Marketers are increasingly aware of the crucial differences between social media and the media technologies that preceded it. Yet, many marketers still have not realized that Marshall McLuhan's famous declaration, "the medium is the message," applies just as much to social media as it did to earlier media technologies. Despite the growing awareness of most marketers, there are some who continue to view social media as simply another vehicle for delivering marketing messages, no different from print or television. However, there are important differences between social media and all previous forms of media technology and-as McLuhan's famous statement suggests- these differences have profound implications for marketers.
Social media has introduced a radical transformation in the way people interact with each other by allowing them to communicate and connect with others who share their interests and passions from any location instantaneously. Moreover, as bandwidth has increased, individuals can now share rich experiences involving high resolution photos and high definition videos with millions of users simultaneously. As a result, virtual communities-consisting of communications and conversations around specific topics and across social media platforms-have been able to develop and grow.
Astute marketers have realized that social media represents a tremendous opportunity for building relationships with socially active stakeholders. However, to effectively engage in social media, it is critical that marketers first understand the dynamics of social media require a novel approach. Here, social scientist Niklas Luhmann provides some helpful insight. Luhmann defines social systems as unified, self-referential nexuses of communications. These social systems are identical to the virtual communities in social media, comprised of networks of users connected by their conversation around shared activities, hobbies, and interests. Communication, or conversation around specific topics, is what defines communities in social media, not particular websites or networking platforms.
The most important ramification of social media technology for marketers is that engaging stakeholders on the social web is not simply a matter of posting content to a particular website or social networking platform. Marketers must engage with their stakeholders through their particular interests and passions. In other words, marketers must strive to become part of the communities in which stakeholders are active across the social web. All other objectives-for example conversions or sales-happen as a result and only as a result of successfully making the brand a part of the relevant communities, communications and conversations. This means that successful social media engagement takes resources and time before there is tangible R.O.I. Furthermore, it must be maintained and sustained even after R.O.I. is realized in order to continue to deliver.
Second, in order to become part of a community, marketers must begin by listening- and listening intently-before engaging with a community. Listening isn't just a matter of monitoring how relevant online communities are already discussing your brand. It's about identifying the communications and conversations that constitute these communities and understanding what's important to them. Basically, if you want to gain access to a community that's relevant to your brand then you need to start by listening to what that community is saying.
Third, when it comes to successful social media content strategy, conversation is the driver, not creativity. This is why many marketers have been able to create tremendous engagement with stakeholders across the social web simply by curating existing content. Unoriginal content will always meet with some success as long as it's relevant to the conversation. The most successful social media communications are somewhat redundant with only a slight tweak. It's this balance between creativity and redundancy that leads to virality.
Social media offers a powerful way for marketers to build the relationships with key stakeholders that will drive business results in the long term. However, it's imperative that marketers understand the communications, communities, and conversations in which their stakeholders are active; learn how to become part of them; and learn how to engage effectively with them. Without this work, which requires long-term commitment and dedication, marketing strategies in social media will be ineffective for the most part and happenstance successes will be unsustainable.