Every time I read or hear someone use the term ‘Social Media’ I shudder. That’s because nine times out of ten the term is used for instructing how to Use social media, with little attention paid to what actually Is social media.
A Google search for the term ‘Social Media’ quickly provided a whole slew of article titles I abhor:
“Top 20 social media monitoring vendors for business”
“7 tools to monitor your competitors’ traffic”
“10 ways to measure social media for business”
“14 strategies to grow your blog’s audience”
“Losing Control and More: 5 Fears Of Social Media”
“Hidden Social Media ”Gems”: Three Useful Twitter Case Studies”
“Get to Know Your Customers Through Social Media—It’s as Simple as a Digital Handshake”
“Five Things Most Social Media Marketers Forget (and Shouldn’t!)”
“Top-Level Metrics Are Just Candy for the Boss”
“How Blogs Are More Useful Than Email Newsletters”
“15 Tips to Increase Twitter Followers for your Local Business”
“10 Reasons Your Facebook Page Is Not Taking Off”
I’m sure we have all either written, read, or re-tweeted an article like these at one time or another. My grievance isn’t that discussing how to use social media is wrong or somehow false, but the over abundance of these articles shows that the social media professional community assumes social media is static and just needs to be properly optimized. The misconception comes from an error in focus.
People approach Social Media as Media, instead approach it as a way to understand the nature of Social.
Social Media is an evolving, perpetually changing thing. Not simply because technology continues to get better and enables new capabilities, but because the way people interact and the meanings of each ritual & action continues to be interpreted and reinterpreted by different peoples, different groups, and different regions, creating new opportunities and insights about how digital technology can add value to their lives.
Even if social media marketers and professionals don”t get this, social media developers certainly do. Take Facebook as case in point. Its rise to success wasn’t from any breakthrough technology. It was successful because it chose a highly influential and underserved market (Ivy-League students) and created a service based on deep understanding of the social dynamics, social needs, and social capital most prized by that target group. (It also didn’t hurt that the founders of Facebook were at the time Ivy League students themselves, so they were intimately immersed and versed in the micro-social nuances of that community.) You have all heard of Mark Zuckerberg, but how many of you have heard of Chris Hughes? Chris is one of the co-founders of Facebook. And do you know what his job was at Facebook? As described in a Fast Company cover story about Chris Hughes:
“…unlike Zuckerberg and dorm mate and cofounder Dustin Moskovitz, he didn”t write software code and didn”t want to. Instead, he tried to figure out ways that people would want to connect with one another and share stuff more easily. (His nickname among Facebook insiders is “the Empath.”) Hughes began to make product suggestions, “screwing around with the site,” as he puts it. When they decided to open Facebook to students outside of Harvard, he argued that different schools should have their own networks, to help maintain the site”s feeling of safety and intimacy. He became the official Facebook explainer: part anthropologist, part customer-service rep, part media spokesperson.”
The co-founders of Facebook are more anthropologists and sociologists than they are developers.
Twitter is another great example. The three co-founders, Jack Dorsey, Biz Stone, and Evan Williams created Twitter in a matter of a couple weeks as a ‘side project’ while they were all working for a podcasting company back in 2006. The code I’m sure wasn’t rocket science. And yet some people call them ‘lucky’. It wasn’t luck. It was the fact that the founders were probing the nature of how people interact online, and saw an emerging social need that had to be filled. And they filled it.
This brings us back to social media marketers and professionals. If they could just shift their focus from social media as media to social media as social, they’d be in a better position to create real value for clients. Today’s social media practitioner is occupied with learning these platforms to build clicks, impressions, likes, followers, re-tweets, comments, etc. The problem is 1) these easy-to-count, hard metrics have never fully answered the client’s deeper needs of branding and cultural relevance with the end user and 2) even before the practitioner has successfully learned how to utilize the platforms competently, newer social media platforms, based on new social interactions change the game yet again.
In this fashion, the social media practitioner is constantly playing catch-up, and never fully delivering on the client’s key needs.
Start with the end in mind. Seek to understand what is the user’s social need that is being met with this new social media platform. How does your company, brand, product, engagement, elevate this social nuance? Perhaps instead of thinking, “We need to have a presence in all social media platforms” you should instead ask, “Which kinds of social pain-points does my company, brand, product, engagement, alleviate?” then, “Which platforms have mechanisms that successfully treat that social pain-point?” and then, “How can my company, brand, product, engagement best work with that platform to provide a new value-added mechanism?”
Its even better if there is no current mechanism existing to solve the social pain-point you’ve discovered. That means you can create a whole new platform (or partner with an existing platform to develop) and offer totally new value, to the user and to your client.
Social media professionals need to be experts on social, not experts on media. They need to take the lead and understand why the user is really using that platform. They need to clearly understand why they’ve chosen to engage the user in that particular way. And then they need to elevate that engagement and show users that social media professionals can truly add value to the user’s experience. Marketers need to stop asking, “What kind of interaction is available?” and instead start asking, “What kind of interaction is sustainably beneficial?”
I truly hope one day soon when we use the term ‘social media’ we will be referring to the social meanings being created and enhanced by digital, instead of as a tool and channel to further our communications campaigns.