Culture, group behavior and the overall dynamics of the group dictate how we socialize with its members. It’s critical to understand the culture of a network (whether it’s social networking in a Web 2.0 world or in a physical networking situation).
Recently, my Mom shared a story with me about when she and my Dad first moved to Rhode Island. Having been in North Jersey all of their lives, her early experiences blending with the Rhode Island community weren’t so easy. It was their first week in new surroundings. Mom took a trip to the local Post Office to mail a few letters. After purchasing stamps, standing at the counter, she asked the clerk if she had a sponge to wet and seal the envelopes. The clerk looked at my mom who was wearing a leather jacket, boots and attire that was very “New York” and replied, “Here, we just lick them.” My Mom stood out like a sore thumb, and until she learned the ways of this small RI town, it was difficult to make friends.
When I heard this story, I immediately thought about how people interact in Web communities. Each community has its own culture and with that culture, there are rules, accepted behaviors and even a language amongst the members. Communication professionals must realize that participation in a tight knit community or social network depends upon listening, monitoring, learning and understanding how other people interact to be able to engage in any kind of dialogue. PR has always been about communication, but because, in the past, we were focused on mass broadcast messaging, we never really took enough time to carefully study the behaviors of the people we wanted to reach.
Learning a social sciences approach is imperative to understanding and engaging in today’s social media landscape. An excerpt from my book, Putting the Public Back in Public Relations focuses on modern communication:
Social networks and their associated cultures are defined by the people who participate in them. In turn, each network flourishes as its own island. Over time, a somewhat impenetrable culture emerges (which helps to ensure a more meaningful and commercial-free experience among its residents). Of course, networks need to sustain themselves through revenue, and many sell advertising. But advertising differs from direct marketing, especially from conversational marketing. In fact, making the network flourish with a strong sense of community and culture isn’t marketing at all, in the truest sense. Transparent and genuine participation is now an effective form of marketing, without the “marketing” or the snake oil. The bottom line is that you have to understand the sociology and the dynamics of human interaction within particular social networks before you can either write them off as useless or participate within them in the hopes of becoming a resource and building meaningful relationships. You must also understand that technology supports the sociology of the network-it doesn’t replace it. Marketing departments of tomorrow will require their savvy communicators to take the time and develop the right approach to understand the various networks.
What steps are you taking to understand the culture in a social network before you engage?