I wasn’t the only social media denizen who scratched their head and said “Really?” in response to the SEC’s ruling a few days ago that cleared the way for public companies to disclose material news via social networks. It turns out I was in good company, as many others looked in askance at the ruling too, including Fortune’s Dan Primack (“SEC’s new social media policy falls short.”)
Now, don’t get me wrong. Fundamentally, I support brands using social channels to communicate. I am completely and utterly convinced of the efficacy and utility of social networks as a means to communicate with key audiences.
But I also know from my experiences in managing several of PR Newswire’s social media presences for the last couple years that social networks are not perfect communications channels. For a variety of reasons, I’ll never rely solely upon them as key communications channels. Here’s why.
- Reliability – If you’ve ever used Twitter, you’ve probably seen the Fail Whale that appears when Twitter is over-capacity. Facebook users experience problems with their API and delays in getting content to post all the time. Simply put, you never know when your social network will slow down – or even grind to a halt. Call me cynical, but Murphy’s Law dictates that at some point, you’ll encounter a service problem right at the moment you absolutely, positively need to post something.
- Service & platform changes – The social networks all reserve the right to make changes to their services and their platforms, without any prior warning to users, and change they do. Over the last several years, we’ve seen the networks start and end relationships with search engines and each other, change how user content is displayed and an increase in the commingling of ads within streams of user-generated content. All of these changes have affected (in some cases significantly) how and when social content is shared and viewed.
- Feed management algorithms — It may come as a surprise to some, most social networks employ manage what content their users see. Using algorithms, they bias news feeds, tweet streams and the updates they display to users, surfacing content that’s proven popular and/or is from those closes to the users’ social graphs. More mundane posts are buried. Point is, just because a company posts content to a social network, there is no guarantee that all their friends, followers and fans will see it. In fact, one can be fairly certain that relatively few members of your social audience will see your message at the moment it’s posted.
- Security – Social networks can be hacked, and while they obviously try to protect themselves, it’s not at all uncommon to see spammy messages spewing forth from hacked accounts. Company accounts are not immune, and the stakes go up if you’ve cultivated a particularly influential and well-connected audience populated with analysts, bloggers and journalists.
If this post has you sweating a bit, it might be a good idea to take a quick look at the various terms of service the social networks require us to agree to in order to establish accounts. None contain service level agreements and guarantees that you get from a paid vendor. (Note: PR Newswire is a paid vendor. We build security and redundancy into what we do, and we consider uptime a requirement, not a nice-to-have.)
So, while I don’t consider myself to be a Chicken Little, and indeed, I think it’s great that companies can safely add communicating via social networks to their communications mix, I do believe that brands need to be cautious about becoming over-reliant on social networks, from which they have no guarantees and over which they can wield no real control.