Reflections on Social Media’s Next Phase

While it may be tough times for many social media startups, there could be a silver lining in the industry’s future. Interest in social media doesn’t appear to be waning, and in fact this week there’s been a growing realization in the mainstream media that social media played a significant role in Barack Obama’s campaign success. If the history of technology innovation is any guide, the next phase of industry growth will come from the markets and industries that adopt social media for their own purposes. And the same can probably said of the media’s evolutionary path, too. In fact mass media, which is an industry that observes events, news, and by necessity, itself, is practically destined to assimilate social media.

But added to historical tradition is another obvious but rarely noted reason for social media’s ongoing durability. It’s in social media’s DNA: that social media collapse the distance between production and consumption.

Unlike traditional (mass) media and in contrast to past modes of production and manufacture, including information production, social media co-locate the means of production with means of consumption. Video is recorded, edited, posted, and viewed on the same platform. Opinions, news, and stories are told, shared, commented on the same platform. Music is made, distributed, branded, and listened to, on the same platform. This conflation of means of production with means of consumption not only presents a threat to mass media (and one which mass media will respond to by co-opting the social), it promises opportunities for those who can see them.

All commerce involves some amount of marketing, whether it’s based on brand identity, “real” utility and value, pricing, or whatever else comprises a marketing message and campaign. Social media disrupt marketing by eliminating much of the distance between the marketing/sales/branding medium and its audience. In social media they are one and the same: the audience does the branding and marketing, through communication, and often without the brand’s direct intervention or participation. Distribution by means of communication among friends and colleagues (social media users) is not only natural and organic (non-commercial), it reproduces itself without any help from commerce required. In other words, it’s self-referential and non-commercial.

This might cause palpitations for those who make a living by imagining, imaging, wrapping, crafting, and distributing brand and marketing campaigns, but it shouldn’t. Conventional branding requires that value be created away from an audience, to then be introduced to an audience, resulting in (hopefully) consumer interest, desire, and spending. The distance between the brand and audience not only allows those on the brand side to finesse their presentation, it allows them to control its release. Traditional means of course are print, television, radio, and outdoors advertising. Lifestyle, affiliative, demographic and other types of market segmentation and targeting serve the purposes of campaign management. The whole process relies on a separation of brand from its audience, and time during which to conduct, refine, and steer the campaign.

Social media disrupts all of this with the sheer immediacy and proximity provided by its tools — tools that serve the needs of talking and communing. “Word of mouth marketing” is a fancy way of saying “we let it go and our fingers are crossed.” Control over the marketing or brand message is but a residual inclination to stay one step ahead of the market, to use the distance between traditional media and their audiences to steer outcomes in a company’s favor. But control is precisely what is sacrificed in a medium that conflates means of production and consumption; a medium we sometimes call an “echo chamber” because there’s no telling where the noise is coming from.

Future and successful marketing campaigns that leverage social media will benefit the startup and social technology space by extending what’s been designed for daily use into soft commercial use. The budgets, while trimmed, are there. It would behoove social media companies to consider the ways in which soft commerce may play along. Just as mass media should entertain new forms of conversational and social marketing, from new types of creative, to compelling serial “talkies”: brand stories, interactives, games, and other new forms of what I’ll call “participatory branding.”

Social media are notorious for giving rise to unintended social practices, and those of us who design and build social applications should not for a minute think that we know everything that can be done with them. Any more than television manufacturers would be expected to develop the TV programs shown on them. Current market conditions make this a perfect time for creatives to get inventive, and for social media companies to reflect on where they will fit in.

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