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Defining Social Media

  |  November 7, 2007   |  Comments

Hint: marketers are still trying to figure out the "social" part.

The other day a friend asked, "Just what, exactly, is social media?" Over the past few months there have been any number of thoughtful articles, speeches, columns, and citations that present in one form or another possible answers to this question. You'd think it'd be a slam dunk. It's not.

I took a look at Wikipedia. Certainly I'd find the answer there. And I did...sort of. Actually, what I found was even better. I found a discussion of what social media may be. It's a sort of recursive irony wherein one of the ultimate social media platforms is used to define social media itself. What really caught my attention, though, was the two distinct camps forming around the definition of social media.

The two camps are ordinary people -- the kind who post their thoughts to blogs (think posts, but even more so comments) or photos and videos to such sites as Flickr or YouTube or who create buildings and characters in virtual worlds like There or any of the thousands of other places where self-made content can be shared. In a nutshell, these are the folks who put the "social" in "social media."

The other camp? Marketers. For this group, the term "media" has their attention, and they're still trying to figure out the "social" part. This is the rub. There's even a viewpoint (you'll find it among the posts and comments in Talk pages associated with social media and places like Robert Scoble's blog) cautioning against the "hijacking by marketers" of social media.

I don't want to see my social spaces cluttered with ads. SÕo Paolo enacted a city-wide ban on outdoor advertising, citing "preservation of the cultural aspects and character" of the city. People look upon social spaces in pretty much the same way: they're about socializing. Of course, there's more to it than that, and advertising is a part of it.

America is, among other things, the land of the consumer. We advertise with a passion and intensity absolutely unmatched anywhere else on the planet. We have the economy to prove it. Advertising and marketing are part of what drives us. A big part. Such a big part, in fact, that wearing logos (Donna Karan T-shirt, $56) and tattooing a brand name on ourselves (think Harley-Davidson) are commonplace. Marketing hijacked social spaces a long time ago, evidently with permission.

The real issue doesn't revolve around who's doing what or where. Rather, it concerns how it's done. I met with a couple of people a few weeks back who were pitching a social media concept that goes like this: "Create a bunch of videos that look like YouTube and post them. Create some communities and postings talking up the products featured in those videos."

I had one of those "OK, one of us isn't on Earth...is it me or them?" moments. I reached down, felt my chair, and decided it was them. I asked them about the Wal-Mart "Drive Across America" campaign. They'd never heard of it. I asked about deceptive advertising. Response: "We've got clients willing to pay!" Suddenly, "hijack" makes sense.

Like e-mail, like word of mouth (itself a major component of social media as applied to marketing), social media will go through growing pains. Hucksters will try to fit in. Fortunately, because social media is driven by a collective (everyone who participates in it), the hucksters will be exposed. Quickly. The greatest thing about social media is it corrects itself. Traditional media really can't do that, but then again it was never intended to.

As for that definition: the emerging Wiki definition is pretty good, particularly this excerpt: "Social media is the democratization of content and the understanding of the role people play in the process." Applied to marketing, the implication is that going forward, a lot of the messages that drive sales will be passed around, if not outright created, by anyone with a related interest or point of view. Marketers are certainly in that group.

Here are some things marketers can do to advance the state of social media and use it in a way that's likely to be accepted:

  • Participate in forums, blogs, and collectives on social media. A great place to start is Jerry Bowles's "Social Media Today." In one place you'll find discussions by leading social media thinkers.

  • Join the Talk group that's building the social media entry. Add your expertise, and help build related areas, like word of mouth and social media optimization. As the entry says, it's in need of an expert. How about you?

  • As an advertiser, build campaigns in ways that genuinely tap the power of your audience. Provide them with the raw materials to share and extend your message.

  • As a marketer, work to improve your products and services continuously. Roger Adams recently left Home Depot as CMO. "Ad Age" noted in a related editorial that Home Depot needs (in order) "a better floor experience, better trained associates, and more traffic." I'd bet 99 percent of the CMOs, CEOs, and COOs out there would see numbers one and two as operation issues and only number three as marketing. Baloney. When it comes to social media, they're all marketing issues. The floor experience, including the ability of an associate to help a customer, creates the very experience that drives more traffic.
  • Do you have a definition for social media? Let me know. I told my friend I'd get back to him with an answer.

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    ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Dave Evans

    Dave is the VP of social strategy at Lithium. Based in Austin, Dave is also the author of best-selling "Social Media Marketing: An Hour a Day," as well as "Social Media Marketing: The Next Generation of Business Engagement." Dave is a regular columnist for ClickZ, a frequent keynoter, and leads social technology and measurement workshops with the American Marketing Association as well as Social Media Executive Seminars, a C-level business training provider.

    Dave has worked in social technology consulting and development around the world: with India's Publicis|2020media and its clients including the Bengaluru International Airport, Intel, Dell, United Brands, and Pepsico and with Austin's FG SQUARED and GSD&M| IdeaCity and clients including PGi, Southwest Airlines, AARP, Wal-Mart, and the PGA TOUR. Dave serves on the advisory boards for social technology startups including Palo Alto-based Friend2Friend and Mountain View-based Netbase and iGoals.

    Prior, Dave was a co-founder of social customer care technology provider Social Dynamx, a product manager with Progressive Insurance, and a systems analyst with NASA| Jet Propulsion Labs. Dave co-founded Digital Voodoo, a web technology consultancy, in 1994. Dave holds a BS in physics and mathematics from the State University of New York/ Brockport and has served on the Advisory Board for ad:tech and the Measurement and Metrics Council with WOMMA.

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