I think I've cracked it.
Here it is:
The trick to social media is in the name - it is inherently SOCIAL. So, if you want to operate in social media, you have to act socially.
Herein lies the problem.
Companies are not social. Companies are commercial. They have explicitly, and some would argue exclusively, commercial objectives:
As I mentioned before, Dan Ariely has made some really interesting observations about this.
Specifically, any introduction of commercial grammar into a social grammar situation, the social grammar norms are overwritten. The mere mention of money changes the framework of the conversation.
[Try offering someone who has just cooked you a lovely meal 10 dollars as a thanks you and see how quickly market norms supersede the social norms you have been operating within thus far.]
There is, therefore, an inherent contradiction here: commercial entities wish to operate socially to further their commercial objectives.
This is possibly why companies find it so hard to act socially and, by extension, in social media. You have to do it without any thought to immediate financial return, which is simply not how companies act.
They are not set up to BE NICE, but if you want to play in social media you have to act like a person and BE NICE. This means being cheerful and polite and charming and fun and caring about other people and all that sort of thing.
Adrian points out an aspect of this paradox - influence cannot be bought, only earned, within social media.
I recently gave a talk at a WARC conference about earning influence in social media, so I'll post about that next.
[Whoa. An exciting cliff hanger ending.]
UPDATE: James thinks brands should BE NICE too. I probably stole the idea from him. Let's start a movement. Finding ways that brands can BE NICE and MAKE MONEY.
UPDATE UPDATE: I haven't written the earning influence thing yet. I will. Yet another exciting cliff hanger ending.]