Attended a great seminar this morning on Social Media, sponsored by the Greater Baltimore Technology Council. Was fortunate enough to have picked three amazing presenters in Dave Troy, Marci DeVries and Jared Goralnick (yes, you need to check them out, you’ll definitely learn a few things). But what’s sticking with me right now, at 6:22 pm – when I should clearly be in my car heading home to dinner and my family – is a conversation I had with a fellow attendee about why his company’s new Web 2.0 makeover and various social media ventures don’t seem to be working.

Companies ask me all the time why anyone would care about Twitter or Facebook or consumer-generated content of any stripe. They want to know why social media is beginning to attract Enterprise-level attention. They can’t see why they should care about all this “Web 2.0 crap” (actual quote, folks), much less spend valuable budget dollars on it….it’s all just hype, isn’t it? Fun little widgets and shiny rounded corners and ubiquitous thought bubbles and gossip that passes for communication – where’s the business value in that Joe?

Here’s what I tell them.

First, don’t confuse the look of Web 2.0 with what it is or what it means. All that shiny candy-coated crap comes from wannabe designers unable to come up with original ideas and meaningful communication. But that’s a whole other ball of wax, a rant for another time.

Second, like all of you, I’m a customer. And like all of you, I have issues with far too many of the product/service providers I give my money to. But at the same time, I’m a provider as well. I spend a lot of time trying to help companies connect with their customers by improving the experiences people have with their products, services and yes, their people.

Hmmm. Let’s focus on that last one for a second. People. OK….I feel a rant coming on. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

No matter what you sell, you’re selling to people. B2B, B2C, A to Z, everything you do in business starts and ends with people. And no matter what you have to say, if it isn’t valuable or useful or helpful to those people, you might as well talk to yourself. Too many companies I talk to are still doing just that – and many I’ve talked to recently are spending an inordinate amount of money to do so.

No no no, they say, our customers love us. We’re invited to the party, our invite just got lost in the mail or something.

Look, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but that seems to be my job these days — so here goes:

It’s time to accept the fact that you’re not wearing the pants in this relationship.

It’s not just that your market-tested best practices are ineffective – it’s that they’re pretty much irrelevant. Your carefully crafted, professionally wordsmithed pickup lines aren’t cutting any ice with us because we want value, we want truth, we want honest answers instead of marketing rhetoric and empty promises. We don’t want to be marketed to, advertised to or sold to – we want you to talk to us. We want an authentic conversation, a real-world, two-way dialogue. We want you to answer our questions and listen to our opinions and feel like you care about the fact that we part with our hard-earned cash to line your pockets.

(oh, and by the way, we also know damn well we can go back to Google in .002 seconds and find someone else who will give us what we want.)

The point: redesigning your product or web site with drop shadows and glossy buttons and big fonts won’t convince anyone of anything. Posting self-congratulatory tweets, videos or blog entries won’t automatically convince customers that you value their opinions or that you “get it” now. Simply using social media does not guarantee you will get value out of doing so. So while Web 2.0 is certainly intertwined with social media, it’s really about value — creating it, delivering it, sharing it.

The vehicle only has relevance if what you send through it is relevant. The technology only has value if you use it to transmit something of value.

So if your twitter post is nothing more than a TinyURL pointing to a web page that says “We are a leading provider of…”, do yourself (and the rest of us) a favor and STOP IT. Go back to direct mail and TV advertising and the rest of us will continue to march merrily toward those products and services that treat us like the warm-blooded, trustworthy and frighteningly well-informed people we are.