The other day, a former colleague was walking me through the introductory Power Point slides he uses to pitch his firm's social media marketing services and the first slide read something like "social media is content, technology and eyeballs." Naturally I balked at such an assertion. What about communities and social networks? "Content, technology and eyeballs" actually describes all visual communications media - from print to TV to digital. It doesn't explain what makes social media so different from other communications media or why it's especially challenging to harness for brand marketing objectives.
His presentation made me realize two things. It's clear that the market still requires a further elaboration of what exactly defines social media, however, my colleague's perception of social didn't just stem from a lack of understanding. It was mostly the result of his years of experience at creative and media agencies. From that perspective, social media really is just about content, eyeballs, and technology. In this way, his presentation also cemented what I've been thinking recently regarding the optimal delivery of social media services - namely that, due to the nature of social media, all marketing services disciplines need to bring their competencies to bear for social media programs to be successful.
In my October column, I defined social media as "community, communication and conversation." While social media has undergone steady evolution in its roughly 10 years of existence - and will undoubtedly undergo several more iterations before all is said and done - community, communication and conversation have always been and will continue to be its essence. The following is a more detailed explanation of what I mean by these three terms.
- Community: This refers to the technologies that enable users to form social networks online. It is also identical to these social networks (as Marshall McLuhan said - "the medium is the message"). However it is not equivalent to any one social networking platform or site. This is because the fundamental community enabling technology, the hypertext link, is an inherent part of the internet and allows users to build social networks across all social networking platforms.
- Communication: Communication is content. It is the "stuff" that users are creating and sharing across communities.
- Conversation: This is the multi-directional interaction that users are engaged in with the other users in their communities. Conversation is the impetus that carries communication - it's what moves content across and between communities.
Over the past 10 years, these three aspects of social media have undergone significant evolution, largely as a result of increased bandwidth, broader penetration of enabling technologies and richer content. Communities are now built on a multitude of enabling technologies, communications now include high-resolution images and long-form video and commercial organizations are now actively engaged in social media conversations.
Where do marketing services agencies fit into all this? Different marketing services disciplines have different competencies and, while there are many agencies that would certainly excel at harnessing one or two aspects of social media to benefit their clients, it's rare to find an agency that has the broad expertise necessary to capitalize on all of them. Clearly, if a brand is looking to leverage paid amplification strategies to optimize reach through "buying eyeballs", they would do best to hire a media agency. However, it's highly questionable whether the same agency would be the best partner for optimizing reach through organic (earned) or owned distribution strategies. For the latter, a PR agency would undoubtedly be the best choice. However if the same brand were looking to create rich brand assets that it could deploy across the social web to build brand awareness, they should probably issue a creative agency RFP.
Social media - comprised of community, communication and conversation - is complex and it's full potential has yet to be realized by any organization in society. In fact we have only barely begun to realize a modicum of its full potential even as it continues to evolve and pervade every aspect of our media lives. If we ever hope to fully harness its power - not just in terms of brand marketing but also in terms of CRM, sales and service - we need the input of all marketing services disciplines. It will take nothing less than the perspective of all the marketing services disciplines to capitalize on the full spectrum of communities, communications, and conversations.