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January 7, 2008
Not a Fad, a Way of Life

You’ve probably heard a lot about social media. You’re wondering if this blogging thing is a fad. You think you might need finally figure Twitter out. And you should be wondering if this has any impact on your career.

The short answers: it depends, maybe and you bet.

Most people can be forgiven for thinking that what goes on in the Web belongs to an entirely different realm of social discourse. After all there’s a whole complicated set of rules and nomenclature you have to learn. And the technology seems so complicated – who has time to learn all of that?

The long answer is it’s all about connecting and relationships. Human beings are social animals and the Web and all of this new social media technology only serves to amplify that fact.

If you are in marketing (and since you are reading this article it’s safe to assume you are) you are in the relationship business so it’s your job to understand it. But don’t worry - I’m here to help.

With all the technology and fancy names it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that social media is really something we’ve been doing for all of human history. The earliest commerce took place in public squares where merchants would interact directly with potential buyers. For most of our history, the public square served not only as a commercial marketplace but also as a marketplace of ideas.

And thus it was, until the dawn of the 20th century and the birth of mass production, mass markets and mass media. Instead of one-to-one conversations, we have one speaking to many. Or in the case of the typical US household there were three TV stations, one newspaper and a couple of radio stations.

Media was restrictive and viewers were truly captive. I’m fond of telling my children who grew up on TiVo and TV on demand that when I was their age, if I wanted to watch Captain Kangaroo I had to be dressed and downstairs by 7AM. And if I had to go to the bathroom and missed something I was out of luck.

This is the media environment we live in today. We now have instant media on demand, either on our set-top box, online from iTunes or Hulu and on any device – the TV, your iPod or PSP or a laptop.

And the market environment is similarly fractured. For one thing – the most important thing – the group of people we used to call consumers aren’t just consuming anymore. They are answering back. They are expressing their opinions through blogs, user forums, online review sites, local news sites or email groups.

So in a sense, the Web has replaced the public square of old and the mass media of a few decades ago. Now instead of face-to-face negotiations as in the olden days, or the mass markets common in the 20th century, we are free to buy and sell directly from anyone in the world. In this new environment, individuals, not corporations (read, advertisers or more precisely your clients) are in charge.

But don’t be afraid of this brave new world. As savvy marketers, we have so many more tools at our disposal than we ever had before. Instead of a few TV networks, some major newspapers and magazines, we now have millions of blogs, podcasts, video blogs, user forums and other social media tools to use for our clients. And if we so choose, we can create our own blogs, podcasts, etc., to get our message out directly to the world instead of filtering it through the traditional media channels.

In the coming months, I’ll get more specific and delve into some of the more popular tools out there. But for now, just go and try it. Start a blog or comment on one. Listen to a podcast. Participate in a user forum.

Just keep in mind, it’s all about conversation. Talk, don’t lecture. And don’t forget to listen. Most importantly, don’t get bogged down in the minutia – don’t worry if you should blog or podcast or how long your comments should be. Just do it.

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As a veteran public relations executive, technologist and blogger, David Parmet has worked with several diverse companies. His clients include several notable Internet businesses involved in blogging, podcasting and other forms of social media. He is a sought-after speaker, has been interviewed by National Public Radio’s Marketplace, Businessweek, the Austin Chronicle, and has spoken at several conferences. Read his blog.

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