business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

It appears my troubles are over. In just the past few weeks, I’ve been the lucky person to whom countless people in varied countries wish to give scads of money. I’m so lucky. I may buy a baseball team.

What’s more, I have found all kinds of easy avenues of supply for drugs and pharmaceuticals. And somehow my personal charisma has made me the object of desire of countless women. Oh, if only e-mail spam was anything but junk.

Sadly, not all the junk has come from anonymous sites that my server gamely strives to filter out before it gets to me. I have also received countless e-mails from friends and family offering up anecdotes, news stories and important tips that sadly turn out to be completely wrong more than 75 percent of the time.

The problem is these miscommunications actually matter and at times make a difference. A few weeks back my wife got a strange message from an old high school chum via Facebook. The friend’s doctor had recommended she start taking Vitamin D tablets and my wife’s friend wanted to know if this was a good idea. So she asked it of her network on Facebook.

This story could end badly, except this woman was lucky to have many responsible and level-headed friends like my wife - who explained that she, too, received a similar recommendation and started taking the vitamins without any negative impact. Other friends gave similar experiences. Most interestingly, the friends together hit on the idea that their childhood under the near permanently overcast skies of upstate New York may have left them all deficient in Vitamin D. (An observation that would have been wonderful had it come from a doctor.)

The woman who asked the question thanked the friends and complied with her doctor’s recommendation.

But think about that for a second. What if this woman’s friends weren’t like my wife, a person of common sense and intelligence? What kind of advice might she have gotten? Could it have been more influential and her primary care giver? And would her doctor have known or been able to debate such advice?

It’s a question business needs to start contemplating with great seriousness. In the new age of networking and communication, the sources of information and misinformation might be questionable at best and dangerous at the worst. Yet people are going to believe what they hear and read from their networks of trusted friends, even if they haven’t seen some of those friends in 25 years.

It’s one of the critical reasons why I despair when I hear of companies downplaying the potential importance of social networking. To begin with, I think social networking is loaded with potential. It’s a place where companies can create a new relationship with shoppers, offering ideas, specials and connection. Imagine the power that could be unleashed by having key staff from produce, meat, dairy, pharmacy and more offer up information and enthusiasm about products and services.

But more importantly, imagine what havoc could be unleashed if poor or incorrect information is distributed about you or your products without any answer. Think back to my wife’s friend and her vitamin deficiency. Certainly there are many worthwhile alternative ideas on how to get additional Vitamin D, but I’m betting there are some really awful ones too.

The reality is today’s trusted networks might be fabulously responsible and informed…or they might not. Find a way to get involved and make it better yourself.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at .
KC's View:
Just a couple of follow-up thoughts on Michael’s column.

I’m fascinated by the fact that the doctor made this recommendation but apparently did not explain the rationale. Apparently, he is living in a world where a doctor’s authority is unquestioned...which is not the same world in which many patients live. It is no longer enough for authority figures to tell people what to do...they have to explain why. And the explanation better be a good one, because it appears that some percentage of the population is as willing to take advice from friends as from experts.

In other words, having the right content isn’t enough. You have to provide context.

Now, there will be those who will suggest that this questioning of authority is indicative of the broader decline of western civilization. I’m not sure I agree...but then again, there is a long line of authority figures that I’ve questioned over the past 55 years. (I’ve always related to the great line in Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep,” when Philip Marlowe says, “I test very high on insubordination.”)

The big point is that even beyond the social networking trend, it is critical for institutions and authority figures to create contextual frameworks for the suggestions and recommendations they make and the products they sell.