Are you wearing coconut headphones?

Tom Voirol TV

Some organisations do digital by creating a website, setting up social media accounts, and publishing, because that is what everyone else does. If you suspect you may be one of them, find out whether you've become a cargo cult.

During World War II, allied forces used beneficially located Pacific islands as strategic bases, arriving in large cargo planes, building airstrips and towers, and deploying vehicles and materiel. This brought untold riches to islands like Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea.

When the war ended, the white men disappeared, and the crates of goods stopped arriving. In an attempt to coax the supplies into returning to their homelands. The locals kept waiting on the shores, hoping that the planes and ships might come back, but for reasons not quite clear to the villagers, they never did.

Drawing on a rich tradition of animistic beliefs, the islanders thought that they might convince the pale spirits to return if they imitated their apparel, equipment, and behaviours. To this end, they fashioned headphones out of coconuts, rifles out of tree bark, control towers out of bamboo and aeroplanes out of reeds. They would then, regularly as well as on special occasions, bring out these trappings of the soldiers who had vacated the islands years ago, in a bid to resume the flow of riches.

Bamboo aeroplane built to recreate the conditions of previous visits by troops

Such attempts form a core belief of what are now referred to as the cargo cults of the South Pacific. The tribesmen go through all the right motions, they use the invocations, they have the gear, but the planes don't come back.

And this has what to do with me?

Think about the organisation you work for. Do you know why you are undertaking the digital initiatives and own the digital platforms that you do? Surprisingly, many companies and government agencies have not spent any thought on these questions.

How can your approach to digital make you a cargo cult? Let us look at two examples:

Why are we on the web?

For instance, ask yourself why your business has a website. What sounds like a trivial question with an obvious answer at first goes much deeper on further scrutiny. You may be tempted to answer

  • "because every business has one", or

  • "to have somewhere to put our content", or

  • "so that our customers can find the information they're looking for".

These would be meaningless platitudes.

We've built the tower and turned on the lights, so where are they? We've built the tower and turned on the lights, so where are they?

Digitally savvy organisations take every step in digital consciously and with clearly formulated goals and success metrics. Better answers to the above question include

  • "because we want to sell directly to customers, but without upsetting our traditional sales channels. Our goal is 20% of turnover through digital channels 2 years after launch", or

  • "to have somewhere for people to satisfy their curiosity we've piqued with our social media campaign", or

  • "so that our contact centre receives fewer support calls for basic questions that customers could solve themselves online"

If you have an online strategy with measurable objectives, you are a digital organisation. If you don't, you are a cargo cult, going through the motions of digital in the hope that it magically yields business results.

Pretend soldiers marching with bamboo rifles and the word USA painted on their bare chests

How are we doing social media?

Similarly, in recent years there has been a rush of businesses and governments opening up social media accounts on a plethora of platforms. Many of these organisations start posting, maybe responding a bit, and they measure their success in number of likes or followers.

Of course, in most of these cases no amazing business results eventuate. If you have a social media strategy, you know how to be part of a community in order to build a community, and you are willing to listen as much as you are to blast your message out, then you stand a chance to be doing social media in a way that benefits your organisation. If you just go through the motions, then I'm afraid you are merely wearing coconut headphones.

Would you like to take off your coconut headphones? Let's chat.