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What is social media and why does it matter?

September 20, 2011

According to the social media site Wikipedia, social media refers to

“the use of web-based and mobile technologies to turn communication into an interactive dialogue

Interactive: the web is an interactive medium. Unlike a television spot, the web offers one-to-one marketing, interactivity and the potential for engagement. Also, websites are marketing tools that people choose to visit.

But dialogue is marketing jargon. In the quest to define social media and things like dialogue, we lost site of the fact that social media sites are just websites that people decided to visit.

The Burger King Subservient Chicken site is an interactive and engaging site. It was also wildly successful and on brand, since it delivered the notion that people could have their chicken any way they wanted it at Burger King.

It was an interactive engagement. But since it wasn’t a dialogue, it isn’t a social media site.

So what is a social media site? 

Before I answer this, here’s a story: when I managed the interactive campaign for a quick service restaurant, we handed out $5 gift cards to fans on Twitter. A fan DM’d us with the following message:

“This is marketing genius. I’ve never felt so close to a company before.”

Three years ago when this happened, the idea of engaging with a brand was different enough to be interesting. Up to that point, the marketing for the QSR brand was from TV, Radio and Print. Those mediums are excellent at creating awareness, but they are not interactive. Before the Twitter feed and the Facebook page were launched, the QSR had a website, but less than 3,000 people went there in a month. That many people went a single restaurant for breakfast!

This ability to engage in social media was both good and bad. It allowed brands to have more tools in the marketing tool box, but clouded our thinking about the power of social media.

Because of messages like the one from above, a conversation was the expectation of ‘social media’, and every thing was steered to Facebook or Twitter.

So what is a social media site?

The problem is, Facebook and Twitter are just two of the many digital tactics at a brand’s disposal. The lowly website is still engagement tactic that can create conversations. But too often, marketers turn to secondary sites for engagement because they promise conversations.

When used right, YouTube can be an excellent way to engage people. People respond with video comments, or with written comments. One could also see Flickr as a social media site. What about Delicious? what about Slideshare, one of my favorites? Are they social media sites?

The point is, they are all just websites. When used right, these websites can get people to engage, and if the goal is conversations, they can generate those as well.

Just call them websites? Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the brand .com or .xxx or dot whatever are all just websites. They aren’t social media sites, but they are part of the marketing mix – when appropriate. Set goals, create content, then measure.

But we need to stop geting caught up in terms. Instead, we should get caught up in strategy. What do you think? Was social media the right term?

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. September 20, 2011 8:55 am

    I agree that marketers sometimes get hung up on terms. I explain to my clients that I have a toolbox full of tools to help them solve a specific problem they have just described to me. I get paid to reach down and select the best tool(s) for the job. Sometimes it’s email marketing, sometimes it’s PPC, sometimes it’s a landing page, and yes sometimes it involves the use of a social media web site. (even all of the above might be appropriate at times) But in the end it’s my job to select the right tools that will produce the results the client expects.

    As for the term Social Media, I think it is an appropriate term. It makes more sense then forcing people to learn (and understand) the term “WEB 2.0 site”, since we never called the former versions “WEB 1.0 sites” to begin with. But let me clarify the difference for you because I think you missed a key difference between WEB 1.0 sites and WEB 2.0 sites. Dominant Voice & Permission.

    WEB 2.0 (social media sites) allow the common man to compete in the generation of content on the internet by becoming a dominant voice. Social Media users can generate competing or complementary thought streams to other Social Media users, with or without the engagement of any brand. Brands must now compete for a spot at the internet table in these discussions by gaining the Permission of those involved in the discussion.

    WEB 2.0 (interactive social media sites) is based on a permission model. Users subscribe to the content streams of others. Social media users do not visit other people’s sites but rather give permission for others to send information to them. Those permission can be revoked at any time for any reason and thus any voice can be silenced by the click of a button. Brands must continue to generate value in these permission based discussions or fear being silenced by having that permission to speak revoked by the social media user.

    Hope that helps.

    Good Hunting.

    • September 20, 2011 9:01 am

      To your last point, how does a ‘liking’ a Facebook page differ from subscribing to an e-mail? With both, the customer gives permission to get content. With a Facebook page, you give the consumer permission to engage. That’s the difference. But I think we get a little hung up on ‘engagement’. It can sometimes be a goal, but so can informing the consumer. I think we get too caught up in trying to have conversations when all people want is to subscribe to valuable information. How they do it is changing, it might be follow a company on LinkedIn, or subscribe to the e-newsletter – is one Web 1.0 and one Web 2.0?

      I don’t know the answer, BTW.

  2. September 20, 2011 10:20 am

    Good point on permissions, but just because several marketing tools use a permission model in the process does not make them the same. Email Marketing (using an ethically created permission based list) has become more of a 1 to 1 marketing tactic. Companies have gone out of their way to create a unique experiences with each email: custom subject lines, custom intro and closing paragraphs, contextual ads or offers based on previous interactions with the prospect/client.

    Social Media permission, in this case you mention Facebook ‘likes’ (and now ‘subscribes’ have to be thrown in as well) are a one to many model. One status/note/event update can now be shown on as many permissions you have been given. Those interactions can then be built on with comments by others which all can see thus adding to the social experience of the tool.

    So to put it another way, how may prospect/clients can have open access to a companies permission based email list? How many can do a reply-all and tell the entire list just what they think of this new information that has entered their in-basket.? How many companies are willing to let other clients/prospects see how differently they treat others in their emails?

    Also, you are correct, by creating a Facebook Page you do give someone permission to engage with you, but that permission is as cheap and useless as a mouse click and companies seems to forget that. The real value in this equation is that a consumer/fan has given you permission to send something to their stream (wall) which they watch and engage with. (Key Point: Social media users interact with their walls first – streams of permissions) Whether that permission grows and can be leveraged is completely dependent on your page producing apathy or interest with the content you are allowed to send to others.

    Great thought provoking post Matt.

    Good Hunting.

    • September 20, 2011 1:07 pm

      All that is true. A Facebook page is the very essence of ‘social media’. It is the engagement, subscription, sharing tool that confuses many of the other tactics.

      And that’s sort of the point. We get focusses on what Facebook can do, and expect LinkedIn to do the same. We expect YouTube (or video) to be part of the social media revolution – and it is. But in a much different way.

      That’s the point. Websites Tim. They are just websites.

  3. September 21, 2011 11:26 am

    Matt, I agree they are, I guess I’m just hung up on your tern ‘just websites’, it’s like me trying to convince a print media person that their printed marketing material is ‘just paper’ and ask them to stop giving their different printed marketing materials / tools specific names.

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