This post originally appeared on the Harvard Business Review.
Push through the discomfort: It’s tempting to stop (or never start) using social media when you realize that you are opening yourself up to the world in a new way: “you mean people can write whatever they want on our wall?” But, often rewards await those who push through the discomfort of the unknown. You can always change your settings if you encounter a problem, but in the mean time you may be surprised at the trust that is built with your customer base if you are open and willing to talk about the good and bad sides of your businesses. Where else are you able to hear what people are really thinking? Use it to your advantage to build better products and better service.
This gem comes from Mike Knutson in Lessons Learned: Using Social Media to Support Entrepreneurship in Rural Communities on the Canadian Rural Research Network site. And it describes probably the most important success factor in any social media effort.
Mike’s post reminded me of a physical therapy session I was in the other day. I exercising for my shoulders when a muscle in my head started to hurt. “If it’s just uncomfortable, let’s keep going,” the physio said. “But if it’s painful, you should stop.”
My physio therapy in Winnipeg would always be filled with light hearted jokes and advice, they would call what I felt in my head “referred pain” — the parts of your body that hurt are the weak parts that can’t cope with knots, tension or dysfunction elsewhere (e.g. the pain in your neck caused by the tension in your mousing shoulder).
Your social media “pain” is similar: it’s caused by knots in your customer service, operations, HR or other area. Social media is just the place you feel it. If you’re getting smacked down publicly for your missteps, taken to task on YouTube for your poor products or lousy customer service, suffering organizational implosion from the overtime hours that are going into your Twitter presence, then maybe it’s time to stop what you’re doing.
Any of those pain points signal that you are not just going too hard too fast, but that you may be using the wrong muscles. Your social media relations team can’t overcome an outdated brand or tone-deaf advertising; your clever blog posts can’t disguise a fundamentally flawed value offering; your tweeting won’t be sustainable unless you’re prepared to expand or reallocate your staff resources. Most of the actual pain that organizations suffer from entering social media isn’t from social media: it’s from all the other organizational problems that social media simply begins to reveal.
But all that just speaks to pain. Mike talks about a different creature: social media discomfort. You will feel discomfort when you talk in a personal voice on your company blog, rather than The Official Voice found in press releases, and when you let your customer publicly declare their dissatisfaction with you. The Facebook wall, as Mike points out, is an invitation to discomfort.
For most of us, this discomfort often boils down to one question: “What if people say mean things about me?” Forget “what if.” People will say mean things about you, and it will be annoying and uncomfortable. But you should do what my physical therapist said I should do: Keep going. Respond to the substance of those comments (if they’re offered with anything other than violent or profane hostility); ask a colleague or two to read your response before you post, to make sure your discomfort isn’t leaking in and making you sound hostile. Then step back and see what happens: I’ll bet that after three or four cycles of responding to negative comments, you’ll discover that the discomfort doesn’t cause pain. You’ll probably even find that living with it, and responding to it, makes you more accessible to — and more liked by — your key audiences.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between discomfort and pain. In my physio session this morning, I decided to keep going; the discomfort was tolerable, and working through it helped my muscles get a little stronger. Tomorrow I’ll know that I can handle the uncomfortable sensation, and I’ll stand just a little bit taller. Work through your social media discomfort, and your organization can stand taller, too.