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Binary Balance

Life on the digital knife edge

Online audience engagement and the enterprise

It seems that social media is everywhere today. Live tweet our show using the hash tag ‘#WhyJustWatchWhenYouCanCriticise’! There’s other websites as well as Facebook? But how do do your friends know about your inane comments on those ones?! One could be forgiven for thinking the read/write web is getting old hat these days. Web 2.0, how unfashionable an epithet for use by today’s modern web hipster.The read/write web has long past the point of a fad and has been recognised for what it is: an evolutionary step in a still relatively young communication medium: the network of networks known as the Internet1.

Engagement marketing and commercial enterprise

So what’s commercial enterprise using the read/write web for? The same thing they use the read-only web and every communication medium before that for, of course: selling stuff. If your company doesn’t at least have a Twitter account or a Facebook fan page these days, you’ve fallen behind the times, man. How else will your customers be able to get that warm fuzzy feeling that can only come from having new channels through which they can imagine they’re cared about by Megacorp Multinational. Cynicism aside though, social media is affording commercial enterprises of all sizes new ways to interact with their customers. New ways to handle both good and bad publicity. New and unrivalled ways to turn their customers into brand advocates.

It seems to me that the culture change required within most commercial enterprises to take up and start making the most of social media should be quite slight. While some degree of process change and assignment of responsibility for new communication channels is no doubt necessary, social media appears very suited to the objective of selling stuff. The culture change comes in when one realises that social media is not just another newspaper, television, or radio, it really is a read/write, two-way medium. One way it can be used effectively means reading and writing through it, engaging with the audience.


One of my personal favourite clothing brands, G-Star has a Facebook fan page with a respectable following. As far as I can tell from a few minutes of perusing comments on their Facebook page, it doesn’t seem like there’s a whole lot of follow-up audience engagement going on. They post an update and people comment on it, to the sound of silence until another update is posted. Interestingly I did see a tendency for third parties to get in on the action, e.g. G-Star posts an update about their new Spring/Summer collection and some men’s wear store that carries G-Star amongst other brands, comments about a sale they’re having. Parasitic/Symbiotic marketing, another advertising frontier to explore… probably only new to me because I don’t hang out on Facebook fan pages that much.

It actually took me more than 30 seconds of searching to find the official G-Star Twitter account. Not sure why there’s no blatantly obvious link to it from the G-Star website. While it seems that Twitter is being used as more of a two-way medium than Facebook, it’s not as easily accessible as it could be.

I am a little surprised, I would have thought that a company that projects such an avant garde image would be fully on board with maximising audience engagement. Perhaps they feel it unnecessary, particularly with a product such as expensive fashion that tends to carry with it an innate allure. If I were to guess though, I’d say they’re using social media as a largely one-way channel because it’s easy. It takes very little – if any – culture change within the organisation and there’s minimal new resource implications.


To illustrate an alternative approach, I found Zappos. Zappos sells clothes and accessories, from multiple brands it appears. But they’ve got engagement marketing in spades. They’ve got a ‘Customer Service Experience’ happening on Twitter. Every tweet I currently see in their Twitter timeline is a reply to one of their customers. On the Zappos Facebook page they have a ‘Fan of the Week’, hundreds of photos and many direct replies to comments. These guys are comfortable with engagement marketing, the social media is strong in this one.

While I don’t really feel like I’m completely comparing apples to apples here, perhaps a lesson to take away from G-Star and Zappos is that it’s easier to start with a company culture that facilitates online audience engagement than it is to retro-fit one.

Engagement marketing and government enterprise

It’s an immutable law of the universe that government will be slower on the uptake of the scary newness than the commercial world. But social media has been around long enough now that even governments are adapting. Politicians use it to campaign, and citizens use it to organise.

In the Australian Government, social media has been a relatively hot topic since at least the release of Engage: Getting on with Government 2.0 from the Australian Government’s Government 2.0 Task Force in December 2009. If you want a relatively short overview of what they mean by ‘Gov 2.0’ I suggest reading the report’s executive summary.

Government agencies can have a wide range of objectives. Often it’s going to be pushing their government’s agenda, but within and also well away from this, it can involve a massive array of tasks and responsibilities: service provision, regulation, oversight, research and so on. The problem for the government enterprise is that their objectives usually can’t quite be defined as simply as ‘selling stuff’ and that the culture change required for government agencies to effectively engage the online audience is massive. Since the release of the Gov 2.0 report and it’s subsequent conditional endorsement by the Australian Government, there’s been a marked upswing in the willingness of agencies to dip their toes into social media and online audience engagement. But as the above mentioned report highlights:

Government 2.0 will not be easy for it directly challenges some aspects of established policy and practice within government. Yet the changes to culture, practice and policy we envisage will ultimately advance the traditions of modern democratic government. Hence, there is a requirement for coordinated leadership, policy and culture change.

Culture change in government is damn hard at the best of times and when it comes to topics that many people don’t really understand and may not feel that enthused by, then it’s going to be even harder. What’s there to be enthused by? Well, I agree with the Government 2.0 Task Force that the culture change being facilitated by the read/write web has the potential to ‘ultimately advance the traditions of modern democratic government2’ and that’s a worthwhile outcome.

The Department of Defence

Defence is a mammoth beast, one of Australia’s largest employers (and once my employer by proxy, I was a contractor at Defence for a time). It’s so big in fact that I don’t think it’s really fair in many ways to discuss it as a single entity. The sheer scope of the organisation gives rise to varied cultures and policies. As with most large bureaucracies, cultures and policies across the organisation can be at odds with each other, the classic ‘left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing’ kind of thing. But Defence does have a very specific and singular mission and one that they are well funded to pursue. One problem Defence has that money can’t always solve is recruitment. Last I heard, all three branches of our defence force were finding it difficult to keep recruitment up, with the Royal Australian Navy having the most difficulty. Considering the youth of a lot of people in the Australian Defence Force (ADF) and the fact that the target audience for new enlistments is of comparable age, I’d guess that they have a greater incentive to be hopping on the social media bandwagon than many government agencies. Working against this is the fact that it’s part of their job to be opaque and secretive and they will generally err on the side of caution.

But from the civilian department and all three of the services I see quite an effort to make use of social media channels for audience engagement. The ADF has literally legions of people who can assist with keeping their Facebook fan pages busy. The Australian Army has recently been organising a recurring ‘Facebook Chat’ for people who are thinking of joining the reserves and are looking to ask questions.

Counter examples?

My original plan for this post was to find some counter examples of agencies that are somewhat under using social media for audience engagement in a similar way to what I attempted to do for the commercial enterprise portion of this post. But after a not insignificant amount of searching, I’m having some trouble finding examples of Australian Government agencies that fall somewhere in between reasonably pro-active online audience engagement and completely ignoring social media all together. I know of only one example… but I might need to plead the fifth on that one (regardless of the fact that I’m not American)! So much for the neat symmetry of this post.

Suffice it to say that using social media as just another one-way ‘push’ channel belies a basic misunderstanding of both the technology its self and the expectations of the audience that makes use of that technology.

The questions I’m working my way towards are: what’s required for a government enterprise to successfully engage the online audience in an on-going, useful and honest way? And while I’m at it, what are the stumbling blocks for a government organisation if they wish to start making use of social media inspired technologies to potentially improve internal communication too? Why are some doing it well and others badly or not at all?

The generation gap

To quote Wikipedia on the subject of the generation gap between a child and their parents:

Although some generational differences have existed throughout history, because of more rapid cultural change during the modern era differences between the two generations increased in comparison to previous times, particularly with respect to such matters as musical tastes, fashion, culture and politics.

I might add to this that the pace of technological change over the last few decades has been astoundingly rapid and this underlies a generation gap relating to preference for and understanding of new technologies generally, and most relevantly to this post: new communication technology.

Many senior people in government enterprises are not young. More often than not they’ll be 50+ years old and while the more progressive will be at least open to the idea of utilising new modes of communication, it doesn’t often seem that when it comes to actual hands-on use of social media tools, the older generations are that into doing it themselves even if they’re supportive of the technology. They might get a colleague or assistant to post the tweet or write the update on Facebook for example.

When it comes to using social media style communication within an enterprise, some senior people may not truly want more open communication across their organisation. Knowledge is power and change can be scary at the best of times, even when it isn’t perceived as threatening the mini-empire that Executive X has worked hard to carve out or to make it harder to uphold the image that Executive X may be trying to project. More open and honest communication is not a friend of political manoeuvring or any activity that requires some degree of deceit.

Senior people tend to be busy and may not want to take the productivity hit that learning something new can initially impose. The user interfaces that – being a long time computer/web geek – I find entirely self explanatory are not always so to the older generations. If you’ve ever watched a grandparent (or are a grandparent) using a computer, you probably have an idea what I’m talking about. The older (and occasionally younger) generations may quite often just not see any improved utility in this social media hullabaloo. Where’s the win? What am I gaining by exposing myself to all this distracting noise? What some may fail to realise is that social media is a eminently customisable communication channel, e.g. if you’re not finding much utility in Twitter, then possibly you just haven’t effectively curated the accounts that you follow to serve your interests. You don’t have to follow 65,000 people on Twitter, unless that’s part of your marketing strategy. More noise might also be a by-product of barriers to communication breaking down and with the potential for a lower signal to noise ratio also comes potential improvements in cross-organisation collaboration, job satisfaction and morale. Not to mention the benefits on the macro level discussed in the Gov 2.0 report.

The general consensus is that if the goal is to use social media inspired technology to improve internal and/or external communication within and/or without an enterprise, then one of the best things that the organisation can do is have its senior people personally lead the charge from the front. This is possible to achieve today, some enterprises have done it. But there is no doubt in my mind that when the generations who have truly grown up with the Internet eventually replace their elders at the highest levels of enterprise management, there will no longer be much – if any – greater need to discuss strategies for use of social media and online audience engagement in the enterprise than there is to discuss strategies for the use of email today. That we are not there yet, if an enterprise doesn’t at least have a small core of people that have an intuitive understanding of web based technologies and social media, who can act as scouts and guides then I’d say the outlook for harnessing social media in that enterprise is not good.

Audience and objective

Government organisations like DBCDE and AGIMO carry with them an expectation that they should be across new technologies and new ways of communicating. Their audience, their stakeholders expect this and it means the culture change within these organisations – while still no picnic – is easier and appears to have more of a mandate than it might have in say the Department of Finance, or the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (is that what they’re called this week?) whose core business might have differing objectives or priorities. Not surprisingly, the government agencies directly providing service to the public seem to be getting on board with social media and online audience engagement at a faster pace than those agencies that are more deeply buried in the machinery of government.

Internal processes to support online audience engagement

I have heard of some government agencies being very pro-active, organising a small group of senior people who meet each morning and decide on a small number of issues they wish to push out via social media that day and these same people then spend a small amount of their time actively pursuing online audience engagement around topics of interest, be they the prearranged ones or ad-hoc from their audience. I like this kind of model.

The main requirements I see for this sort of model to be viable are:

  • support and participation from senior management, the more senior the better
  • a clear understanding of what the organisation is trying to achieve
  • a clear understanding of the macro and micro benefits that social media can potentially deliver and hence a justification for new resource implications
  • a clear understanding of how the organisation is going to authorise comment via social media, while not destroying the immediacy of communication that is expected by the audience
  • when using social media to engage with external stakeholders, then avoiding mixed messages and hypocrisy means that the organisation also needs to allow staff some degree of access to the same communication channels, which in turn means that acceptable use policies3 need to be clearly defined and other implications (information security, greater bandwidth usage etc.) must be considered

Information wants to be free even in the enterprise. Organisations can reposition and take advantage of new opportunities or they can be dragged kicking and screaming to the party. After doing the research for this post, I must say I’m more optimistic than I was when it comes to the social media evolution within the enterprise than I was at the outset.

I look forward to seeing what’s next.

  1. On the other hand, maybe all fads are actually evolutionary steps, sometimes dead-end and sometimes not. 

  2. Which I primarily take to mean that the ‘Gov 2.0’ culture change has the potential to promote a more open and participatory democracy. 

  3. The APSC Circular 2009/6: Protocols for online media participation is a pretty sane place to start. 

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