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The Case for Dropping 'Social'

  |  November 30, 2011   |  Comments

In marketing, your ability to interrupt has been replaced by your opportunity to participate.

Has someone on your holiday list dropped the hint for a social pet? Or maybe a new social refrigerator? Don't be surprised if it happens, which of course brings us to the question: "Is it time to drop 'social'?" Ironic as it may seem - especially given the title of this column - you could reasonably argue that everything is social. In a contemporary residential home, the light bulbs tell the power company "what they are doing right now." In that kind of world, it's a pretty sure bet that the electronic appendages we've all donned are doing the same on our behalf, letting our friends (all 5,651 of them…) know way more than what anyone needs to know.

So seriously, what does "social" really mean? It's become a phonetic clue that whatever follows in speech is now connected, via the Internet, to a collaborative application. If that's even close to accurate, then as marketers we're way past "social media" as a thing to do. Instead, "social media" is firmly part of markets, customer tastes, and business innovation cycles. What's more, entire organizations are governed more by consensus than individual dictum.

I was reading a comment posted on Amazon for my first book, "Social Media Marketing: An Hour a Day." Keep in mind, this was written in 2007. Suchandra Choudhury noted that I had a figure that showed, from a marketer's perspective, "social media" as one collection of tools, techniques, channels…that worked best when integrated into the larger marketing mix. She commented: "Social media marketing should be described as the center-piece of all marketing efforts and not on the periphery." My first reaction when I read that sentence was to view it as a comment by someone younger than I am (I get regular offers from AARP…). In that sense, for a whole lot of people, social sits at the center, because, for them, everything and everyone is connected. But has that become a general truth?

Take a look at the Forrester Research data, presented in the Profiler, a tool first introduced in "Groundswell." "Joiners" still skew younger, but the age distribution of online consumers reading ratings and reviews is nearly flat by comparison. In that context, Suchandra's comment is spot-on. Unless social sits at the core of your marketing (and indeed, business design) effort, it's highly likely that your implementation of social technology will be limited. How?

The point of social sitting at the center - and the case for dropping the term altogether - is recognition of the way decisions are increasingly made. Whether it's consumers in a marketplace, business partners in a supply chain, or constituents in a democratic society, those involved are turning to the information around them - left there purposely by others who came before them - to make better decisions. That is clearly social behavior, and the behavior does in fact sit at the center of nearly every decision-making process.

Compare this with a view of social as but one tool to be used to augment conversations, share or amplify a message, or create a community around ideas or interests. When you wipe it all away, such efforts by and large follow the standard social checklist: "Facebook, check; Twitter, check. OK, we're ready to tell our audience about our ____ using social media!" This largely explains a contradiction in marketing today. Most marketers claim they are using social media: studies range from about 60 percent to almost 90 percent. Yet the vast majority - between 65 percent to 95 percent of all customer requests for service on channels like Facebook and Twitter - go unanswered.

So yes, social - taken here in a business context to mean "collaborative, collective, non-siloed behavior across the entire customer and product or service lifecycle" - does sit at the center. Facebook and Twitter really are part of your customer service platform and not just newfound megaphones in popular gathering places. Word to the wise: if you go down the path of "Facebook and Twitter as service channels…" then plan it out, train for it, and scale up. With something like 100 million posts every day, estimates are that 10 percent to 20 percent of these contain an actionable item suitable for customer service - the idea of walking into such a gathering and yelling "OK, who's next?" is folly and likely to turn out badly. Nonetheless, and as I wrote in 2007, not responding is not an option either: the message sent in that case is decidedly anti-consumer, so you're better off if you dig in and figure this stuff out.

As a brand, you have an obligation to respond. Most texts would suggest that it's your choice as to when, where, and how to engage. But if "social" is dropped as a label - if the assumption is that everyone is simply connected and therefore that everything is social - then that assumption is itself suspect. For example, we rarely think of "traditional media" as a channel except in comparison to new media, whatever that means now (the "World Wide Web" first appeared roughly 20 years ago). Instead, we think about the specific channels: TV, radio, telemarketing, mail, banner ads (yes, they are "traditional"), and then plan our use accordingly. We take for granted that "traditional media" exists, and with it our near-universal ability to interrupt someone and bring them "the following message."

Enter the Social Web, and assume its similar ubiquity. If it's truly all around us and it's truly the medium through which huge numbers of people stay in more or less continuous contact, then we have a duty to pay attention, participate, and respond. For 75 years marketers enjoyed the right to interrupt via traditional media, because marketers owned - through advertising expenditures - the media. Now consumers own it and it's our turn to listen. And listen we must.

As you review your marketing plans, consider dropping "social" and assume that everyone is connected. Assume that your "ability to interrupt" is replaced by your "opportunity to participate." Turn and look back at your entire business and ask yourself: "If I ran my business based on the assumption of transparent participation, what would it look like?" The answer is probably "Your business, five years from now." So, no time like today to get ready for the future you.

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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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