Do you know what you’re saying when you say “Social Media”?


Suddenly everyone wants Social Media.

While traditional media budgets have kept shrinking in the wake of the recession, according to recent Forrester Research, “53% of marketers are determined to increase their social media budget, and 42% will keep it the same, a total of 95% of marketers are bullish on social media marketing.” Just two years ago, “Social Media” was still something that most marketers felt needed to be  justified. The absence of a simple answer to the complex question of “how to measure the ROI of Social Media,” was consistently invoked as a means to dismiss it. (As if the effectiveness of traditional media was oh so much more trackable in contrast.) But times are definitely changing. Speaking at Ad Age’s Digital Conference last month, Unilever CMO, Simon Clift admitted, “I’m convinced fat media budgets help make people lazy,” adding that he encourages thinking about what could be done without a media budget altogether to inspire alternative, social media ideas.

While some companies are clearly on the right track, lately I’ve been seeing how that dismissive attitude of two years ago is being replaced by a new frenetic trendiness. With everyone rushing to get this latest campaign accessory, it seems “Social Media” has become the new “Viral“–a term that gets thrown about much more frequently than what it actually means  is understood. Everyone just knows they need to score some “Social Media”…. Whatever it is.

The problem, of course, is that “social media” is not just a new flavor of media, it’s not even really MEDIA, in the way we think of the word, as just another channel to push messaging through, at all. When you’re saying “Social Media” what you are actually referring to are:

    Think: Online destinations where people connect, communicate, and share with their friends.
    Example: Myspace, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.
    Think: Just like “The Press.” I.e. Writers, video-makers, podcasters, and other content creators, as well as the websites where they post their output.
    Example: You’re at one right now.
    Think: Digital tools that facilitate the sharing of content and help drive adoption.
    Example: Embeddable video players, embeddable music players, embeddable widgets….pretty much ANYTHING embeddable, really. See also, the “Forward to a friend” button.
    Think: Any website that helps support a specific community by enabling connection, communication, and sharing between its members. Community websites function in many ways like social networks but are usually centered around a specific community focus.
    Think: Interactive features that support online communication, sharing, and community connection.
    Example: Comments, forums, profiles, video sharing, photo sharing, content rating, Facebook Connect, etc.

Thus, when you’re saying something like “We’ll do Social Media outreach,” what you actually should be saying is “We’ll do blogger outreach.” (Which, by the way, is called PR.) When you’re saying something like “We’ll promote it on Social Media,” what you actually should be saying is “We’ll promote it on social networks.” And when you’re saying something like “We’ll just add some Social Media,” what’s actually important to realize is that Social Media is not just a budget line item, it is now an integral component of strategy.

Joe Rospars, the man behind Barack Obama’s election campaign’s new new-media effort, explained in an Ad Age interview that the campaign succeed not because it used the latest technology, but rather because of its “holistic approach that integrated digital tools into the overall strategy.” That Ad Age entitled this approach of mixing the old media with the new, “The Secret” to the campaign’s success, is telling of where the industry’s understanding of what Social Media is and how it works is at. The most effective social media strategies do more than just utilize newfangled networks, features, tools and whatnot, they absolutely incorporate the digital resources into the complete, overall strategy.

So, forget the word “media.” Think of Social Media like messaging tone or demographic research–a critical element in the way a campaing is planned and in defining the direction it will take. Approaching it as something that can just be added on at the end is like building a house without electrical wiring. And tacking on a generator at the end is as pretty lousy substitute. Social Media isn’t just the wiring for one house, it is the whole electric gird, and you need to be putting a plan in place for how your campaign will plug into it from the very beginning. That’s what you’re actually saying whenever you say you want to use “Social Media.”


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