Big flash recently, as someone said “social media is not the same as social media marketing.” Of course, that’s true. In fact, social media is one of those complex phenomena about which our thinking is often insufficiently complex – we think of it as one thing because there’s this one label, but infact the term “social media” is plural, and the concept overlays many communication contexts, personal and professional.
Where to start? Perhaps with marketing and PR.
Seeing that mindshare is moving online, and in the digitally convergent online ecosystem, channels have been multiplying like crazy, some of us assumed that marketing people were seeing the handwriting on the wall, realizing that they will have increasingly more trouble building attention, and were focusing on social media hoping to get a handle on the space. When we would bring up these issues and they didn’t like it, we assumed that the resistance was a manifestation of informed anxiety, that they understood their predicament.
However, I now wonder whether marketing pros didn’t believe their world was changing that much, and considered us naive to think so. It seemed obvious to me that mindshare is increasingly fragmented across many channels, and marketing products across media will be increasingly challenging and labor-intensive. Could this be hard to see? Or could I be wrong?
And how about metrics for social media marketing?
I have been known to say that any metrics connecting social media messages to actual responses or conversions would be suspect. It seems obvious to me that it would be hard to connect a purchase or conversion to some specific conversation or event within social media. Drivers for conversion can be complex and scattered across many channels. What did you do that worked? How do you know that you’re having any effect at all? Howe meaningful is it that a million people “like” you on Facebook or follow you on Twitter? Engaging may be more important than measuring hits, but engagement can be expensive and labor-intensive to scale, and again, the metrics can be hard. I assumed marketing pros were looking for some sort of metrics, a dashboard that shows aggregate numbers, whether accurate or not – they’re in a world that runs on numbers, accurate or not. What’s the discipline if you can’t quantify your success (or lack of success)?
My smarter colleagues, like Dave Evans, didn’t try to pull marketing professionals into the world of social media and get them to see it for what it is. Rather, they kept their advice closer to business as usual, showing enough of what’s changed to be useful, but offering a sense of security – people are people and the world hasn’t changed that much. I no longer have an argument here: I realize that people need to believe the ground beneath their feet is somewhat solid.
And it could be that, if you’re a marketing professional, the social media are just a new set of channels that you work like any others. It’s just a mashup of television, radio, and newspapers, all differently distributed. You’ll still be able to have an effect on a relatively large audience (and the need to do so may bias development over time in favor of a more broadcast approach to Internet programming, something that has made seasoned Internet pros like me shudder whenever it’s come up. If the Internet becomes television, its power as an engine of creativity and innovation diminishes. Many voices are drowned out by a few, effectively “marketed.”)
To summarize that last point, If you’re in marketing and you don’t think your world is changing radically, social media won’t mean much to you. When you hear an Internet maven talk about challenges to your world, you don’t feel anxiety – rather, you tell yourself that Internet people are crazy idealists that don’t understand how the world works.
I’m just speculating, since I don’t have a marketing background. As a writer and sometimes journalist, and as an Internet professional, I have more affinity with the world of public relations. Marketing is about consumers, demand, and sales. Public relations is about relationships, conflict resolution, cooperation and collaboration. From a professional perspective, social media is just another set of tools for the PR person, and if you’re selling yourself as a social media consultant, you might as well say you’re in public relations (but you’d better be armed with an understanding of all that entails).
I had an aha moment about this in New York recently, having dinner with my friend Doug Barnes, a technology-focused attorney. I described my research and focus of the last three years, and how I’d never been quite sure how to present it to potential clients. Hearing me describe how I started 3-4 years ago creating an approach for analyzing an organization’s social connections, building a model of the org’s social network, and working with them to determine how most effectively to address and leverage that network, Doug said “That’s public relations. Why don’t you just say that’s what you do?”
As a journalism student in the early 70s, I was drawn to public relations, but I didn’t make it my career at the time. Over the last two decades I’ve built my career on Internet expertise, focused mostly on community, engagement, relationships and communication. I’ve apparently come back, almost forty years after I first studied it, to public relations through that path. Thinking about this, I realize that I know other “social media consultants” who don’t see that they’re knocking on PR’s door – without necessarily the training or understanding of communication that a PR person should have.
Pure social media consulting turns out to be a difficult business. Naturally, organizations that need help with communication strategy are hiring PR companies, not social media companies, and the social media consultants who came through the Internet, especially those who came through specific platforms (the Twitterati), aren’t getting the jobs they dreamed they would get. Many companies, like the marketing pros I mentioned earlier, realize social media is important but don’t necessarily see it as a major change – rather, it’s a couple more media channels to address, Facebook and Twitter. How hard can it be to set up a Facebook page and a Twitter account? Hire a low-cost college graduate to do it, they’ll understand how that stuff works.
So while many of us are seeing a profound culture and communication change, with marketing and PR and social/community organization transformed, and traditional business models (especially for media) disrupted and made obsolete, this hasn’t necessarily sunk in with the business world, apart from some clueful early adopters. Zappos, for example. I read somewhere that Tony Hsieh’s board persistently pushed back on his innovative uses of social media because they just didn’t get it. It took one guy standing up for it to make Zappos a social media success, and I don’t think the board ever got it.
Why is all this important to consider? We all know that the Internet is transformational and is touching all aspects of our lives, and we know that social organization is increasingly computer-mediated. I don’t think we’re clear, however, how this plays out in business, where there’s enough trouble and anxiety in the normal day to day given the way way down economy – so who has time to think about social strategy, culture change, transformation, evolution, noosphere, etc?
But we have sufficient and significant adoption and innovation, so the transformation is happening, whether we acknowledge it or not. We can innovate in an innovative context and build what Jean Russell would call a thrivable future, or we can resist change, adhere to old ways in the new context, and at best lose opportunities, at worst create huge messes.
If I was involved in marketing, public relations, or media production, I think I would take a few days to step back, look at what’s happening, and do some strategic thinking, ask some questions. Here are five points to stimulate your thinking:
- How are people using their time and their mindshare when it’s not engaged in work/survival? Clay Shirky refers to our cognitive surplus, time and mental energy that we can commmit at our discretion.
- How do people take media, and how do they take messages within media? Are we seeing changes in consciousness/attention? To what extent can people screen out messages they don’t want to see/hear? How do you engage someone sufficiently that they want to be exposed to your message?
- When people are otherwise engaged, how well do ambient messages get through? And what are the ethics regarding ambient or more direct messages mediated by technology as persistent parts of the environment (think “Minority Report.”)
- How well can companies engage their customers, and how well does that scale – or how can it scale – in mass markets? (Governments have the same question re constituents.)
- How do you measure the effectiveness of an approach or campaign in a context that is more social and conversational? And what should you be measuring – what are the ethics of measurement?