If you take the time to read the blogs of any number of social media journalists, you’ll see a trend in the way they view the previous year. “It’s the year social media grew up,” they’ll say, “It’s the year wherein businesses could no longer ignore social,” they’ll cry. I tend to agree with them, but I don’t necessarily feel that it’s for the best.
As the Marketing Coordinator at Rainman, part of my responsibilities includes keeping abreast of, and evaluating trends in digital marketing and social media. In 2012, I noticed an unnerving trend, a kind of sign-up-for-all-the-social-networks-because-a-few-blogs-said-I-had-to-or-my-business-will-crumble attitude towards social media. To me, that yields only one result: oversaturated, under-utilized networks flooded with “look-at-me” advertisements begging for your attention and a shot at getting you into their sales funnel. I am not going to sit here and tell you that social media is worthless, and I’m not going to sit here and tell you that not using social media will be your downfall; neither are true, so don’t believe those who speak to you in such rash absolutes.
Now that I’ve got that off my chest, let’s get a little more upbeat. I’m going to use a personal anecdote to illustrate how I see social media being effectively used in the coming year. I joined Instagram in September of 2011, early on in its meteoric rise. What drew me to the service was the simplicity of the photo sharing and the mobile-only interface. To me, it felt like a place where I could really share what I was doing and actually “connect” (I really hate using that word) with someone else. Now, a lot of my friends had not joined the service at that point; likes and comments were slow going, so the use of hashtags was really useful in discovering like-minded Instagrammers worth following. To this day, I still have 5-7 Instagrammers that I “met” through use of hashtags, and I connect with on a somewhat regular basis.
People wanted the service to work. They had something they liked and liked to use, and they wanted more people to join in; there was real community forming. That type of “friendship” has not happened for some time now. Nearly all of my friends use Instagram now, which is great, but I really miss the days of spontaneous conversation and exchanging followership with a like-minded stranger.
So, what’s my point, you’re asking? Well, the lesson I take away from the earlier Instagram days is this: When users are forced to be more outgoing and social, a different kind of network emerges. A new network doesn’t look like groups of people connected to other groups of people through several mutual contacts; rather, a more complex web of individual contacts, if that makes sense. To me, it is precisely this kind of network that really fulfills the term “social media,” and creates a pull and value for a user. So, where businesses using social media are concerned, it goes a little like this:
Stage 1: Social networks are built by individual users.
Stage 2: The networks themselves run out of venture funding and search for revenue.
Stage 3: The networks ask businesses to join and tell them that if they buy ads, they’ll get great access to potential customers.
Sounds perfect, doesn’t it?
If you answered no, then you’ve got the right idea. No one joins a social network to be marketed to – NO ONE. Don’t delude yourself. Social network users have just grown accustomed to ignoring the ads and marketing that are thrust upon them every time they log into their account. Inherently, there is nothing social about advertisements in that arena – it’s an eyesore! So, this begs the question: why should a business involve itself in social media at all?! There’s a more complicated answer to that question.
I am sure that I sound like I am in complete opposition to businesses using social media, but I’m really not. I follow a number of businesses on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and I genuinely enjoy doing so. So where is the line between just being on the Social Media bandwagon and actually providing something of value (accept that it might not be monetary)? Intent. I firmly believe that the line between “good” and “bad” business users of social media lies completely within intent. If you set out on the social media ocean with the intent of “being out there” and “growing an engaging community” or “building brand awareness” and “generating sales leads, ” you’re doing it wrong and you’re gonna have a bad time. Certainly, all of those goals can be achieved, but they have to be rooted in a truthful, honest intent.
As an example, I’ll use Dogfish Head Brewery. I love following them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram because they post content that is relevant to those who are passionate about their product. They’ll post anything from photos of the brewing process to pictures of food at tasting events they put on. They do an excellent job of embracing and participating in the passion and culture of the people who follow them. To be honest, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a “sales-y” social media post from them – it’s refreshing. In the end though, there have been times I’ve purchased their product above another brand simply because I respect them and actually want to support them. Dogfish Head has built up goodwill, at least with me, through their use of social media, and I am in full support of the idea that being “good” will garner business.
So, I need to wrap this up, I’ve been rambling. Let me put it this way, social media is great. I think it has definitely improved the way we communicate as individuals, and has made businesses more accountable to their customers, ultimately improving customer service. I don’t believe that it’s for everyone, and I don’t believe it should be approached from a textbook marketing stance; it needs to be human. So if 2012 was the flood, let’s make 2013 the drying of the rain.
May the weak/underutilized/overly sales-driven business users fade away, and may brands that truly embody the idea behind their product or service get the attention they deserve. I know I’m going to do what I can to have my clients present themselves in that light.
Here’s to looking forward to a great 2013!