It’s easy to point to the problems with social media: lost productivity from employees checking Facebook at work, new “personal branding” responsibilities to tend online, and a general deluge of information that’s impossible to keep up with. When we do hear about the benefits of social media, it’s usually in a business context (praising the rise of “viral marketing on steroids”) or focused on a macro, societal perspective (NYU professor Clay Shirky has famously cited the “cognitive surplus” resulting from online tools like Wikipedia, which allow people to contribute small amounts of time or effort, but in the aggregate create vast new informational resources).
There’s less focus on the individual benefits of social media. But I believe it’s actually prompting us to become better people and smarter leaders. Here are three often-overlooked results I’ve seen in my own life, and in professionals I admire.
We sell better. In my previous career, I was a journalist. Every week, I’d pound out a 3,000 word story — and leave the title to someone else. Coming up with a snappy headline wasn’t my responsibility, I figured, so I let the copy editor handle it. But today, we’re forced to understand that the packaging — the title — matters. Without a good one, no one will even bother to click on your link. Thanks to the Internet, we’ve all become data scientists, assiduously measuring what works and what doesn’t, and what will pique a customer’s curiosity. (The website Upworthy is actually founded on the premise of spreading meaningful news through the use of sexy, curiosity-inducing headlines). I’m not simply saying, however, that social media has forced us to focus on surface-level concerns. Rather, it’s sharpened our awareness of a fact that has always been there: to succeed in life, we have to know how to persuade and intrigue others. Now we have the tools to do so.
We listen better. What’s the sign of a top-notch social media user? I recently conducted a workshop for a client seeking to build relationships with elected officials. Together, we trawled the web examining their targets’ online habits. Some traditional pols weren’t on Twitter at all. Others had dipped their toes in the water, using the service as a PR message board, blasting out links to press releases and favorable news coverage. The most sophisticated users, and not surprisingly the ones with the most followers, had twitter feeds littered with @ replies — evidence of their engagement, responding to and commenting on others’ posts. It’s hard to quantify your listening skills in the real world: do your employees feel heard? Does your spouse think you’re paying attention? But online, every comment you respond to, retweet you send, or question you answer is a structured form of practice for one of the most important skills a person can have: listening, and truly engaging.
We move faster. Some would question whether moving faster is actually better. What about the value of reflection? Or the danger, as Stephen Covey put it, of mistaking the urgent for the important? Those are real concerns, of course. But there’s also a real benefit in, for the first time, being able to participate in (and add value to) the news stream as it unfolds. One recent example was the massive number of Twitter messages about Hurricane Sandy, which allowed individuals to share updates and help others, cognitive surplus style. (It’s true there were a malicious few who used the opportunity to spread false rumors — but are there any environments that can guarantee the absence of bad seeds?) This summer, upon hearing the news that Marissa Mayer had just signed on as Yahoo’s new CEO, I immediately wrote a blog post about it. Clicking the “refresh” button and seeing, every few seconds, that hundreds more people had read it was a powerful example of being able to add to the conversation in those critical first moments when people were actively seeking information and guidance. When you’re able to delight a customer by responding right away on Twitter, help a colleague by crowdsourcing an answer to a problem they’re having, or simply “fail faster and iterate,” as HBR blogger Len Schlesinger and his colleagues write about, that’s the same phenomenon: the benefits of speed.
Any tool is only as good as the person operating it. Of course you can fritter away time on Facebook, or descend into a rabbit hole of clicking Wikipedia links. But I’m convinced the very structure of social media — the skills it requires — is prompting us to develop valuable leadership strengths. And if social media really can make us more nimble, more interactive, and more persuasive, we should stop wringing our hands about whether to let employees watch YouTube at work, and focus on ensuring all of us are leveraging social media to become our best selves.
This post originally appeared on the Harvard Business Review website on November 14, 2012.
Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.