The desire to define social media in settled absolutes is taking us in some directions that aren't allowing us to make the best decisions.
"The Social Network" tells the story (or, at least, a version of the story) of how Facebook came to be. I imagine most of you have seen it by now. It's an entertaining film. I have no idea how accurate it is in regards to the actual legal wranglings that surrounded the birth of Facebook or the degree to which the portrayals of real people reflect how they truly are in the world. But the movie does nail some of the sense of social media: how we think about this new channel of communication and what the technology enables today and could enable tomorrow.
One scene that has stuck with me since I saw the movie takes place around the middle of the story. Zuckerberg's business partner is arguing with him about how Facebook would make money. The partner is convinced that they should begin selling ads on the site, drawing value directly from the huge traffic coming to the site. It's the traditional way of thinking, but Zuckerberg is refusing. He says (something like) "we don't even know what Facebook is yet."
I love this scene and I hope that it is accurate. Certainly at that point, the founders of Facebook knew what the site did. They built it, after all. But what it was is an entirely different story and Zuckerberg was smart enough to realize that what something does is different from what it is. What something is can evolve in many directions and often is in the hands of the people who use the technology. I wonder, for example, if Steve Jobs (and the rest of the Apple team) dreamed of a highly connected digital living experience when they released the first iPod? That was something that provided a pretty narrow set of features (play music) that evolved into a highly robust and profitable ecosystem.
It's critical to have that open mind and allow something to evolve. Increasingly, I am finding people involved in social media trying to leap ahead of themselves and tell us all what social media really is. I think they are missing many points and leading us into making several key mistakes.
The Mistakes We Are Making With Social Media
The desire to define social media in settled absolutes is taking us in some directions that are not necessarily bad, but aren't allowing us to make the best decisions. Here are a few that I keep seeing pop up in the community.
Motivational Statements Instead of Mission Statements
Way too often, we see pundits and other self-declared social media experts provide hollow-but-exciting statements as business advice. Declarations to engage in the conversation or have authentic dialog with customers sound great and someone should post them up on the bulletin board, but they provide a pretty flimsy platform for building a business. At the very least, we need to couple these lofty statements with a reason to do them. "Engage in the conversation with moms to answer the questions that cause them to hesitate when considering a purchase" is far more directional and clear about the reason for using social media.
Ego-Centric Measurement Fixation
The human condition leads us to continually think that the thing that is easiest to measure is the thing that is most important to measure. In social media, this is the big number that greets us everytime we log on to any social site: the count of fans, followers, "likes," views, and mentions that we get. The size of this number is always used as an indicator of success and often the goal of the project itself. But we are all smarter than that and we need to stay focused on what we inherently know - big numbers are great for presentations, but never, ever tell the whole story. Put that big number on the first slide of your report and then be done with it. Insist on knowing what the real story and the real value of the campaign is.
The Misperception That Social Media Isn't Media
Social media is absolutely amazing. The wiring of our lives and interests together has enabled new levels of collaboration and communications. Twitter has even played a starring role in the unseating of governments recently. For individuals, social media is about making connections. For brands, however, we need to take a bit of a longer view and say that social media is about making connections to generate business value. Similar to the need to have a real mission statement, we need to make sure that we are using social media the way that we are using other media: getting consumers to think and act positively toward our brands.
It's that final one, though, that really shows why social media isn't just a new channel, but really a chance to rethink and redefine our jobs. In the past, "media" was a thing we bought or placed or planned. I think that's still true, but it is a limiting definition. Today we should take a chance to broaden that. I'd like to offer a new definition of "media": any moment when the brand and the consumer come into contact with each other.
If we take on this definition, it begins to get us past a simple definition of what social media does and allows us to start thinking about what it will, eventually, be.
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Gary Stein is SVP, strategy and planning in iCrossing's San Francisco office. He has been working in marketing for more than a decade. Gary lives in San Francisco with his family. Follow him on Twitter: @garyst3in. The opinions expressed in Gary's columns are his alone.
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