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Is social media an oxymoron?

Jan 25th 2009
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By Barbara Bix -
Wikipedia defines social media as “primarily Internet- and mobile-based tools for sharing and discussing information among human beings. Examples of tools this source cites include blogs, wikis, podcasts, and information sharing cites such as Linked In and Flickr.

Call me old-fashioned but I tend to think of interacting with machines—rather than directly with other people—as antisocial. But let’s not quibble over terms. Social media is all the rage at marketing conferences these days, so it’s fair game for this blog.

What got me thinking about this topic today was an event that I attended earlier this week at the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council (MTLC).

Why are marketers talking about social media?

Marketers make a living trying to attract the attention of desirable prospects and then motivate them to move through their buying process quickly. To do this, among other things they need to deliver the right message to the right person at the right time.

The MTLC announcement described social media as a fast, efficient, and relatively inexpensive way to get your message directly to an audience. Presumably, this description offers three reasons why marketers are interested in social media. That said this description is a bit of a blanket statement and has a lot of underlying assumptions.

Do messages travel faster by social media?

Theoretically, conventional broadcast media such as television and radio have the potential to be equally fast—since transmission and receipt are instantaneous—if audiences are tuned in to the programs where advertisers are placing their promotions. Many social media advocates argue, however, that social media results in faster communication because engaged audiences can tune in to Internet- or mobile-based content any time from anywhere. Unlike viewers of conventional broadcast media, or even direct marketing campaigns, social media consumers don’t need to wait for content to arrive at a pre-scheduled time.

Is social media more efficient?

This takes us to the next adjective MTLC used to describe social media: “efficient”. The dictionary defines “efficient” as being without waste. One could argue that there is a lot of waste in broadcast media because marketers pay to reach a wide range of consumers, many of which don’t have—and will never have interest in the advertisers’ solutions.

Most social media content such as blogs, wikis, and podcasts, on the other hand, attract relatively homogenous communities. Therefore, promoters can seek out the communities that they believe will attract their most promising prospects and deliver highly targeted messages. Of course, this is theoretically true for a lot of conventional media vehicles such as publications that focus on special interests (e.g. sports magazines, medical journals, etc.) and any well-thought out direct marketing campaign. So, it’s not clear to me that social media is more efficient than direct marketing—unless you consider speed and expense.

Will social media remain less expensive?

In my opinion, it is the third quality “inexpensive”, where social media clearly excels. Clearly, it is less expensive to write and post a blog entry than it is to develop a commercial and buy time from a network to deliver it. It is probably also cheaper to post a picture on Flickr--than printing it on a postcard, attaching a stamp, and sticking it in the mail.

Nevertheless, even “inexpensive” may be a short-term phenomenon. As blogs, “You Tube” and other alternative content vehicles proliferate, audiences may demand many of the same services they expect today from conventional media. That is, it may take professional writers or photographers to elevate content above the clutter. Similarly, audiences may choose to optimize their time by turning to aggregators to provide filtered and edited content—rather than going direct.

Social media enables ongoing communications

What the MTLC promotion didn’t explicitly mention is a fourth attribute of social media—built-in avenues for ongoing communications. Conventional broadcast media is clearly one-way communication. The promoter delivers a message but the only way that the receiver can respond is to buy a product.

Direct marketing campaigns—whether conducted by mail or telephone are one step better. Here, there’s usually a chance for the recipient to respond to the message. Nevertheless, that’s usually the end of the conversation—until the promoter transmits another communication.

Blogs, wikis, and other social media encourage ongoing communication—not just between sender and receiver—but across an entire community. Marketers hope, then, is that this ongoing communication will build the deep relationships it takes to nurture prospective purchasers through their buying process.

What did the social media experts say?

There was a lot of great content and unfortunately I didn’t capture much of it on paper. Moreover, some of the points that I did capture, I wasn’t quick enough to note proper attribution. The panelists would probably tell me that if I were a Twitter user, I’d be able to refer to the notes everyone else was sending back and forth during the conference.

A lot of the discussion centered on the effectiveness of social media. The panelists were quick to point out that before you can judge effectiveness you need to identify your goals and how you will measure success. That said most indicated that in many cases, it is too early to tell.

One of the measures they discussed were the number of people who followed various individuals via Twitter and the number of members in various communities—each of which they compared to the number of subscribers to conventional media such as some of the major newspapers.

One panelist, journalist Dan Kennedy, said that his blog posts had led to paid assignments. Similarly, Brian Halligan, co-founder of Hubspot, said his company generates many of their leads for paid subscriptions using social media. Another Pam Johnston from Gather said one of her company’s advertisers was pleased that the “mentions” of their product increased as a result of their campaign. The fourth panelist, Perry Allison of Eons, had a lot of rich content, as well. Unfortunately, I didn’t get down what she had to say in this area. I do know that she attributes her company’s success with “Spirited Boomers”, in part, to the way they’ve redefined aging.

Social media panelists' tips

Another part of the conversation focused on tips for others. One panelist pointed out that social media isn’t just for promotion. Businesses can use it for marketing research, customer service, and other important functions.

Along those lines, this panelist pointed out that one of the best ways to use social media is to learn more about what really matters to your prospects and customers. You can do this by lurking, listening, and learning.

Lurking, listening, and learning will help businesses improve products and services—and it can also help them build better social media campaigns. All the panelists pointed out the importance of offering content that was relevant to the audience. As Dan said, that will ultimately influence your efficacy since today’s information consumers have many choices.

Another advised the audience to spread their content out. Two suggested using your website as a hub that can serve as a landing page for those who find you via social media or refer website visitors to conversation forums they will find interesting.

One of the really powerful things about social media is that everyone is commenting on everything. Marketers can leverage this capability in a couple of ways. One is to become a destination by providing shoppers with a forum that they can turn to for purchasing advice--a la Amazon’s book reviews.

Another important way to leverage social media is to get others to refer people to your content. Therefore, you must have a strategy for publicizing what you write. As one panelist advised, don’t settle for relevant content—go for remarkable content. Make it easy for viewers to Digg or Tweet about your content by putting direct links to these services on your site. Reference others’ content because as one panelist pointed out, if you link to someone’s post, they’re much more likely to mention you.

Perry provided some excellent tips that I didn’t write down quickly enough. Among them were the admonitions to listen well and be authentic, transparent, and responsive—important qualities when building any relationship.

She or one of the other panelists, therefore, encouraged the audience to write back and comment on others’ comments to your posts. Finally, as with any marketing campaign, social media communicators need to test, measure, and refine until they get the desired results.

Questions about social media

As you’ve probably gathered, I got a lot from the conference, and could have probably gotten more if I could have written faster. Nevertheless, it raised as many questions for me as it answered.

Paradoxically, one of my questions is whether this media enhances, or impairs efficiency. Marketing is efficient, among other reasons, because it allows for “one-to-many” communication to tee up leads that a salesperson can close one-to-one. Social media, on the other hand, encourages a real dialogue—which may mean more individualized responses. That’s great to the extent that one is talking to qualified prospects—but does one injure one’s brand, if he/she doesn’t respond to everyone? And, if one does, is social media really that inexpensive?

Another concern is about privacy. Awhile ago, the Wall Street Journal contacted me to comment about a company that was engaging consumers online, months before they planned to launch a new product. It was clear to me that a great application for the data they were gathering was to hone their value proposition—which was great for them. But was it great for the consumers? When I clicked on their privacy policy, I learned that it didn’t provide much protection to those the company was engaging in conversation.

More recently, I’ve had occasion to use social media. So far, I’ve refrained from using most vehicles because I didn’t find their privacy policies acceptable—and am using the only blogging software that met my criteria.

I also wonder whether social media will help—or hinder—social relationships. As more and more hand-held technology becomes available, I increasingly see people typing away at meetings rather than devoting their full attention to those that are present. In the past, inattention has led to the erosion of relationships. Unless the behavior--or our social mores--change, social media runs the risk of hampering rather than nurturing personal relationships.

What are your thoughts about social media?

This is a much longer post than I had intended to write but I’ve barely scratched the surface of what was covered in last week’s conference. Please write back and let me know what you’ve learned about social media—and your largest unanswered questions.


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