Don't Confuse Social Networking With Social Media

Poking and Tweeting Is Not a Media Plan

By Published on .

Patrick Keane
Patrick Keane
In the first 10 years of the commercial internet, the models offered by AOL, Prodigy and CompuServe presented online replicas of their offline counterparts: chat rooms, blasted community e-mails and tightly controlled content. As these old models evolved, though, the web became decentralized and more social. Today, there is a lot of confusion about what this means, with terms such as "social media" and "social networking" buzzing through the Twitterverse.

Social networking is more than setting up an online presence, and social media is more than just blasting out press releases. Until brands understand how to authentically join, rather than crash, the conversation, they will continue to throw their money away.

Social interlopers
The friction stems from the reality that usage model for social networks isn't passive consumption, it's engagement. Users do not flock to Facebook to read articles, they come to voyeuristically observe or share the experiences of those people in their social graph -- which makes such sites great for playing games and keeping in touch, but makes it harder for interlopers to establish a presence. Social networking for big brands is a difficult challenge, as applying the scale of 1:1 communications to an audience of millions is a Pyrrhic task. Coca-Cola, Toyota and other marquee brands have embraced Facebook, but rarely if ever do I see them present on the news feed. The only brands I see on the site are those that target me most abstractly, blindly spamming men in my age bracket with solutions to hair loss.

Social media, similarly, represents a strong potential platform for a diverse host of voices, including brands. Unlike old media, here articles can be written, edited and promoted by anyone. The historical idea of media, stoically guarded by the pillars of "professionalism" and certified "objectivity," is trumped by the connectivity and dynamism of an authentic voice.

Creating an authentic voice is both the gating challenge and the principal strength of social media. A quick survey of major brands on Twitter shows follower numbers that rarely break into the triple digits, let alone thousands. But when you look at brands that do it well, their success stems from an embrace of the social graph. For instance, CNN's approach to social media -- pushing breaking new updates out via Twitter and accepting reports from citizen journalists through its iReport platform -- has won them millions of followers and invaluable on-the-spot material.

Crowdsourcing content
Sites built atop that social graph, such as Wikipedia, Associated Content (where I work) and YouTube, deeply integrate that community, diversity and feedback loop. "Crowdsourcing" or "people-powering" content creation at scale captures the pulse of the social web, but again, this is about social content creation and curation. When you have a community of millions (or even thousands) that are inherently interacting with media, the value of such content immediately increases. Previously, value was achieved through ad buys. Now that audience can be reached for free, but the voice and platform are the gateways to acceptance.

Ultimately, a brand strategy solely focusing on social networking is a near-impossible task but, coupled with social media, is the ideal approach for authentic brand voice. Social media provides a point of directed engagement, not an experience that depends on continuous focus. Just like butting in on a conversation, lurking in the corner of a social network without context is inauthentic. Brands want to be the subject of conversation, not peripheral stalkers. To do that, social media needs to exist as a distinct entity in your media plan.

Patrick Keane is CEO of Associated Content. He has also worked as CMO at CBS Interactive and at Google.
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