Social Media: Why Communicators Should Play by the Rules…or Not

“I just want to get away from it all” is a popular refrain, especially around vacation time. It could be one of the reasons reality shows about Alaska have been so popular—uncharted territory can be fascinating.

After a recent afternoon of listening to social media experts, it’s clear many of us are unknowingly interacting on virgin land on a daily basis.

Certainly social media has been legitimized. Nearly every business has a social presence, as do nearly 90% of the 193 U.N. country governments and world leaders, even the Pope, a Burson-Marsteller report says.

And if legitimacy is tantamount to how much money is involved, social media qualifies handily. Anyone following Facebook’s financials, or even better, owning its shares that rose 9% after a recent quarterly report, can tell you this corner of the social media ecosystem is big business; same for Google, of course.

Yet in social media, like space travel and medicine, there’s still much to explore. While it’s clear many brands and organizations are engaged with social media, their knowledge of it seems wanting in certain areas. Just as important, the legitimacy of social, as we noted above, has made people reluctant, intimidated even, to admit what they don’t know. There’s no such thing as a stupid question. Still, there’s a stigma attached to asking basic questions during industry events. Too bad that claiming some level of ignorance about new technology and its uses is a negative. One thing we’ve done at PR News events is to ask people to submit questions anonymously on a board. It works.

Eventually questions come out, sometimes privately in the hallways, other times on the board I mentioned. The following are queries I’ve heard during events, found on the board or received from readers: Why do I need to use hashtags? Should my brand use a hashtag every time we post or just sporadically? Should we hop on a trending hashtag or create one of our own? If we create a hashtag should it be cleverly inventive or straightforward?

More questions I’ve heard or received. Should brands pay influencers? If so, how much? Do brand managers mandate what influencers can say on their blogs? We hear social media is a place for conversation, but how much humanity should a brand executive display on her Instagram account? Does the public want to see pictures of a brand executive with her pets or do such pictures diminish the status of the executive and the brand? Should I try to make my executive seem to be an animal lover or a weekend athlete? If it’s not authentic will social media find out and expose the executive?

Many of the answers to these questions, from very reputable people, coalesce around certain principles. On the other hand, some answers wade far outside the box. To me, that’s all the better.

Maybe the biggest conundrum surrounding social is whether or not it’s possible to show return on investment (ROI). Can communicators measure the influence of tweets, and posts on Instagram and Facebook? Can social media practitioners prove that tweets and posts have influenced consumers to do something? Sign up for more information? Or purchase a product or service?

Can communicators measure how much buzz social media has created for a brand? 60% of marketers say showing social ROI is the toughest challenge they face. Some people downgrade social analytics; “they’re not real analytics,” they complain.

Yet savvy social media players like Melissa Wisehart, director, social & digital strategy, Moore Communications Group, say social media ROI is eminently measureable. The larger issue, she says, is people don’t know how to measure it correctly. Dr. Sarab Kochhar, director of research at the Institute for Public Relations, referring to a quip she heard about how badly social media is measured, says, “Maybe ROI should stand for Return on Ignorance.”

Still, the insight social can provide outweighs the ignorance. Shareablee’s extremely knowledgeable CMO Tracy David recently guided me on a dive into its platform. The hour-long session explored only a portion of the ways a skilled third-party vendor can slice social media data. It was a tremendously interesting way to spend an hour.

Similarly, listen to someone with in-depth knowledge of Facebook Analytics, like the above-mentioned Wisehart, and be amazed by how many things it tracks. “It’s creepy how much Facebook knows about you, but for a marketer, it’s great,” Wisehart says.

Yet, there’s still so much about social that remains opaque. This week we heard pundits and elected officials on Capitol Hill ask, some demanded, for Facebook, a major news source, to draw back the curtain and explain how its algorithm arranges news stories. The concern, contained in a Gizmodo report, is that conservative stories are getting short shrift on news feeds.

Measuring social, too, may be more art than science. As Jovan Hackley, director of marketing & PR, Student Loan Genius, said during a recent PR News measurement event, “With measurement, just remember it’s an experiment. Nobody really knows how [a particular tool] will work for you. Go out there and experiment.” Exactly.

Follow Seth Arenstein: @skarenstein