By Ryan Skinner (email)
I've talked to many communications professionals in shipping about social media, and it's clear that social media is now definitely hitting their desks. Either it's an executive who's read about it in The Economist (special insert a couple of weeks ago) or one or more employees who've already taken the plunge (and are quickly touching upon communications policy issues).
So far, many have been able to say, in both directions: "Sure, it's happening. But it's happening independent of us. We don't need to get into this." Why the hesitation? I think most communications directors file social media in the digital box. And the whole digital thing gives many of these people hives. So they ask whoever handles their website to keep an eye on the thing, and exhale.
That's a mistake.
First and foremost, social media isn't a web thing; it's a PR thing. I'll get back to that. Secondly, this thing is growing, and the more it grows the faster it will grow. Social media doesn't follow a technology adoption curve, which is slowed by infrastructure, process change and the rest; rather, it follows an individual media adoption curve. Looking back, it seemed like email popped up overnight, didn't it? Same with social media. Just ask your friendly, neighborhood American.
The point is this: Social media is pointless in a vacuum. The more people in, the more interesting it gets. After all, the only reason American companies dove into this was that it saw everybody going there; they just followed the people.
So where is social media in shipping today? Here I try to map the terrain. First of all, a quick definition of social media. I will limit social media to discussion forums, blogs, twitter, networking sites like Facebook and LinkedIn. There's more to it, but this is a start.
Perhaps the lowest-hanging social media fruit for business types around the world, LinkedIn has a strong shipping following. A search for "shipping" among LinkedIn people gives almost 180,000 results; maritime, 55,000+. The latter is probably the more accurate figure. As for groups dedicated to discussing shipping, here's the top 20, as of today.
That totals over 37,000 people involved in shipping-related discussions. If you add "the long tail" of smaller groups related to shipping, you can probably double this figure. TradeWinds weekly newspaper, by comparison, reaches 48,000 shipping professionals.
2) Discussion forums
The flora of discussion forums outside of LinkedIn is diverse, and highly disorganized. It would be hard to provide an exhaustive guide to these fora, but I can at least cite gCaptain's excellent forum for mariners and shipping professionals (5,500 members, 900+ active members), the hardy Maritime Professionals forum (no data), Digital Ship's forum for maritime technology (1,000+) and Bunkerworld's forum for all things shipping (no data).
This is one of social media's more powerful entities, and - so far - one of the weakest areas for shipping. There are many excellent mariner blogs, but good blogs dealing with the business of shipping are few on the ground. A handful of companies, primarily in the US and UK, have set up blogs with varying success. Clay Maitland and Dennis Bryant have done an excellent job establishing a reputation as thought leaders through blogs. But adoption of blogs across the industry lags. This blog has a short blogroll (I need to update it), Maitland has a decent blogroll and many ship media titles have a blog presence (though few even deserve the name).
This is a lively branch of the shipping social media tree. James Tweed's Who's Who in Shipping (the top 40 influential shipping tweeps) has somehow materialized a best-of group in this channel. But a more democratic way to guage shipping on Twitter might be a simple search for terms like maritime and shipping. My "maritime" search shows anywhere from 10-100 tweets an hour containing the word maritime. These are of varying quality. Some are excellent tips; others are twaddle. A rough estimate of shipping tweeps? Maybe a couple hundred active tweeters, and double that inactive (just reading).
Truly, my weakest field. I know anecdotally that many of the bigger names in shipping social media have large presences in this channel (with fan numbers in the hundreds), but follow it seldom. Anyone with better data here is invited to offer it.
Along with these core channels, there are countless others with smaller followings, and some companies have semi-social proprietary networks. The latter practically defeat the purpose of social media, but perhaps it's a necessary half-step. If the number of channels and the number of users seem confusing, the best tactic might be a simple survey of marketers' key contacts. For the thousands of companies that have already done this and responded to Forrester, however, "created social media" tops the list of areas for increasing investment from 2009-14.
Finally, I argued that social media is not a digital issue; it is a PR issue. The reason social media has taken off is, quite simply, ease of use. You don't need to know CSS, HTML5 or any such nonsense to gain a heavyweight share of social media attention. Your digital people/person should probably be at the table, as a resource, but the core social media questions revolve around the PR discipline.
There are generally two starting points to social media involvement: Listening/monitoring and identifying business goals with social media. I'll get back to both in future posts.