The first volley was fired with the launch of SixDegrees.com in 1997. But it would be another decade before online networking would take on the mantle of a true revolution. Around 2007, it became clear that sites like Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn, and Twitter were entering the mainstream. This caused widespread skirmishing over the significance of these sites, particularly in the marketing industry. The old guard fought valiantly to maintain their media landscape and convince us that social networking was just a teen fad with no place in serious business. But the digital onslaught was relentless. I think the deciding volley was fired in 2011, when the population of Facebook topped the populations of the U.S. and EU combined with over 845 million active users.
For all purposes, it would seem the social media revolution is over...and social media won. Now what?
Will those who blogged so courageously in defense of social media now be able to use global interconnectivity to create a new media landscape we all can live with? Will they be able to prove the existence of social media’s fabled ROI, or will it remain as elusive as phantom WMDs? And when will the advancement of education, commerce, and society displace diversion as the primary use of the Internet — or at least gain equal footing with it?
It’s up to us marketers to embrace the new normal in a healthy and productive manner. In that spirit, here are three things we could all start doing today to promote a lasting peace:
1. Stop the esoterica
I often fault brand consultants with overcomplicating things. But your run-of-the-mill social media guru isn’t much better. To hear them go on about “the conversation,” you would think Twitter invented social interaction between humans in 2006.
The more exotic and complicated we make online networking, the less we’ll be able to work with it. That’s why it can help to create your own working definition. Here’s how I dumbed down the Internet revolution so my team and I could get on with things:
“I believe we are in the midst of a paradigm shift that has been catalyzed by popular web sites. But the shift wasn’t triggered by Facebook, YouTube or Twitter per se. What we are witnessing is a mass change in human behavior triggered by sudden, 24/7, global interconnectivity. Put another way: Connect everyone on the planet and the rules of the game change.”
Look at it that way and you might find it easier to make sense of it all and be quicker to discover all the nifty ways it can benefit your brand.
One major implication for marketers it that interconnectivity has restored the balance of power between buyer and seller, just like it has been in small towns for eons. This balance is characterized by honesty (lies tend to get called out in a small town), accountability (you can’t be anonymous in a small town), transparency (you can’t have secrets in a small town), and word-of-mouth (in a small town the grapevine dictates reputations and decides fates). See? The brave new world isn’t so new after all; it’s more like “back to the future.”
2. Ban the word “social media” from your vocabulary.
“Social media” had some meaning at the start of the revolution. Back then, only a handful of sites allowed for any meaningful interactivity. The rest of the sites were like online brochures. Those days are long over. Sure, there are plenty of Web 1.0 sites around. But the means to socialize any website are well within everyone’s grasp today. There is no longer a social part of the web that is different from the rest of the web. “Social media” is simply “the Internet.” Need proof? Take any article on the subject, replace “social media” with “Internet,” and it will still read the same.
The problem with using catch-all phrases like “social media” is that it impedes our ability to formulate objectives and talk about the web with any degree of precision. That’s why statements like “We need to do more social media” are fairly meaningless and ripe for misinterpretation. Marketers who use “social media” the noun to describe marketing activities would be better served to speak in terms of the specific goals they hope to achieve online, like “We need to do more online networking or KOL outreach.” Networking is one of the things you can do on a social Internet along with many other specific goal-oriented activities, like online awareness building, offering clarification, or data capturing.
I urge you to remove “social media” from your vocabulary completely. Introduce the idea at your next meeting. It will be difficult at first, but it will soon force you to articulate what you really mean when you are talking about the Internet, and that will lead to more focused online strategies and tactics for your brand and clearer communication with colleagues.
3. Forget the platforms and focus on the people.
During the revolution a preoccupation with tactics and technology displaced the bigger issues of branding and strategy for many marketers. Brands no longer need a social media guru to set up their Facebook fan page (any 12-year-old can do that). To win the peace, today’s brands need sharp strategists to help them use that Facebook page to leverage consumer insights, compete, and grow brand equity.
Although I am still asked “Is social media right for our brand?” I find this an absurd question. First, because it tells me that the marketer asking doesn’t have their eye on the ball — the consumer. Second, because it reveals a belief that the Internet has changed but everything else is pretty much the same. It’s not the changes on the Internet that should captivate us marketers so much as how those developments have changed the people we sell to. Look closely and you’ll see that it’s not just their media consumption habits that have changed.
Over the past five years, people around the world have changed in ways that directly impact your businesses. That includes their purchase processes, decision-making routines, value equations, and customer service tolerances, to say nothing about their attitudes towards marketing, corporate responsibility, sustainability, privacy, and trust. These are fundamental changes in consumer behavior and the way business is conducted, also known as “the economy.” Which is a much bigger issue than whether you should be on Facebook or not.
So as the smoke clears and you and your colleagues rise from the trenches, look around with fresh eyes and ponder the ways that we can help our brands and our clients adapt to this new media landscape. And if you succeed in that, please share.
Sean Duffy is a founder of Duffy Agency, the digital marketing agency for aspiring international brands. Sean has over 25 years of experience working with strategic marketing in Boston, San Francisco, Stockholm, and Copenhagen. In addition to his involvement with Duffy Agency, Sean is a frequent speaker on strategic international marketing and online brand management. He serves also as Lecturer and Practitioner in Residence at the Lund University School of Economics & Management and as Mentor in their Masters Program in Entrepreneurship. Sean is an active member of TAAN Worldwide where he has served two terms as the European Governor. He is also a speaker, blogger, Twitterer, and is on LinkedIn. With offices in Malmö and Boston, Sean splits his time between Sweden and the States.