Social as a Broadcast Medium

Like so many in the email marketing world, I’ve been thinking a lot about social networking. Not just the likely impact of social on email but how social will play out over the coming years. Currently the received wisdom is that marketing on social networks is a two-way street, a conversation; you must listen as much as speak.

The narrative is that social is about interacting with your customers. Social is entirely different to anything we’ve seen before and interaction is central to the whole concept. Thus, listening is at least as important as speaking and if there isn’t two-way interaction, it isn’t really social. This also appears to be how most companies are approaching social media. At least as much time is being spent reading, analyzing, and responding to communications (listening) as creating outbound messaging (speaking). Entire agencies and toolsets are being created and set up around the listening side of social networking.

These arguments make a lot of sense and carry a lot of weight. Without the two-way interaction, social networks become just a kind of limited blog and so interaction must and will continue if they’re to have value and, hence, viability.

Some recent conversations, however, have caused me to wonder about this wisdom and whether it will remain true in the long term. Could it be that, for business and marketing purposes, social will become a primarily broadcast medium?

If we think back a few years (OK, perhaps it’s more like 15 years), the web was widely viewed as a democratizing medium. Many argued that it would change the dynamic between businesses and their customers, giving the customers a much louder voice. The argument was that it would become vital for companies to listen and respond to this increased consumer power. Of course, some of that is true. The web has certainly changed marketing in some significant ways. Online retail, web-based support, blogs, shared reviews, and ratings sites have certainly increased accountability. But in other ways, little has changed. Web-based customer inquiries are routed to the same support centers that handle phone inquiries and managed in much the same manner. In the end, most customers have no more voice with big companies than they ever did.

When email marketing started, an enormous amount of effort was put into managing replies and other responses to campaigns. Email is an inherently two-way channel (like social networks), and many companies had recipient responses managed individually by their providers. Today the use of noreply@ addresses is common even if it isn’t recommended, and companies that do handle replies typically do so through their customer service centers. Obviously, customer responses on social networks are much more public than replies to an email, but there are certainly some parallels here.

Is social really all that different?

History and practicality suggest that the long-term impact of social will be far different, and in many ways less substantial, than the boosters predict. Back in 2009, I wrote a column questioning the scalability and replicability of some of the much-vaunted Twitter marketing success stories. My concern was the workload and skillsets involved, particularly in regards to listening and responding. Since then we’ve seen what may be signs of backpressure against such open dialogue.

Of course, a company can’t silence followers, and silencing itself may be courting a public relations disaster. Then again, speaking out can be a disaster too if it’s not effectively managed. Some companies have been turning off comments on their Facebook pages. Admittedly, Facebook is pushing hard to maintain the dialogue and reversing its earlier decision to let comments be disabled, but the pressure is clearly there. Google+, though not yet open for businesses, already permits comment disabling in sharing and I think has the potential to be very much a one-way medium for businesses that wish to use it as such.

So that’s the question. In two or three years will social still be a two-way conversation or will it, for marketers, primarily become one-way with debates about whether you should respond publicly or at all? I’ve been considering both sides of this and I don’t see the answer as entirely obvious. I believe it’s an important question because if the dialogue is essential to social network marketing, the question of who should manage it and how has significant ramifications for marketing, agencies, public relations, and customer service.

What do you think? Have you considered this question and, if so, which side did you come down on? How will we look back on these days in social network marketing?

This column was originally published on Aug. 4, 2011 on ClickZ.

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