I’m quite often heard calling a distinction between social media and social networks. The two terms seem to be used interchangeably, but for me there is an important difference: social media is what organisations do, based on traditional mass media models of communication around primarily broadcasting; social networks are what we as individuals do, following the long tradition of us being social creatures who need to interact with others to exist (note how solitary confinement is used as a method of punishment or even torture).

Within organisations the term enterprise social network has become the norm to describe a class of products including big names like Yammer and Huddle. But in the same way that Facebook and Twitter have been hijacked by the marketing department in many organisations and turned into tools of mass transmission, enterprise social networks are often being used by Internal Communications teams to similar broadcast aims. Enterprise social media might be closer to it.

However there’s a big difference between inside and outside of the corporation. If you look, say, at Facebook, there is a natural audience of the general public who use the service for communicating with friends and family. Where people gather together there is an opportunity to sell stuff, and so marketers leap aboard that audience to flog stuff. Some of the flogging of stuff takes interesting new forms, exploring how engagement is different in these new social channels. Much of it is very, very conventional: LOOK AT OUR PRODUCT! WHY NOT BUY IT? IT’S GOOD!

Whilst traditional mass media models might not be pushing the boundaries to any great extent, they seem to work to some extent on social media and they are probably cheaper than TV adverts.

When it comes to networks within an organisation, there’s a problem. Internal communications people can fall into the trap of believing that what they produce is content rather than advertising. Internal communications appears to be the only form of direct marketing to which there is no legal right to opt out.

The challenge then with Enterprise Social Networks, especially when they are treated as an internal media channel, is that if all you are pushing out is advertising (and yes, the latest interview with the CEO about the next 5 year strategy is advertising) you are trying to build an audience on marketing alone. Now that is possible – QVC is successful – but it’s a hard sell. Especially if you’re not flogging miracle cleaning products.

Focus on building an audience must come first. And that might be through providing content that has intrinsic value in its own right, or by putting (hard) effort into building communities, or by trying to find communities that already exist and go where they go. As it is, expecting that the novelty of a new channel will be enough to lure employees towards corporate messaging will probably result in disappointment. To mash up the words of two icons of the 60s, the medium may be the message, but only for 15 minutes.

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