A Short (and Personal) History of Social Media

Why It's Important to Consider the Boring Basics That Keep Things Sustainable

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Pete Blackshaw
Pete Blackshaw
And so we now have a week dedicated to "social media."

Thousands are converging in New York and other global locations such as Berlin and Sao Paulo to celebrate and discuss this breathtaking and disruptive development in marketing and communication.

Lest I not be counted in this participatory feast, I've concluded that a little introspection, and "past is prologue" historical reflection, might be in order. Oh, and if you happen to tweet this, don't forget my handle is @pblackshaw and the hashtag of the moment is #SME.

My first exposure to the term "social media" came courtesy of Ted Leonsis, former VP of AOL, back in 1998. At the time, I was one of the leaders of Procter & Gamble's first interactive marketing team, and Leonsis was briefing us on a new tool called ICQ ("I Seek You"), created by an Israeli company AOL had just purchased, Mirabelis.

What Leonsis put on our lap was akin to instant messaging on steroids. He had no clue how P&G might take advantage of this curious tool. There was no "ad model," per se, and he even had doubts whether advertising was appropriate. He just thought we needed to internalize its capabilities -- what with tens of millions of global consumers, mostly teens, using an insanely wired and networked desktop device with so many hieroglyphic style icons, it would make your head spin.

He said the best term they could come up with to describe this was "social media." Of course, that was enough for me to spam half of P&G with an "epiphany" memo, and I'd be lying if I didn't admit the "ICQ awakening" helped inspire my jump to startup land in the form of PlanetFeedback.com.

So to be clear, the Web 2.0 movement didn't create "social media." The roots go back to the earliest foundations of the "networked" internet, and perhaps even a decade before ICQ. I even recall the tech-savvy campus activists at my alma mater, U.C. Santa Cruz (a stone's throw from Silicon Valley), co-opting the global university "internet" to advance the 1985 South Africa divestment movement. In their furious daily (sometimes hourly) digital dispatches to over 100 universities (most of whom reciprocated), they were, in essence, blogging.

Indeed, back then I suspect all heads in the Nelson Mandela Library (the name the activists gave the campus library they took over) would be nodding at Wikipedia's forthcoming definition of social media as "democratization of knowledge and information, transforming people from content consumers into content producers."

Back to the social-media future
So in no small way we're really celebrating the very essence and core foundations of the web, not some shiny new object.

That said, the last decade in particular has precipitated a complete repackaging and popularizing of "social media," aided and prodded by open-source technology, lower barriers to entry, and wonderfully accessible -- often free -- tools that have unleashed nothing short of a fire hydrant of consumer-generated media. Indeed, the 1999 premise of "The Cluetrain Manifesto" that "all markets are conversations" has rapidly migrated from forecast and future-talk to prevailing reality.

The migration, replacement and reinvention of tools and collaborative platforms have been nothing short of breathtaking. Usenet quickly gave ground to message boards, which in turn gave ground to blogs, which in turn expanded into MySpace, Facebook, YouTube and, now, Twitter. Now, with the proliferation of social-media-powered apps, it almost seems like we're just getting started from scratch.

What's also new is marketer comfort with commingling or cohabitating into the mix, despite a litany of early -- even ongoing -- stumbles. In essence, we've become "co-creators" with the consumer. Listening pipes are expanding and smarter listening filters are piping insight and media guidance -- even warning signs -- to brands, even in real time.

A stampede of research confirms -- nay, screams -- the business-building impact of consumer recommendations. "Targeting influencers" is no longer on the "test and learn" shelf (which creates its own set of new problems, as we've learned with moms). Moreover, the sheer reach of social media, fortified by search and traditional media bleed, makes it nearly impossible for even mass marketers to ignore. Indeed, today social media is deeply grounding itself into brand business objectives, legitimized (or at least made simpler to understand) by new labels like "earned media."

So what's next?
So this is big -- really big. But where is it going? Looking ahead, expect to hear much more about "enterprise social media" strategy. Good, old-fashioned customer-relationship management will take on new meaning and resonance, as we'll quickly realize that half the game in social media will be understanding the relationship between existing business processes -- service, employee training, product performance -- and conversational output, and adjusting strategies and tactics accordingly.

Marketing organizations will continue to undergo dramatic transformation, as social media softens all silos, unleashes both friendly and hostile departmental and agency competition, and sets new standards of accountability thanks to the radically transparent nature of the content.

We'll also be forced to step out of the fog and work with much clearer boundaries. Like it or not, FTC rules on testimonials and disclosure will force us to clarify who's behind the recommendation or conversation sans ambiguity. Indeed, Paul Rand, CEO of Zocalo Group and recently elected president of the Word-of-Mouth Marketing Association, notes that we are in a new era where ethics and clear disclosure in word-of-mouth and social-media communications are "inseparable from the brand-building mix." Newly appointed Council of Better Business Bureaus CEO Steve Cox tells me social media has set a "dramatically higher bar of expectations around trust." They are right. And despite our penchant for hype, this space will continue to get difficult and complicated for marketers.

To this point, looking ahead, brands will need to work extra hard to remain credible in this environment. In this consumer-controlled surveillance culture, brands have no shortage of vulnerabilities and exposure points. That puts a massive premium of what I'm fond of calling "The Six Drivers of Brand Credibility" -- trust, transparency, authenticity, affirmation, listening and responsiveness. We need to work much harder in this environment to earn consumers' loyalty and advocacy.

On some level it all sounds so basic. But again, social media isn't a shiny new object. Foundations matter. The boring basics keep things sustainable.

Tweet that for "Social Media Week."

Pete Blackshaw is exec VP of Nielsen Online Digital Strategic Services and author of "Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3,000" (DoubleDay). He is also chair of the National Council of Better Business Bureaus. His biweekly column looks at the relationship between marketing and customer service in the age of consumer control.
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