Questioning the Virtue of Social Media

I’ve had a few interviews recently and networked with a lot of public relations professionals and for the most part, everyone seems gung-ho about social media. If you follow Twitter especially, it’s all anyone can talk about. I have been drinking the social media Kool-Aid myself and for the most part, I like the taste. But in a recent discussion with a school district’s communications team, I was surprised to find myself gaining a new perspective on the use of social media, or against the use of social media I should say. 
I asked this unnamed school district why they did not use social media (i.e. Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc.) when most of their parents and students are pretty affluent and have constant access to the Internet and own smart phones or tablets. I just assumed, considering the demographics of this school district, that they would thrive with social media and be thrilled to utilize it as an example to other districts. So when I noticed that they had virtually no social media presence short of their district’s website, I was surprised. It seemed like the perfect setting to put it to the test and dazzle all of the neighborhood districts with all of the ways that social media will change their lives.
When I asked them why they were not utilizing these platforms, their answer was quite simple: “Our parents don’t want it.” I was even more surprised to learn that they had taken the time to survey their parents and had the data to back it up. Most school districts in Texas tend to just take their sweet time adapting any new technology until they are sure that it is truly beneficial and justified, even if that technology is on its way out by the time they decide to adapt it. But few ever take the time to actually survey their parents. So how did this district do it?
First, they have a wildly successful weekly e-newsletter that is sent out to more than 7000 parents each Friday. That newsletter has become so popular among the parents that many of them even volunteer to photograph events around the district or pay for professional photographers themselves to make sure that their super star child is featured in the newsletter.
It is certainly resourceful of them, to say the least. By having an army of parents ready and waiting with professional quality photos and the names of everyone in the photo, their job is made that much easier and the parents take a certain level of ownership and pride in the newsletter, thus increasing its circulation and popularity.
Building on that, the district sent out a survey asking them about which social media platforms they used and which ones they would like to see the district use. Not surprising at all was that the majority have Facebook profiles. What was shocking was that the majority with Facebook profiles did NOT want the district to have a Facebook page. The feeling seemed to be that if the district had a Facebook page and the parents and students were to follow the page or add it as a “friend,” then the district might have more access to their private information – something they definitely do not want to share. I never thought about it like that but it seems to be a pretty interesting perspective. When asked about Twitter, the answers were even less enthusiastic than the ones regarding Facebook.
Despite the wide claims about Twitter’s growth and popularity, Twitter only has 200 million registered accounts compared to Facebook’s 800 million active users. Pay close attention to the verbiage there. Registered accounts are simply a count of how many Twitter accounts exist. But according to Twitter’s own API data, barely half are active accounts.
In fact, Twitter only reached 100 million active users within the past few months. Even worse than that is that only half of those accounts follow two or more people. Even though only 50% of Facebook users actively log in every day that is still 400 million to Twitter’s paltry 100 million. Break that down even further and you’ll find out that only 25 million active Twitter users are from North America.
So it should come as no surprise that most of the parents in this school district expressed disinterest in using Twitter for district information. Their explanation was simple: Why should they rely on another social media platform when the information they need is emailed directly to them?
That database of 7000 email addresses mentioned earlier isn’t just for the newsletter; they also use it for school closings and other emergency information. Since most of the parents and students have smart phones now, they get those messages as easily and quickly as they would a Twitter or Facebook message without having to rely on yet another social media platform.
Another upside for the district is that they don’t have to waste their precious man hours to monitor pages that they created. When you create a Facebook or Twitter page for your organization, you become obligated to monitor it constantly or risk losing control when someone gets angry.
That got me thinking; how many companies out there are using social media just to use it? How many companies have actually done the research to find out which social media platforms are necessary for their business? How many are truly utilizing the communications channels that already exist to the best of their ability? I’m not sure what the answer is but it is certainly something to think about. Social media is wonderful but it is important that each organization take the time and do the research to ensure that the communications plans they set in motion are truly the best options.

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