Social media is no longer just a niche phenomenon used predominantly by teenagers and young adults, but has now found its way into the everyday lives of the entire population and also into those of organizations. Social media has fundamentally changed the way people communicate with each other and at the same time holds potentials for the communication of organizations, which is becoming increasingly important and at the same time more demanding in a currently distanced working environment. This raises the question of how and to what extent organizations should use social media to make their own communications as effective and efficient as possible. This post will look at the advantages and disadvantages of using social media, how the respective platforms can be used, and what impact the use of social media has on organizational communications.
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First of all, it should be emphasized here that the term social media covers not only large, public platforms such as Instagram or Facebook, but also any digital technologies that serve communication and general exchange. Thus, in addition to the aforementioned platforms, messenger services, blogs, forums, etc. can also be classified under the term social media. This understanding should be taken into account when reading this post.
Social media enables organizations to focus communication on interactivity instead of communicating exclusively one-dimensionally with the various stakeholders. The focus is often on building or maintaining (existing) relationships with stakeholders. The goal is to attract the attention of potentially interested parties and to bind them to one’s own organization. The key challenge for many organizations here is that it becomes more difficult to control the narrative. Every person involved in the organization is part of the PR or marketing department of the organization on social media and can influence public perception. From the organization’s side, this can be perceived as a kind of loss of control in terms of the desired external image. However, attempting to restrict the organization’s own employees in their use of social media often creates more problems than it solves. In particular, the spontaneity and authenticity of posts from organizational members on social media often leads to better perceptions, as PR activities are usually perceived as something put on and thus less likely to effectively influence the external perception of an organization. Instead of restricting the use of social media or dictating to employees what, when, and how they should report about the organization on social networks, it is more effective to develop and implement a suitable strategy and basic rules. This is also important because a suitable social media strategy, combined with explicit objectives, is able to quantify the organization’s communication efforts in social networks and evaluate them in terms of goals. At the same time, the social media strategy should never be considered as something standalone, but should always be integrated into the organization’s overall communication strategy to ensure the best possible results.¹
However, the use of social networks in everyday work is not limited to public platforms. There is also a wide range of software solutions that can be understood as social media, which can be used in a closed and organization-specific manner and change the way in which communication and cooperation takes place within organizations or individual teams. Such digital technologies make it possible, for example, to work together on documents, to communicate unbureaucratically, and/or to dismantle hierarchical structures. In addition, through the use of appropriate software solutions, work groups are no longer location-bound and may even deliver better results and be more efficient than teams that do not use appropriate technologies. Although it is to be expected that more and more organizations will make use of social media-type platforms for internal communication, it should be noted that many people currently still consider traditional forms of communication (e.g., face-to-face meetings, telephone calls, e-mails, etc.) to be more effective. However, Cardon & Marshall (2015) point out that this assessment may be due to the fact that many people feel more comfortable in a familiar environment and prefer familiar structures and ways of working, as well as being more reluctant to embrace new things in general.²
Regardless of whether organizations use public social media platforms to communicate or interact with their stakeholders or use internal, closed platforms, it is important that those responsible for implementation or use are appropriately developed and skilled. Without the skills needed to use social media platforms effectively, no organization can benefit significantly from the use of social media, no matter how good the communications strategy.
Individuals are usually not the customers, but the product of social media platforms, as these are usually financed by advertising expenditure from companies and directly or indirectly monetize the specified personal data and interests of users. Organizations are thus able to use these immense data sets for themselves in social networks and reach specific people or groups of people, which they can define in advance during strategy development. Reaching specific people who have corresponding interests and/or needs potentially leads to more efficient communication and can potentially simplify marketing efforts. In addition, social media advertising is generally less expensive than mass advertising via television, newspapers, etc., so organizations can try different approaches without necessarily incurring a high financial risk. It should be noted, however, that a distinction must also be made between marketing and advertising when using social media. Corresponding platforms offer organizations both the opportunity to advertise explicit products and/or services and to support their own brand presence. In addition, a key advantage of social media as a communication medium can be that the design of such platforms is usually geared toward sharing content. If organizations manage to reach and convince an interested person about their own social media content, the person can share this content without much effort with other people (groups of people) where they assume that the content could also be relevant for these people (groups of people).
As mentioned above, social media platforms are not necessarily public. Organizations can use social networks both to communicate with external stakeholders and to communicate within their own organization. The currently prevailing physical distancing has changed the way in which communication takes place in organizations or even individual teams. It is conceivable that internal communication, which is already important, has become even more important due to the current circumstances. It has also become apparent that physical presence in the workplace is not necessary in all professions, and office activities in particular could in the future be carried out entirely or partially digitally and independent of location. This trend could open up new opportunities if the time and costs saved on commuting, business travel, etc. are put to good use. Software solutions that enable or enhance digital collaboration and communication have been steadily developed in recent months, and the huge market that can be tapped here suggests that this trend will continue in the months and years ahead. However, in order for innovative technologies to be used effectively, it is always necessary for the relevant employees to learn how to use the new, digital tools properly and to undergo continuous development. This applies both to the skills needed to develop suitable strategies and action plans and to the explicit skills required to apply them. Only by investing in the appropriate skills of the responsible employees can social networks and other innovative technologies support and significantly improve the communication efforts of organizations.
Social media offers organizations the opportunity to reach specific individuals (groups) and interact with them in a goal-oriented manner. In addition to communication with external stakeholders, social networks can also be used within organizations to improve internal communication and cooperation. The high degree of interactivity seems to be the central advantage of both external and internal communication via social media. However, the further development of the responsible employees is also a key success factor here. Even though many organizations may see the appearance of their own employees on social networks as a threat to the perception of the organization and feel that this goes hand in hand with a loss of control with regard to self-presentation, social media use should not be significantly regulated. If, instead, basic rules of conduct are developed for the use of social networks on the part of employees, this also has another significant advantage: every employee can potentially act as an authentic brand ambassador for the organization in the social networks.
¹ Macnamara, J., & Zerfass, A. (2012). Social media communication in organizations: The challenges of balancing openness, strategy, and management. International journal of strategic communication, 6(4), 287-308.
² Cardon, P. W., & Marshall, B. (2015). The hype and reality of social media use for work collaboration and team communication. International Journal of Business Communication, 52(3), 273-293.