A story in the Los Angeles Times business section this morning is a useful corrective to much-publicized news yesterday of a new business study blaming social media for lost productivity. The study, conducted by Morse, an IT firm based in the U.K., claims to have shown “that use of Twitter and other social networks by employees at work is costing UK businesses £1.38 billion each year in lost productivity.” But as the Times story emphasizes, social media, far from being an impediment to business, are increasingly crucial to it. In no industry is this more true, of course, than media–including B2B. While that last sentence should be painfully obvious, I fear that for all too many in B2B, it isn’t.
The Morse study got lots of uncritical, “here’s-what-the-press-release-said” coverage in the mainstream media, such as The Beeb. The digerati, of course, quickly picked up the study and tore it to well-deserved shreds. TechDirt’s Michael Masnick wondered “How many times do we need to repeat that time does not equal productivity before these companies stop coming out with such bogus studies?” And Robin Wauters of TechCrunch Europe asked “do you really think that guy next to you who spends hours staring at his Facebook news feed is suddenly going to be way more productive when the IT department blocks access to the site?”
Though it does not mention the Morse study, the Times article may offer the best rebuttal. Focused on the president of a boutique Beverly Hills bakery, Sprinkles, it highlights how social media can become crucial to the success of a business: “Businesses need to go where their customers are, and increasingly these days, that’s on Facebook and other social media sites, analysts say.”
Let us hope the B2B world is smart enough–or desperate enough–to get this message. History, however, is not entirely reassuring. I am aware of one B2B publisher who, back when AOL Instant Messenger was soaring in popularity, reached too quickly for the panic button. After a few complaints from middle managers that employees were spending too much time IM’ing friends, the company told its IT staff to block all instant messaging for everyone, editorial staff included. To management, instant messaging was just a distraction from work. And maybe it was. But to paraphrase Wauter’s question above, wouldn’t those people truly wasting time with IM just have found some other way to be unproductive?
The point isn’t simply that IM was harmless. Rather, it’s that the company missed an opportunity to leap ahead into the digital age. As The B2B Savant would note a few years later, in 2005, “IM is exactly the sort of tool a reporter needs.” Had the company embraced IM instead of rejecting it, its staff might not have deserved the Savant’s rebuke: “if you’re a working journalist who doesn’t know what I’m talking about, then you are falling behind your peers.”
AIM, of course, is practically old media now, replaced by much more dynamic and powerful tools like Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr. B2B publishers that aren’t actively encouraging their staff to explore these tools and use them to advance their business simply will not survive. This isn’t to say that some limited corporate restrictions on the use of social media might not be wise. But as the Washington Post‘s recent Twitter debacle illustrates, social-media policies can easily backfire. So if in doubt, err on the side of unfettered social-media use.
Mixed feelings amongst B2B professionals on this topic are understandable. As the Sprinkles president says at the end of the Times story, his bakery has “never had paid advertising in five years of being open” thanks in part to social media. So in at least one respect, yes, social media are a threat. But the only way to overcome the threat is to fully embrace it.