Social Networking: The More Things Change…

Don’t get me wrong. I love social networking. I can spend hours on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn not only to keep in touch with friends and family but also to see how companies use these tools to communicate with customers, clients, or even employees within the company.

Social Networking Hype

Whenever I see a headline telling people to use social networking to “grow their businesses” or “leverage technology” or read advertisements by marketing and public relations firms, in trade publications, and even by some textbook publishers that sound as though the use of social networking technology itself is the mark of a pedagogically sound book or sound marketing strategy, I wonder and I worry. I wonder how prominently communication and rhetoric figure in this discussion, and I worry that the hype surrounding the technology marginalizes the discussion of less sexy topics such as the “you view” and reader-centered communication—foundational issues in any business communication, regardless of the channel.

Business Communication and Social Networking

While social networking itself may be revolutionary, the principles for using the technology as a communication tool are not. Indeed, sometimes the more things change, the more they must stay the same. A pedagogically sound approach to social networking should not ignore standard rhetorical business communication principles. If anything, these principles become the important constants in a business writer’s world as the technology continually evolves.

Dell is an excellent example of a company that has paid attention to using sound business writing principles in a social networking environment and has achieved great success. It has numerous blogs and Twitter feeds, each tailored to various audiences. This investment has paid off. Dell is rated as the top social brand in Headstream’s Social Brand 100 Report, the company said in 2009 that it had made $3 million as a result of its Twitter feeds, and its Facebook page has nearly a half a million “likes.”

Even my introductory business writing students can figure out why Dell has been successful with social networking: The writing is reader-centered, exhibits good “you-view,” employs basic persuasive strategies, is infinitely positive and courteous, and demonstrates visual appeal—writing and rhetorical practices that have little to do with the technology behind the communication.

Teaching Social Networking

Some ideas for incorporating principles of business communication in a classroom discussion of social networking include the following. If you have others, please share them with us.

1. Analyze a blog or other social networking site.

Find a company with a strong social networking presence, such as one listed in Headstream’s report. Because these companies tend to be large, you may also want to select a smaller local company for comparison. Have students analyze who the audience is for the site, what parts of the site are well written (i.e., are reader centered, have good you-view), and which parts of the site need improvement.

2. Analyze three distinct audiences and plan a blog for each audience.

Identify three distinct audiences and have students think about how an organization might tailor a blog (or other social networking site) for each audience (e.g., a healthcare facility creating blogs for people over 65, new parents and parents with small children, and individuals in their 40s and 50s). Students can discuss not only the demographics of the audience but also consider what information might be important to that audience, how or if the tone and style of the writing will differ, and what a writer can do to ensure that each communicates the message, promotes goodwill, and presents a professional image.

3. Discuss issues of audience, control, and communication channel.

When business professionals write letters or emails, they control the message and, in large part, direct the type of response desired. However, writers in social networking contexts relinquish much control over their messages and their audiences because messages can be shared and responded to so quickly and publicly. The case of Nestle vs. Greenpeace (“Nestle Mess Shows Sticky Side of Facebook Pages”)  provides an excellent talking point for this discussion, as does the “Mayo Clinic Facebook Controversy.”

2 thoughts on “Social Networking: The More Things Change…

  1. Martha, I hear you. We have had so many students coming to our classes with sentence-level problems that we’ve actually developed a stand-alone Business Writing Fundamentals Program that students need to complete outside their normal course work—crazy. I don’t recall that even ten years ago, I had to teach such basic skills; I just did the occasional review. But I agree, with even more writing opportunities (and writing in forums that don’t necessarily require complete sentences or completely spelled words), it seems even more important that students have strong basic skills so that they can navigate whatever communication setting they find themselves in.

    Thank you for your comment. As you can tell, this is a topic I’m passionate about.


  2. Interesting article — and useful to me. Thanks!

    I do not teach anything related to social networking sites or blogs in my basic business communication class since, these days, my students and I are struggling with sentence-level problems in communication, evaluating and writing to a particular audience, and reading for content. It’s a strange phenomenon to me that with so much MORE writing going on in the world, I’m having to teach such basic skills in university classes.

    My hope is that over the summer I’ll be able to pull some of this material into the course I’m now teaching.


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