By my rough estimation, there are about 300,000 people floating around Twitter claiming to be "social media experts".
Good for them. They are riding a wave of popularity rarely seen since the days of the dot.com bubble. If they can monetize or take advantage of this fever, even better for them.
As you can see by the Google Trends graph above , "social media" has rocketed up the popularity charts and took a sharp "hockey stick" turn up in the start of 2009. Some of the other strategies and tactics terms that my company Agent Wildfire has focused on (word of mouth, buzz, community) have taken a popularity backseat to this chart-topping beast called "social media"
As a Warren Buffett contrarian advocate, I believe the fever pitch around "social media" - the term and the tools is short-sighted. Be forewarned, when something moves this fast, this quickly - there usually is a letdown factor on the other side of the ride (file under Alaskan gold rush, backyard nuclear bunkers, zoot suits, disco, Y2K, Enron, Madoff-Ponzie, Avian flu, ethanol as biofuel) .
Why? Businesses continue to struggle to tap into social media as a source of value. The earliest of early adopters have jettisoned Facebook even though it's death star continues to spread. You hear a creeping resistance to the mere mention to the term - similar to the treatment we now give to the haggard terms Web 2.0, social bookmarking and blogging or dare I say, weblogging. Ironically, in some respects, social media has made a contingent of us remarkably less social, more stretched and less embedded in real kinships.
It is a jungle out there - how do you get noticed among millions of groups, billions of news feeds and hundreds of thousands of apps. Fact is - you don't - not in any sustainable way. A goodly percentage of us have placed our faith in "social media" and for most, it has been an experimental and unrequited love. More teenage crush than something palpibly meaningful.
I'll get on the same page for a moment so you don't believe I have lost my lid completely. Let's agree social media has revolutionized the internet and consequently how we spend an increasing amount of our time. It has provided the seed for smart organizations to think differently and early market movers to tap into its value. We have seen enhanced and sometimes surprisingly powerful benefits from social media with our client's programs. It is not a fad, it is here to stay and in a big way. My condolences to newspaper editors, radio producers and magazine publishers everywhere.
But in a very few short years, my prediction - the term will fade into irrelevance - all media will be social - no more need for the distinction.
And here's why the current fixation on social media is a bad thing, not necessarily for people but for business:
- it suggests that engaging customers can be boiled down to a type of media - check out how many company Facebook pages that are barren ghost towns to demonstrate the foolishness of seeing the benefits of a collaborative web through the myopic lenses of social media, be they pages, groups, blogs or feeds - social media is part and only part of an overall business strategy and a good percentage of its practitioners wouldn't know a strategy if it hit him/her on the front hood of a car
- the term "social media" is thrown around as inherently tactical and under-estimates by a healthy margin the strategy, talent and infrastructure required by companies to tap into its real value - it's great if John Smith can acquire a modicum of viralness by attracting 25,000 Twitter followers to his personal brand, what that has to do with Microsoft building an enterprise through social media is tenuous at best?
- except for the people that own the high ground - the platforms social media operate on (Facebook), the plumbing it runs along (Verizon) or the hardware it runs on (Apple) - social media is very tough to monetize - the belief that virtual companies will not need a website of their own and will just operate on a number of social media prongs is foolish and unfounded in success - social media is an adjunct to your web strategy it is not a replacement
- the lifespan of attention on social media is fleeting - for example, the timespan of utility on one of my tweets right now is about 45 seconds given the deluge of activity on people's walls - businesses succeed and thrive based on longevity of benefit and perception - addiction to social media would make them vulnerable to the flights of fancy and inherent novelty and lack of loyalty among social media-ites - if you're comfortable as a business riding the heroin-like highs and lows of social media enthusiasm, great - most of us would like to balance out that rollercoaster ride with some loyalty promoting investment too
- in our rush to embrace the transparent and tentacled world of social media, brands have forgotten the need to embrace the equally powerful aspects of storytelling, influencer and key stakeholder seeding, media integration, smart content and a well-differentiated point of view - what is a business and brand if it isn't an idea or enterprise that stands for something different - open source and socialize all your decisions and watch your business turn the compromise colour of "mauve" not the potentially brilliant individual colours in the spectrum
- how much of social media is really social? Perhaps in the heady days of blogging (2003-2007 RIP) you could make the argument that social media had taken down walls but media evolves and starts to look like the incumbent media before it - bloggers became A-listers and more aloof to real engagement, the pace of content quickened, user acceptance increased to the point that even the best company and/or blogger can't keep up with the volume - social media is simply becoming much more broadcasty and less interactive - for most, this will in time become merely a different channel
- social media loves to eat their own children - there is a culture of "gotcha-ism" in the Twitter and blogging landscape that makes big companies targets - and yet the most vocal social media-ites among them, question why these brands are slow to embrace it (it's kind of like hiring the worst, cantankerous employee over for Sunday night dinner each week to tell you and your family how much they hate you). Reality is, the best engaged companies do not practice the "one voice, one vote" rule - show your commitment, knowledge, investment to get things right and influence companies for the better and scale the ladder of access to corporations; act like a social media troll or curmudgeon and wonder out loud why brands turn tone deaf
So for the smart money, yes - consider social media within the scope of your business plan, but don't, I repeat don't, forget about other important factors in rooting the much more important benefits of engagement with and advocacy by your customers, influencers, employees and fans:
- building and incubating online community
- creating crowdsourced learning and insight
- leveraging word of mouth referrals
- supporting corporate social responsibility and smart grassroots marketing
- seeding and affiliating with key influencers
- getting noticed and talked about through alternative marketing forms - buzz, viral, guerrilla
- hosting customer advisory panels and beta testing groups
- providing a customer-centric brand and user experience
- offering up user generated content promotion and opportunity as avenues into your brand
- collaborating and co-owning assets with your customer base
I guarantee you that as we see the term "social media" bandied about, people are not talking about the above list of important items and if you as a business owner, take their advice as gospel and you will be blindsided by the lack of depth and richness of benefits you get back.
We've been here before. It's the boulevard of broken and inflated web dreams. Why does it feel like 1999 and people praising the virtues of Outpost.com shooting gerbils out of a cannon?