There’s No Such Thing as Social Media

A piece I’ve written for the Ixxus blog on why it’s unwise for organisations to ignore social media.

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It’s time we all accepted the inevitable: social media isn’t going to go away.  It is not a fad.  It is here to stay.  And – bear with me here, whilst I go out on a limb – it doesn’t really, actually, exist.  At least, not in any truly meaningful way.

Almost half of the internet-using population interact with social networking sites on a daily basis.  The biggest and most pervasive of these is Facebook, which has over 500 million active users and more than 30 billion pieces of content shared each month.  To put that into some context: if Facebook were a country, it would be the third-highest populated in the world (the first and second are China and India, with America trailing far behind at a measly 311 million).  On top of that, some 10 million users create 1500 new tweets every second, and the list of other social networking sites grows ever longer by the day; just last week, Google+ joined the ranks of Myspace, LinkedIn, Diaspora, Quora, Tumblr, Formspring, and all the innumerable others jostling for position.

Quite understandably, this new influx of user-generated content – a tidal onslaught of opinion, debate, humour and plain whimsy – has many organisations running scared; particularly those that have always relied on the more traditional forms of engagement and promotionAnd the picture is only going to get more complex: the rate of change and growth on the internet is getting faster all the time, with myriad new platforms and trends to keep an eye on if you want to stay ahead of the game.  As self-styled internet guru Clay Shirky puts it,  “The old models are breaking before the new ones can be put into place”.

Personally, I believe that the answer for organisations and businesses lies in embracing openness and the online; in particular the willingness to engage with and participate in discussion online rather than operating above it or in isolation.  Dipping your toes into the fast-flowing waters of social media can seem daunting in the extreme, and with good reason; but there’s one very important thing to bear in mind at all times – and it’s this:

Even if you think you don’t want your company to get involved with social media, it probably already is.

Chances are that someone, somewhere out there, is talking about you right now.  It’s up to you whether or not you decide to get involved in that conversation, but if you choose not to then don’t be surprised if you suddenly discover that people have been talking about you behind your back – and don’t be surprised if, lacking that valuable input from you, they’ve got the wrong impression about your company or services.

The digital generation is one that is mistrustful of authority and highly sensitive to corporate interest (Don Tapslock, Growing Up Digital), so new approaches must be found: it’s no longer enough to simply throw tired old imperatives and calls-to-action into people’s faces, no matter how persuasive your type-face might be.  Dictating to the digital generation what they should like, what they should buy, and who they should aspire to be may not go down as well as expected: online, anything too corporate, too staid or too sales-y is likely to be derided, torn apart or (perhaps worse) completely ignored.

If this all sounds like too much gloom and doom from a marketing perspective, there is an upside; and I’d argue that it’s an upside that leads to far better places that traditional models of marketing and promotion.  At a business level, social media gives companies the opportunity to communicate, engage and build relationships with customers and consumers like never before.  For perhaps the first time, we as businesses have a chance to be more than simple faceless entities and develop far more personal and human relationships online – whether that’s with customers, clients or consumers; whether that’s with potential partners, the public or the press.  Of course, creating long-lasting relationships is great news for brand loyalty – but it’s also great news for all of us, as living and breathing human beings.

And this is what I mean when I say that ‘social media’ doesn’t really exist, in the true sense of the word.  Wherever there are people, be it online or offline, they will always find ways to engage and interact and enthuse about the things that interest them.  The web has always been about communicating and socialising, ever since the early days of IRC and Usenet newsgroups – as time goes by, we simply find better and faster and more multimedia ways of doing it.  At the end of the day, it’s just people doing what they’ve always done.

‘Social media’ is just people, talking to other people – about the things that they like, and the things that they don’t like.  We ignore it at our peril.

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