Social Media's Promise in 2010

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(NOTE: This essay draws on a chapter in my new book, Bright Lights & Dim Bulbs, which identifies nine radical branding and marketing insights for innovative business leaders to watch in 2010).

All the incessant chanting of new media’s Greek chorus notwithstanding, 2009 revealed two emergent facts about the promise of social media: first, it’s not really "social," and second, "media" is its least important quality. Instead, the opportunities it presents arise from what goes into it, and what comes out of it. Ignoring these inputs and outputs are its downside, too.

There has been no shortage of experimentation during the year, and I’ve written extensively about the thriving cabal of researchers, pundits, bloggers, and consultants who conspire to sell the idea of new media to marketers who are either disillusioned with traditional media ("those pesky consumers just aren’t doing what they’re supposed to do!"), or simply didn’t have the budget to pay for it anymore.

I haven’t attended a conference of marketers that didn’t celebrate "the right way" to "do"social media. The thought of newer, even more arcane and intangible measures of benefits makes people downright giddy with enthusiasm and a sense of their own special worth…like it lets them forgo another round of educating those hapless bastards who run companies or pay client bills, and instead tell them that they need to change entire organizations before they can truly understand the merits of social media.

Yessss, feel the power! 

It occurs to me that social campaigns cost less because they are worth-less. Maybe the market pricing model works, and the Invisible Hand is telling us that it doesn’t necessarily make sense to replace the already-questionable metrics developed to support a few generations of branding and marketing with new ones that seem even more vague. Yet the presumption these days is that consumers prefer conversation over content, relevance, meaning, or utility, and that this given truth requires only more efforts at tactical delivery. Survey after poll derides marketers who are lagging in this regard.

So we’ve seen lots of really creative, memorable campaigns that capture clicks, downloads, and headlines. The sales successes usually involve distributing a coupon or notice of a sale, which is absolutely legitimate, but absolutely not revolutionary by any stretch of the imagination. Return from the conversing that goes on is usually measured when campaigns are linked to other events simply because they are concurrent: people clicked on a funny video and sales were up, ergo social media drove sales.

If the metric for success is that things happened at the same time, however, we should also credit social media campaigns with making the Sun rise and ensuring that gravity functions correctly. Who knew causality was so casual? Maybe we should put world peace on the docket for the next Facebook campaign in 2010?

Be prepared to hear much more of this next year, often times from people who are either too young to remember Y2K, aren’t interested in reading the business history of tulips or the South Sea, or just presume that the Internet is this miraculous agent that everyone else loves so much because they do.

The pundits aren’t going to be much help to you, either, as they’re at least indirectly in the pocket of folks who want to sell this stuff. You’ve got to figure things out for yourself.

The good news is that social media have amazing promise. There’s a ton of truly revolutionary thinking going on, but you have to look past the immediate examples of glitzy campaigns. It’s impossible to understand the utility of social media campaigns unless you explore what goes into it − corporate behavior is much more important than creative marketing − and what comes out of it, in terms of participant behavior and involvement yielding actions in the real world.

That 2009 has illustrated is that it’s less important to spend money on the mechanism of how these inputs and outputs are connected − the social media tools, whether Twitter, Facebook, or A Player To Be Named Later − and more crucial that businesses understand the connectivity at both "ends." Figuring out how to waste consumers’ time in the meantime, however pleasantly, isn’t an accomplishment whatsoever.

Think instead along two broad paths:

First, what and how are your corporate behaviors — decisions large and small, and whether recent, real-time, or planned — identified and shared with people who would care about them? This is the publishing function that marketers talk about, only it’s not like publishing news releases or ad creative. The engine of your social efforts is what your business does, not what you hire smart people to declare. The creative part comes in deciding how this reality can become real for everyone else.

Second, where and why the people who might care about your actions might do something with/about them? Consumption of messages isn’t an action, taking an action is an action. So inventing a creative idea for people to enjoy is at least two steps removed from what matters; instead, the real challenge is to invent ways for consumer behaviors to track with your corporate actions. Think share, test, vote, inform, dissect, visit…verbs that require a subject and object. 

The medium isn’t the message, it’s the conduit that connects you and your consumers. 

So if your branding strategy is to get people talking about your branding strategy, you’re probably doomed despite all of the encouragement the punditocracy might shower upon you. And those stupid operational folks who you’re telling to change the position of every molecule in the company? If you stay focused on the blather of conversation for the sake of conversation, even if it’s spot on your brand attributes (or whatever), it’ll become apparent to them that the only thing they need to change is you.

The language of social media is behavior, and the challenge for 2010 will be for you to discover how to realize this ultimate promise.

The Bulb Asks:

  • Are you trying to make social fit for your company, or does you company have a clear, objective reason to use those tools?
  • Do you know how broadly and frequently you’re already doing it (hint: think employees, vendors, customers, and critics, not just your marketing department)?
  • Could you confuse tactics like tweeted customer complaints (i.e. the tail) with the operational functions that really matter, like customer service (i.e. the dog)? 

(Bright Lights & Dim Bulbs contains 10 tips on this topic and 8 others)

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