At the risk of being branded a heretic or perhaps just being shown the door by my agency HR director, I have to say it: I hate social media. Why? Because it's just media. And since when was media ever interesting?
People are interesting. Ideas are interesting. Stories are interesting. Real stuff is interesting. Brands are interesting (or, at least, some of them are). Even ads can be interesting. But media? Media just connects those things. It's a conduit. Media is not interesting. Not even the "social" kind.
Far from being interesting (unless you enjoy following mutually referencing bloggers who blog about blogging), social media is just an excuse. It is, to be specific, the old marketing industry's latest excuse to waste more money on bad ideas and lazy thinking.
So let's ignore it. Let's get really radical and stop trying to keep marketing 1.0 thinking alive with Web 2.0 media (because copycat content is no Band-Aid for broken brands and lackluster products and services, no matter how cost-effective or powerful the social web may be). Let's forget the social media "revolution" and recognize that ignoring social media would be the truly revolutionary thing to do.
I'm not saying that we should ignore the social web, or the cloud, or mobile connectedness altogether. I'm not arguing that brands should underestimate the transformative power of the technology at their disposal, or their ability to connect with people and provide targeted, relevant offerings in unprecedented ways. And I'm certainly not denying the brilliance of value-adding web-based services or inspiring and engaging web-enabled campaigns.
Amazon makes it easy for people to find things they want, based on recommendations they can believe in. Local bakeries tip off nearby followers about fresh bread and cookies via Twitter, while Tony Hawk used regular tweets to facilitate a global treasure hunt for his skateboards. Adobe uses Delicious to bookmark helpful sites for its customers, connecting its community and rewarding innovative partners. Urban Outfitters has turned its Flickr page into a giant, wearer-generated catalog and style guide. The U.K.'s Guardian, a relatively niche title in printed form, has turned itself into the world's pre-eminent online newspaper, because it understands that online news plays by different rules. Speight's Brewery invited millions of Kiwis to follow online as a pub it built on a container ship sailed from New Zealand to France. And brands like Starbucks and Doritos have openly collaborated with their loyalists to create new products.
So we should tip our hats to brands that are leveraging the social web in smart ways, but should also recognize that these exceptions merely prove the dismal rule of social media right now. Because for every Amazon or Adobe, brands with genuinely good ideas to share and good stories to tell, there's a Skittles (which had the brilliantly pointless idea of replacing its website with a Twitter feed), or a Pizza Hut (which openly advertised for summer interns who would be required to Tweet about the great time they were having). And for every Tony Hawk or Speight's, there's an Ashton claiming to be more relevant than CNN, or another Wal-Mart wannabe (including a recent top advertising-award winner) driven by the impatience of their marketing 1.0-obsessed agency masters to create fake entries, videos, content and comments to support their "authentic" social campaigns.
The question for us all right now (and I include my own agency) is: What would happen if we acted on the implications of social media, rather than just use it as cheap media? What if we recognized that social media is really only shorthand for the multi-channel, hyper-connected, user-generated, co-created, always-on world we now live in -- a world where the good gets what it deserves and so does the bad? What if we stopped getting all hot and heavy over the latest new media success stories du jour, and starting realizing that the real triumph of, say, the Obama campaign was the product and the story, not the channel used for storytelling? What if we took the social media "revolution" as our cue to stop creating tactical campaigns focused on amplifying our same-same stories and start creating better stuff and better stories to tell? What if we got really bold, and focused on creating products and services so inspired that "social" media does all our storytelling for us?
Remember, this remains a predominantly analog world. Most people are still looking for real things: experiences, connections, value, stories, emotions. And this remains a world in which most brands are failing to make the most of the existing channels available to them, where basic and very real issues are left unaddressed, like customer-experience delivery, retail-partner engagement, consistent and authentic brand storytelling and better product and service development. Sure, not all of these will make a 29-year-old marketing manager an industry rock star as fast as a spending money on cool new social media app, gadget, widget or viral campaign, but it matters a whole lot more.
The truth is that the digital possibilities out there are endless (and endlessly fascinating), but smart brands and smart marketers recognize that their potential is to facilitate and amplify, not to replace the real stuff that matters. No media or channel can ever be the solution. Not even social media.
Now there's a point of view on social media that's worth sharing with clients. Understand it, internalize the implications of it and figure out what you can do better because of it. Use it as yet another prompt to change everything you do. Use it as the final spur to becoming a customer-centric, holistic, experience brand. Then forget about it and start doing something real.
Matt Jones is director of strategy and planning for Jack Morton Worldwide in New York. In April he moved to New York from Sydney, Australia, where his clients included Ford, Microsoft and Sony.
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