Social Media: Window Dressing or Community Building?

Interactive marketing professional Max Kalehoff, in a recent column, pointed out (correctly) that “social media” is an often used but less often defined term of art. It’s getting to where without an explanation it really doesn’t mean anything. It’s like saying, “I help companies market online.” Huh? That’s a pretty big bucket, and so almost always elicits a follow-on question like “OK, so what do you do, exactly?”

Social media is much bigger than marketing. At the same time, it’s also arguably one of the most significant things happening in marketing right now. Given that marketers have a proclivity to talk, it’s become, by default, the most talked about issue across a range of industry forums. In that sense, it’s not surprising social media has come to mean a lot of things: Everybody wants to be a part of it, and so everybody with any sort of creative writing capability has figured out how to spin whatever they used to do and define it as social media. The fact that many aren’t doing anything new or different hasn’t seemed to matter.

What’s an e-marketer to make of all this? How do you apply any of this to your business? Start with “community.” Not just any community, though: your community.

List all the social clubs, civic organizations, and interest groups you belong to. Next, write out why you belong to each, what you gave or contributed (specifically, other than money) to each in the past 12 months, and what you got from each. If you can’t quite seem to put your finger on something specific for each organization, you’re not alone. My guess is that most of us belong to more than a few groups or clubs for which we can’t identify a purpose or a benefit. Note here, I’m allowing for those for which a distinct benefit to you or me (as individuals) isn’t the objective: but even so there should be some evident reason why we belong.

Why is this self-assessment useful and what does it have to do with marketing? As it turns out, a lot.

Look at your list, and focus on those items you quickly identified a real reason for participation. Then, look at the ones that didn’t quite pass this test.

Next, use this exercise to examine your Web site, last e-mail campaign, or your firm’s online community platform. From a customer’s perspective, which half of your list would these fall under?

It amazes me how many e-mails or subscription offers I get along with offers to “join a community” that provide me as a consumer virtually nothing. Absolutely nothing. The majority of what I see passed-off as “community” is nothing but warmed-over, re-written direct marketing pitches.

At its core, social media both encompasses and provides a set of tools that enable members to share and share in the information around them. It is a precursor, but not a guarantee of community. The social web, a facilitator, enables me to ask you or anyone else in my distributed network about something and facilitates you telling me and anyone else in your distributed network about it. This has implications for marketing and advertising. Primary among them: the explicit condition that participants in your community be able to freely talk and share information. Right there, most so-called communities fail. By controlling rather facilitating, the conversations become predictable, one-way monologues. It’s like the CMO who went to a marketing retreat and came back enlightened about social dynamics in our age of democratization: Maoist chants of “Let a thousand flowers bloom” sound great, and look even better in contemporary mission statements. But then, just as predictably, the other shoe drops: “And if those flowers turn out to be dissidents, we can lop their heads off later.” That isn’t, community.

This is not to say that social media and community-inspired marketing needs to be totally open, free, and unconstrained. This is the ’00s, not the ’60s, as much as I wish I were back there. A bit of structure actually seems to be a good thing. As marketers, we’ve got jobs to do and results to which we’re held accountable. This means we need to leverage the ideals of “community” — respect, participation, mutual benefit, purpose — and then let those ideals guide our efforts. An effective forum moderator moves an irrelevant discussion to a new thread, or a new forum entirely. Effective community builders understand the role of the community from both the member’s and sponsor’s perspective. There are expectations for members just as there are expectations for sponsors. It’s this mutual contribution/mutual benefit that builds and sustains healthy communities, and enables participants to fully realize their own potential within the context of the community.

I’m really excited about how social networks and social media right are developing. Savvy marketers are getting the hang of letting go, while simultaneously encouraging participation and community development in a business context. It’s an exciting development, and one that promises to only get better in the coming year.

Happy New Year!

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