A Hype Cycle View of Social Media

Don't Worry: The 'Stage of Enlightenment' Is Coming For Social Media

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In 1995, Gartner introduced its renowned hype cycle to show different stages of introduction of new technologies. Gartner's hype cycle provides a research-backed antidote to what is often a searing level of hype surrounding many new technology and media products. The value for marketers is even clearer: The hype cycles serve as an objective guidebook for measuring the success (and inevitable downfall) of new-product launches.

One market that has yet to receive the hype cycle treatment is social media. What might that hype cycle look like if it examined one of the fastest growing marketing sectors in history?

It's time to examine what I call the "Social Media Hype Cycle." Doing so will help brands and marketers better understand the seesaw pattern of how social networks and platforms rise and fall in popularity and usage and how that affects companies' advertising spend and online engagement strategies.

The Gartner Hype Cycle: Cliff Notes Version
Gartner has applied its unique hype -cycle research model to in more than 100 industries, technologies and services, including advertising, social software and what it calls "Web and User Interaction Technologies."

Gartner graph

The Gartner Hype Cycle examines five stages of a technology, starting with a "technology trigger" through to "peak of inflated expectations," "trough of disillusionment," "slope of enlightenment" and "plateau of productivity." The degree of visibility and interest follow a curve as shown below.

According to Gartner's Hype Cycle theory, every new technology experiences a period of continuous hype growth, followed immediately by a strong downward trend in the expectation and viability of that particular technology sector. Finally, there is a gradual increase toward productivity.

Will social media follow a similar path? If so, what are the key events that drive new hype cycle stages in social media marketing?

Below is a illustration showing how the agencies at which I lead the social-media marketing practice -- sibling digital media and marketing agencies Ryan Partnership and MediaWhiz -- interpret Gartner's Hype Social for social media.

Gartner graph 2

The Facebook IPO: Beginning of End for Social's Hype
Looking at a similar hype cycle approach applied to social media, some interesting observations emerge. The social media hype peak took about 18 years to build (following the 1994 founding of GeoCities, arguably the world's first social network; GeoCities was shuttered by parent company Yahoo in 2009) and was solidified a few months prior to the much-hyped Facebook IPO.

Facebook's IPO marked a turning point of hype for social media. Immediately following the public offering there was a sharp movement toward social discord over the value of social networks. What took eight years to build in terms of brand value took all of two months to diminish as the effects of the Social Media Hype Cycle took hold.

As the social-media marketing industry continues to grow and mature, marketers need to understand that Facebook's recent troubles, like those at Groupon and Zynga, do not mark the end of social marketing's importance and value. They are the beginning of the most important stage in this nascent industry's maturity. Facebook's recent struggles mark the broader social media industry's shift from over-glorified hype to long, steady and sustainable growth.

The bubble of inflated expectations has been burst. The age of enlightenment and productivity in social media marketing starts now. What happens next will determine its future use and value to brands.

If you need any proof of this, look at user behavior. People continue to adopt and use social networks in droves. Their platform and channel preferences may have changed, but usage will continue to grow to a point reaching near ubiquity among all ages, gender and demographics.

Enlightenment will not come from advancements in technology and delivery of social content. It will come from consumer insights. These insights will be based on behavior and usage patterns and consumers' holistic use of online and shopping brand actions.

Marketers must get beyond the drinking of the social media hype and the mentality that dictates, "Oh, we need to put up a Facebook page," without any inkling of setting objectives and knowing how to measure success or failure to set goals.

Building a Non-Hype-Based Social Strategy
A non-hype -based social-media marketing strategy must first start with deep insights of consumer digital behavior. Consumer comprehension and empathy tees up well-designed social implementations that should focus on increasing awareness, consideration, loyalty and advocacy. Marketers will see stronger measured results from their social media marketing campaigns when they look at these categories as separate initiatives. The way a brand socializes with one customer to gain awareness is very different then the way it engages another to generate advocacy. This understanding will lead to best practices for social-media marketing, social commerce and social advertising.

In marketing, we often talk about consumer behavior. But it is the marketing behavior and mentality that will move social media maturity beyond letdown to illumination and efficiency. Generally speaking, marketers have not found the intersection of three imperative variables: consumer digital use, brand business objectives and implementations leveraging social technologies. This will change as the Gartner Hype Cycle has accurately demonstrated in numerous other technology spaces.

The "Social Media Hype Cycle" will be examined in greater detail at a Sept. 28 panel at Social Media Week Chicago.

Steve Goldner is senior director of social media marketing at sister digital media and marketing agencies MediaWhiz and Ryan Partnership. Follow him on Twitter @socialsteve.
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