Today’s guest post is written by Jim Dougherty.

When I was a young Lieutenant in the Army there was a crusty Sergeant who enjoyed making my life difficult by telling me why I couldn’t do things.

He would always preface his thwarts with the phrase “by regulation.” One day my boss asked me about a project I was working on and I informed him that “by regulation” there were some restrictions to what I could do.

His response was simply, “What regulation?”

When I discovered the cited regulations didn’t exist, I gained a healthy appreciation for skepticism.

These days my skepticism kicks in when I read sensational articles around “social media.” With all of the nuances of different platforms, social media is a huge umbrella that encompasses some very specific tools.

Someone in the public relations field may associate Twitter with the term, where someone in the SEO field may think Google+. Someone selling direct-to-consumer may think Pinterest, while a small business owner might think Facebook. A recruiter may associate the term with LinkedIn.

Considering the range of services informing our perspectives, “social media” becomes quite an opaque concept.

Don’t Accept Everything At Face Value

And here are two reasons why:

  1. IBM recently released excerpts of their study which was widely reported in the media. Forbes ran the headline “IBM Study: If You Don’t Have a Social CEO, You’re Going to be Less Competitive.” Fox Business ran the headline: “How Corporate Culture Will Change in the Face of Openness.”

    Both touted the astounding fact that 53 percent of CEOs expect to be using “social media” to connect with customers in five years (up from 16 percent today). Also discussed was the prevailing sentiment that social media would replace a portion of customer facing in sales.

    Here’s the problem: The research is based upon a survey of 1,700 CEOs where the questions revolve around the role of generic direct-to-consumer “social media” that less than 16 percent of the CEOs surveyed use. It’s also presented for the purpose of selling IBM social tools without revealing the methodology for the research.

    What is the true significance of a survey of CEOs predicting use of tools they don’t use or understand? Probably not much. In 2017 I expect it will be just as inconceivable as it is today that you’ll be able to direct message Jamie Dimon about your Chase checking account.

  2. In another example, Satmatrix released a study recently showing B2B lags behind B2C in social media adoption. The caveat? The respondents were drawn from a community around Net Promoter Score (NPS), a measurement typically used to sense consumer sentiment guaranteeing that B2C would be overrepresented in the survey.

    Here’s the problem: All of the questions asked were about generic “social media” and were organized to sell their NPS social products. Does B2B lag behind B2C in social media adoption? Probably, but if you compare B2B initiatives on LinkedIn rather than within the wider swath of “social media” you would get a better sense of how businesses are interacting with other businesses in the social space.

It’s sensational and provocative to make sweeping generalizations about social media (or anything for that matter). As my experience in the Army taught me it’s important to dig a little deeper if it informs our decisions better.

Tacit acceptance of something that has been printed or repeated makes us vulnerable to spin. And spin sucks.

Jim Dougherty writes about social media and technology on his site Leaders West and for the Bay Observer blog. You can follow him on Twitter @leaderswest.