don’t have a choice in the matter. Remember e-mail? How many e-mails go over the network now vs. faxes?
Twitter (and social media in general) gets this kind of response, now, still. “I’ll never use that.” Yeah. Mostly it’s smaller companies saying it right now. The larger corporations have caught on. ‘Oh my gosh, we’ve got to hire social media managers to monitor Twitter and respond to what people are saying about us, and grow our audience, because our competitors are already there!’ The question is not whether to make use of social media but how, and how to do it well. Small business is savvy (and capable of being far savvier than big corporate business) in some sectors – some kinds of professionals, and certainly a lot of startups, live and die by Twitter.
The taco place near me makes far more money off of tweeting the location of their roving taco truck (they’re at a different place every day) as part of a roving, social, gourmet-savory street-food enterprise, than they even come close to making with their sit-down restaurant. I think it was something like $150,000/month they’re clearing. How’s that for a truck and a Twitter account? Don’t believe it? Don’t care – 1000 devotees showed up for a taco-eating contest on a scalding Sunday off of their social media. They recently had another contest for their 11,000 total fans (it’s more now), and handed out a $10,000 check as the prize – that’s a lot of tacos. It’s not uncommon – another one like that made $400,000 last year. Not every business is like a taco truck and the number one response that business owners have to social media is…? “I think my business or profession is different. That stuff just doesn’t work in my line of work, or doesn’t apply to my industry.” Yeah. And it was Oswald in the Book Depository.
It just doesn’t matter whether you or I make sense of it, get it, believe it, or do it – it’s happening. Social media is changing the culture, the way clients interact with companies, and ultimately will change how small businesses market, if they choose to compete and survive. One of the common things I hear right now is “but I don’t see any of my competitors doing it”. Yep, perhaps not in your locale. Guaranteed, they are doing it, but if you’re not in one of the early adopter segments of your culture, then yeah it may be six months more. And then the early adopters in your area will plow the unplowed field and get a seriously difficult to beat head start. Think of this like outsourcing for corporations or importing parts for car manufacturers – staunch speeches about how “WE will never do that stuff” are mysteriously unavailable on company web sites – you’ve got to go to the morgue (the one for press clippings) to get that stuff, now.
Even if there really are industries where competitors haven’t yet found a way to compete using social media (please let me know if you’ve discovered one – I don’t think they still exist), the whole point of social media is that it removes the barriers that normally make a particular industry unique, at least in terms of changing how we interact. Psychologist and Lawyers, bound by confidential priviledge will use social media with their clients, even if their professional organizations tell them they won’t. The force of history at work is too great – the pressure will cause whatever impediments there are to yield. You may not treat it like a clinical environment, but if there’s group therapy, there’s social media therapy – it’s coming. Wait… too late, there it is, and there. Shall we wait together a little longer and watch it grow?
Watch the movie and recording industries. They are the biggest impeders of growth, development, and the most serious foes of what’s coming, doing everything in their power, and the power of the governments they’ve purchased, to hold back the tide. When they break, and they will break (they won’t call it that, they’ll just start selling their media exclusively online or something and claim they were never defeated or gave in. You’ll know better though, because they’ll look a lot like the people they put out of business.), then the flood will be a tsunami. No one will be left, then, saying that it isn’t happening to their particular industry. Didn’t you know? Swapping videos and music is social. You can’t stop it, you can only go with it. The ferocity of the fight is a testament to the force pushing through the strongest dams a Western society can raise against social media. It should tell you to bet with the flow, not the fence.
86% of businesses are planning an increased budget for social media next year. 2011 is going to prove a lot of these points. But it’s not that I have some inside knowledge. It’s the smell of those roses – it’s the rule by which human beings, upon finding a way to remove an impediment and streamline experience, always will. There will be vast conservative forces that hold them back. Cows lowing in the pasture. It will always be a bull that pushes through a weak point in the fence and takes the first innovative, brazen, solitary steps into a new field, sampling the new grass. But when the cows see the bull standing over there, succeeding marvelously, the old cud will lose its savor. Doctors may not immediately take up washing their hands, because someone discovers bacteria but, when someone does, it will change everything, and dirty doctors who “just don’t see a need for sterilization” won’t survive anymore. Thank Pasteur for that.
Economists say “the market” works to remove impediments. But that phrase, “the market” obscures the fact that it’s always human beings, not impersonal forces, whatever one’s superstition or political fiction – individual human beings that act alone or in concert to bring change. It’s always human rules, not cosmic ones, at work – not an invisible hand, as if “the economy” were magic or a surrogate for “god”, but very visible hands, very specific persons who only don’t get trampled by those following after because, by the time everyone arrives, they’ve already moved on. To the cows, we all just went over there, to that field, because we were going over there – that’s where we were going. The herd looks up and sees the herd moving. But the bulls enjoyed the first fruits and are already scouting the next weak section of fence. The trick is, like those early adopters, to look up, above the herd, and see over the horizon, beyond the current pasture, and then have bull-like courage to kick down the little fences of trepidation and go for the virgin grass. Be an early adopter, in general, not of Twitter or Cloud Apps, but of whatever is coming. Live the experimental life, as someone has said. Occasionally it won’t pan out, but mostly it will.
As I watch these changes (as a wanna-be bull, sometimes a cow), as I work in this field and advise people on these topics, I observe that businesses will take the biggest hit from reluctance to join in, in short from avoiding early adoption. I’m talking to a lot of contractors right now, as I get my house ready to sell, and I often hear how a friend of theirs is talking them into building a web site. And they’re going to pay money to list it in an online “phone book”. A web site? Only just now? That’s 15 years behind the times. And it’ll be a wasted web site, because it’ll just be a business card on the web – nothing social about it. It will be a web 1.0 web site, from a decade ago. It’s like rushing out to get an AM radio because the ipod has been invented. Sure, that backward pressure we’re talking about is the reason, but they must have felt the fierce intensity of it for some time, by resisting it for so long. They’ll end up tearing that first site down or building another one in a year. It was obsolete before it was built. A phone book, as the rubric for internet marketing? I won’t even comment on that one, except to say that it’s like those episodes of the Beverly Hillbillies where grandma gets an electric washing machine and is complaining because it’s harder to agitate it with her walking stick. At least the contractors in question have started using e-mail. The ones that don’t – I’d never find them anyway. My goal isn’t to give anyone a hard time, especially when they do good work. It’s to say it’s time to wake up and smell the roses. Scratch that, they’re gone already. Smell that? That’s how fast it’s changing.
The fundamental tool that businesses can acquire that will help them adapt to the current changes, the forthcoming changes, and the next set of changes, to go beyond survive to thrive (I’m sure some guy in a jogging suite with a convertible has talked like that, but it’s true) is this: not the ability to adapt – that’s not good enough anymore. It’s the ability to adapt more quickly all the time. It’s ever-increasing speed of adoption, openness, the willingness to look for and embrace things as they come, not resist them until you have no choice. The core ability of successful companies, going forward, may well be to endlessly accelerate their own awareness and adoption of change. If you can do that, your company can live forever. Sure, some people say “look I just want to do this until I retire”. What’s that? You really believe there’s such a thing as retirement anymore? OK. If you’re not relying on social security, or you’re eating yourself to death, maybe. Or maybe you’re on the tail – the last generation that will retire – I can believe that.
But even so, the distance between e-mail and cloud computing was 15 years. The distance between that and Twitter was a year or two. The changes that are coming won’t wait for your retirement. Unless it’s next year, you may not have that long. The market has absolutely no qualms about dumping experience and seniority for adaptability and agility. By “the market”, I mean the bulls, and the cows that will follow them. The ability to accelerate, right when it’s easy to feel old, slow, or just tired and lazy – that’s the core attribute of the succesful businesses of next… hmm…. week. Maybe a few weeks. By next year, you’ll be using the thing you’re saying right now that you’ll never buy into. And so will I. Got a smart phone yet?