Get a cutting-edge London hotel. Fill it with some of the brightest online brains. Stir with a few questions and an interesting theme and it makes a great night out. Travolution's sixth "Question Time" event last night was another thought-provoking evening as the industry openly discussed the opportunities and problems of social media.
The theme that came across most strongly to me during the night was where and how we should be addressing social media? Things are changing so fast are our businesses structured in the right way to be able to cope? Mark Watts-Jones, Orange head of community data communications and services industry said he didn't think traditional businesses were set up to handle the needs of social media. At one point in the discussion about how a company should dedicate resource to answering social media comments he shrugged and said "I think they'd expect me to do it".
I was fascinated to see that response in such a big and online-focused business as Orange, because it's a dilemma I'm seeing all the time in travel organisations. Where does this new responsibility for online fit? Internal PR and marketing teams are being asked to add social media, or online link building to their own workloads. It's no surprise there is a debate about who does what when everyone also needs to demonstrate a clear return on investment. Mark Watts-Jones also said: "we need to invest in people to make this happen"
Tamara Heber-Percy, director of Mr & Mrs Smith said she'd been prompted to try to respond to individual comments on Twitter after a discussion with Kevin May of Travolution. She sought out people who were looking for boutique hotels and gave them some advice. She'd expected people to find this intrusive but in each case people were very appreciative. However, she said it was hugely time-consuming and didn't reflect a good return on investment.
My personal view is that we need to break down the walls of traditional company structures. We sometimes have to fight to demonstrate that we are part of the online communications mix if a company thinks it should only be owned by their web team. So my plea is not to think social media can go into one silo - whether that's your web team or the marketing team. In the same way social media and online has changed the way companies "push" information at customers it's also changed the way we listen and react to them. Social media means we now have what I'd like to think of as a cloud of customers and advocates - it's fragmented, but they are out there and happy to be engaged.
I think we now need a similar cloud of communicators within organisations. We need the skills of customer relations, the knowledge of general managers, or operations in the communications mix at the right point. Too many companies put online communication into a silo and it just won't sit there. The joy and the pressure of social media is that its part of the way everyone in an organisation is talking to their customers and therefore more people within a company need to be involved in addressing that communication.
The ethical issue about who should be involved in new media communication is quite simple in my mind. Be transparent about who you are and what you're doing. Yes a PR company can run a company Twitter feed such as a news service punching out information regularly, rather than purporting to be "voice" of that company. Yes a customer relations can run a Twitter and respond to customer questions. But yes an internal customer relations team can keep an eye on Trip Advisor for front line and hard-pressed hotel managers.
I think this debate will go on and on. If anyone has any great examples of how they have created an effective cloud of social media communicators in their organisation I'd love to hear about it.