In our never-ending quest to define social media — whether for ourselves or for our clients — there’s one tendency that stands out, and I think it’s the result of a simple semantic slip. We refer to social media as if it were a thing, an object or technology, in short, a noun. Well yes, social media applications are tools and technologies. But social media is also a verb: : experiences, practices, conversation, talk. We switch back and forth sometimes between describing social media and its industry applications: social media marketing, distributed conversations, social networking. But in general, and in part because we are hail from the technology industry, we stand by the noun.
I’d like to explore the verb.
There are four views of social media that organize most of the industry’s conversation:
- The builder’s view from the perspective of technology
- The startup’s view from the perspective of adoption
- The user’s view from the perspective of experiences
- The marketer’s view from the perspective of distribution
While each of these is valid on its own terms, none is sufficient by itself to describe “social media.” But there is one view that is privileged, and that is the user’s view. If an application fails to deliver a compelling user experience, there will be no application worth speaking about. No application adopted, no business funded, no market reached.
Now, social media are not just used by users. They’re used also by the companies built around them; used by the advertisers advertising within them; and used by the designers and architects who build them. Since not one of these groups “owns” social media, and since none takes the position of the end user, who knows best what a social media tool should be like, how it works (in practice), or for what it is used?
If there’s one thing in the way of PR, marketing, and advertising professionals succeeding in their use of social media, it’s that many of us are limited by the interests that govern our perspective. Thankfully, we can learn a lot by taking positions other than our own. The builder learns from the user. The founder, from the marketer. The marketer from the user.
I’d like to attempt the marketer’s perspective. How might social media best and most successfully serve their purposes?
In conversations with marketing professionals I often hear of the need for real case studies and examples. SNCR has many to cite. Charlene Li and Jeremiah Owyang continue to dig up gems. But for all the tools out there, we suffer a shortage of best practices and success stories.
A marketer might easily conclude that social media are not ready for distribution. But I think the challenge for social media in the marketplace is not in their lack of utility. Rather, I think, they’re simply being under-utilized. Under-utilized not because the technologies are incapable of meeting the marketer’s needs: but that the creative and campaigns deployed misuse the media.
These are tools and applications built by the people for use by the people. They were not not intended as new distribution channels for commercial messaging. Therefore any successful social media marketer should pack away the commerce and converse with authenticity. Users are not there to receive the messages of marketers, but are there for their own purposes. There’s a connecting line between the phone line and online, and that line is drawn between the commercial and the personal.
Social media serve highly local, personal, and episodic purposes. Conversations are fast, disjointed, and discontinuous. In other words, they have little in common with mass media and broadcasting. Talk starts with the user more than with published content. It unfolds in front of an audience on the medium, not outside of it. Commercial participation needs to come off the screen and embed itself.
Can it? I think yes, if the marketing perspective takes the position of the user.
We’re talking about a shift in marketing from impression to expression, and from image to relationship. Messages will get recognition if they are meaningful. And they will get “distribution” if they are retaleable. On blogs, PR and marketing want to be contextual. On social networking sites, marketing and advertising wants to be actionable.
Social media and mass media have one thing in common: communication. So let’s look at the communication needs of the industries most interested in reaching social media: PR, marketing, and advertising.
- the content is news, the mode is the release, the form is a brief (narrative), the connections possible are to the company profiled, the news announced, the testimonials offered, the persons involved.
- the content is image, mode is a branding campaign (image + message), the form can take multiple media, the connections possible are consumer interest, impressions, and associations with the message’s connotations and thrust.
- the content is an offer, mode is campaign with call to action (image + call to action), the form can take multiple media, the connections possible are the relevance and appeal of the offer, and means by which to act on it.
The above are descriptions of how commerce seeks to benefit from communications media, be they mass or social. But if we believe that users run social media according to their own interests, how do commercial concerns ply their craft in an industry that is user-centric? What do they do differently to participate in the language of social media users?
Let’s take a look at three distinguishing aspects of social media: their transformation of how we talk, how that talk is distributed, and what kinds of relationships we maintain while talking.
Social media provide new forms of talk, using multiple media types, across many different platforms, in long and short form, in front of different kinds of audiences, and appearing of course in a diverse number of forms: from pages to “streams.” Commercial interests need to learn these forms of talk, as they would need to learn any new mass media format. Because most campaigns still rely heavily on banner and display advertising, the opportunities ahead for embedded and conversational advertising are great.
We might consider, for example:
- New socially-interactive ad units
- New types of content, group, event, and conversation sponsorship
- New advertising units to take advantage of the medium’s many kinds of talk: reviews, recommendations, invitations, questions and answers, tweets, feeds, and so on
- New types of social games with embedded and actionable (playable) ads
- New kinds of narrative, including branching and participatory stories
- Feed-based marketing that offers event tickets, time-sensitive discounts, and so on to friends
- Sponsored reviews and recommendations appealing to those who spot trends and share discoveries
- Question/Answer formats appealing to end user expertise
Social media provide new means of distribution, using many social platforms, on which different kinds of audiences are assembled, for talk that is fast or slow, structured or loose, categorized or streaming, and using all media types available (text, message, video, game, animation, audio). Commercial interests might implement campaigns in multiple media types and for different applications. Here again, interactive and online ad agencies are still using conventional web 1.0 approaches, so there are wins ahead for new creative efforts.
We might consider, for example:
- Feed-based marketing
- Feed-based and direct-action advertising offers
- Social applications built around popular online social activities
- Social ad networks
- Mobile promotions tied to location or social networks
- User interest-based and targeted promotions
Social media offer new types of relationship, including closed groups of affiliates, colleagues, co-workers, and friends, friend-networks, follower audiences, blog subscribers, and more. Commercial interests can appeal to the network as well as the individual, or to the audience and context in general. And again, many departments would rather run their campaigns from the sidelines, and opt out of directly engaging the social media conversation space. The opportunities for success here, I suspect, are a matter of the depth of engagement commercial interests are willing to test.
Here we might consider:
- Commercial marketing to and through influencers
- Event offers and promotions distributed through inviters
- Branding and advertising to the social graph through top recommenders and influencers
- Group sales and promotions to social networks and trust circles
I feel that I have only touched on what can yet be done. With the user’s permission (and that is a big “if,” I’ll admit, but that said, we love brands and we identify through commodities, so…) there is room for a new kind of “adversation” or “convertising.” Consumer interests in consumption and things consumed are real, and genuine — the threat of spam or commercialization is a matter of how it is handled.
I began by claiming that social media were as much a verb as a noun. Well, so the contents of media are people. People are fragile. But they can be moved. Simply handle with care.