Social media is a global cultural phenomenon. It is changing how people conduct their personal relationships and has served to empower oppressed citizens, introverts and loose affiliations of every conceivable type. It is has created an incredibly democratic, person-to-person, level playing field of interaction. Its participants are incredibly equal. In fact, why the socialism-phobic wing nuts of the world haven’t marched on Facebook’s headquarters by now is beyond me. They must be too busy checking their Twitter feed.
But if you’re a marketer or building a brand and you’re worried that your company has missed the boat on taking advantage of social media, don’t be. The majority of social media programs are jostling for position like bumper boats at an amusement park. It’s novel, it’s a little bit entertaining and no one is going anywhere meaningful.
Here’s why: The two biggest myths about social media are that it’s magic and that it’s free. It’s not. Yes, the tools are free, but the time it takes to plan and execute an ongoing social media program is considerable. Imagine this for a moment: Take 20 average people and put them in a fully equipped woodshop. All the tools and materials they need to make furniture are there. But there are no plans or instructions beyond basic operating manuals. You lock them inside and tell them to get to work. Come back a week later and what would you find? A beautiful armoire? A Queen Anne style dining room set? Or piles of sawdust, a birdhouse and a couple of bandaged fingers?
In other words, a whole lot of activity, but probably not a lot of tangible progress. Because unlike the woodworking analogy above, where with proper training and detailed project plans, most of those people could turnout some pretty nice looking work, there are no blueprints for success in social media, and no one has been doing it long enough to know exactly what’s effective, what’s a waste of time and what’s downright dangerous or at least counterproductive. Too many companies are just toying around with the tools without any real understanding of what they’re trying to build.
If there’s one element that separates effective social media programs from ineffective ones it’s consistently relevant content. People and companies who post interesting, response-generating content have far more conversations and have the opportunity at least to interact with a larger number of their customers, constituents, or audiences. But creating this content requires more than recycling your press releases and promoting the annual picnic. Before you can promote an event or a sales promotion, you have to create it and pay for it. Before you can post a series of thoughtful articles about your product or your cause, you have to write them. Pushing other people’s content has some value, but it is no substitute for creating your own.
That pesky content, as it turns out, takes time and usually money and that keeps many a social media program tied to the dock. A study by the University of Maryland in May 2010 found that half of small businesses felt they were not getting sufficient return on their social media investments. Of the 22% who did report a good return, they averaged 30-40 hours a month of time invested. Where does that time come from? The reality is a huge chunk of activity is coming out of people’s personal time.
In the rush to talk, talk, talk about themselves and their brands, many marketers overlook one of the more valuable aspects of social media, which is listening. Customers can provide helpful feedback about new products or services via social media platforms. Because most social media platforms use real identities, comments tend to be more measured and responsible than what you might see on comment boards that use only screen names. Of course it’s also a bit like having your focus groups open to the public and your competition as well. It’s all on the table.
Here’s one more reassurance: The leading consumer technology company in the world, Apple, doesn’t have a Twitter account and has nothing but its address on a Facebook page.
I expect that in the next few years, much of the hyperbolic smoke around social media will clear and predictable patterns will emerge. New tools and functionalities will be created that allow social media users and marketers to interact more effectively with each other. “Fan” and “Like” tags will be revealed as the useless silliness that they really are. Until then, many social media marketing programs will essentially be little more than a toe in the water, and their owners may very well be glad they waited for a clearer course before really setting sail.