Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Which shoe salesman are you in social media?

I was reading 10 Simple Secrets of the World's Greatest Business Communicators and in it, Carmine Gallo relates the story of Akio Morita (cofounder of a little electronics company called Sony and the guy that brought us into the era of portable electronics thanks to a gadget you might have heard of – the Walkman!)

It seems Mr. Morita had great trouble convincing colleagues and investors that anyone would want to use, much less want to buy, a portable music player. It seems that Mr. Morita took to telling the story of the two shoe salesmen in the jungle. The jist of the story is this:

Two successful shoe salesmen from competing companies were sent to Africa to see of there were any opportunities there.

The first shoe salesman arrived in Africa and immediately began his assessment of this new wide open market. Less then an hour into it, he quickly phoned back to his headquarters: “I can’t sell shoes here! Nobody wears them, everyone is barefoot!”

The second shoe salesman arrived in Africa and also began his assessment. He quickly became thrilled at what he observed and called headquarters: “I can’t believe what I’m seeing, everyone is barefoot over here! Send me as much stock as you can spare, we are going to make a killing!”

Can you even imagine someone today, in the age of smartphones , netbooks, portable GPS, etc, questioning the viability of a portable music device? Of course not! And yet I see that type of mentality all of the time in social media. This kind of reasoning seems to come back every time something new comes out.

Remember Twitter? How many people clamoured, in web and in print, that it was doomed from the start? “140 characters? Nobody is going to want to use this.”; “I give it a month.”; “Nobody wants to read about what you had for breakfast”; “There is just no practical use for this”.

Twitter may have had a very simple premise when it was created but the community found uses for it. Individuals and groups looked for the opportunity to use the tool to fill some of their needs and it worked. Now Twitter is the fastest growing social media channel out there and it is being used:

• by individuals as a communication and research tool,
• by corporations for PR,
• by public figures for branding (Ashton, Oprah, Britney)
• by politicians for campaigning
• by government agencies for advertizing, media monitoring, and crisis communications
• by advocacy groups and non-profit organizations for outreach and funding campaigns

It reminds me of the story of Victor "I liked the shaver so much, I bought the company." Kiam. In his autobiography, Mr. Kiam tell the story of how when he was Vice President of Marketing at Playtex in 1958, he was offered the option on a patent for a new kind of fastener for bras. He decided it would never catch on and passed on it. The product was Velcro! Mr. Kiam admits he failed to see the potential of the product beyond what the inventor had foreseen and vowed never to make the same mistake again.

So, which shoe salesman are you? The one who dismisses new social media channels out of hand or the one who tries to see the opportunities that lie just beyond the moment?

If you think you are due for a quick brain shake-up, read Good Idea or Bad Idea? by Joel Saltzman

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