Life after Social Media Snake Oil

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A while back I wrote a post titled "How to Spot Social Media Snake Oil". Not long after, BusinessWeek’s Stephen Baker ended up writing a sort of mainstream media version of it citing lots of sources and examples. I knew that this article would be written because Stephen contacted me about it and in fact I used Twitter to point him to some additional sources which I believe he sourced in the story. (This will probably become more commonplace by the way.)

Now I want to tell you a story as I feel a responsibility to write this post. Bear with me, it may take a bit to get to the point—but I will get there. My first job in what used to be called "interactive" back in 1997 was as a Web designer for the Chicago Tribune. I left New York because I wanted to experience a different city and more importantly, I was smitten by the potential of the Internet. The Tribune, like many companies had started a  "Web department" that occupied some open space away from the newsroom. We were considered freaks by the traditional employees and had to learn a myriad of tools. I worked in a combination of HTML, did my own information architecture, Photoshop, Flash, and Illustrator work to name a few tools. I even had a boss who was a couple of years younger than I was. And this was in 1997.

Fast forward to 2001. The Internet had reached a fever pitch. I was going into my second year at interactive shop and was fortunate enough to help secure a local long term client. Right after that, the internet bubble burst and in less than two years the company went from soaring numbers of around 1700 to under 500 employees before things began to level off (think about those numbers). But here’s the thing that I’ll always remember. I can recall working with some very talented people who truly believed in the power of the Web and would not want to work in any other industry, alongside with some who heard the internet was "hot" and perhaps took a class or got a certification or knew someone and was able to get a job. In the Internet heyday, it wasn’t difficult to find work in the field. There were consultancies galore with hundreds of consultants under funny sounding names that eventually were bought, sold, merged or flat went out of business after the bubble popped like balloon in mid flight. And the first to go, were often times the band wagon jumpers who heard the field was hot. Though in fairness, lots of talented folks lost their jobs.

So what does this have to do with social media snake oil?

Certainly the internet boom was different—companies spent millions of dollars having custom built, large scale sites designed, built and integrated. Today there are millions of solutions that make things like development much easier (wordpress etc.), but there are also some similarities. Not unlike my experience at the Tribune, companies are forming social media groups, departments, and task forces. Perhaps you work for one. And also like the former dot com boom, there is a ton of hype and fuzzy metrics. Back then we had click-throughs, and now we have influence ratings, followers and buzz. Back then we had e-commerce and what’s likely coming next is social commerce (a button at the end of a purchase path that shares what you buy with friends). Back then we had usability gurus like Jakob Nielsen—and now we have social media rock stars such as Chris Brogan or Gary Veynerchuck. It’s worth noting that Jakob still has considerable influence and is active in the space. So for those pouncing on the current visible figures complaining about their visibility—that’s something to consider.

So what will life look like after social media snake oil?

It’s possible we need only look to the past. The first Web revolution convinced us that we all needed Websites (we did), the second convinced us that people wanted to do transactions online (they did) and the infrastructure had to be built to support this. The third revolution is demonstrating that people now want these interactions to be social, connected and mobile (both outside the organization and within). And I believe the second half of that revolution will change how business gets done, much like how businesses needed to become digital—they will now need to become more efficient in a digital age that’s become increasingly real time and human powered.

And in the end, this will all need to be integrated—It all becomes business.

So, not unlike what we’ve seen in the past, there is bound to be a shakeout, a quest for better metrics and ROI models (digital still deals with this today) but there is one thing I am certain of. The true believers who stuck with the Web even when the bubble burst became the people you wanted to work with. If there is a shakeout in the social space, the same will happen. The true believers will remain, while others flock to the next hot field.

And that’s what I think life might look like after social media snake oil.

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