The end of social

I dislike predictions. But I’m going to make one… there will be no more big social networks. We’ve reached, and passed, a tipping point.

Why?

Because they’re all being strangled at birth by over-eager PR and marketing people, who – for all their impressive-sounding job titles and amazeballs CVs – seem to have completely forgotten all the basics of social.

Twitter and Facebook dominate the social landscape for most of us*. Similarly, they dominate the marketing spend of those brands that advertise on social media.

There’s a clear cause-and-effect thing going on here … first came the platform, then came millions of regular users, then (and only then) came the marketing and PR people.

That’s the way it works. The logic is pretty robust and if you felt like it, you could template it and see that it applies in many other walks of life.

Something has been lost, or forgotten, though.

Because now, when a new social platform launches, before most people have even created an account or downloaded an app there’s a slew of ill-conceived blog pieces and articles from marcomms people all treading the same tired old ground … ‘what brands should do on X…’

Almost none of them say “what brands should do is back off for a while, see if this thing gathers momentum, whether or not people will naturally gravitate to it, and if so what their behaviour can tell us about how we should use this platform – if at all.”

David Meyer wrote a piece on Gigaom which hits the nail on the head as far as the recent launch of Jelly was concerned… “Goodbye for now, Jelly – it’s not you it’s the marketers.”

And he’s right!

I’ve been an active and enthusiastic user of social media since before that term became common parlance – dig around in the archives of the Scotsman and the FT and you might even find me quoted in articles as far back as 2006 on how businesses could use social media for research and recruitment.

But it pains me when I see people in my sphere of work forever caught up in the Emperor’s new clothes outlook.

It really wouldn’t kill any of you to slow down a little, ask a few questions, be intellectually curious and maybe even a little sceptical.

From a purely pragmatic perspective, if we choose to ignore the old recipe for success, which turned the likes of Facebook and Twitter into the enormous beasts they are, we’re doing ourselves and our clients a disservice and we’ll eventually be over-taken by events – or smarter thinkers.

Your clients are – or should be – paying you for your consultancy. So be a consultant. If they just wanted to spend time in the company of someone to jump up and down on the spot shrieking excitedly, they’d get a job at a soft-play centre.

 

* – Europe, North America, the Antipodes, etc… ‘the West’ as it’s sometimes called.

Don’t get engaged … be engaging

The word engage has been taken hostage by the social media marketing community, and I am probably as guilty as the digital comms person of bandying that word around just a little too much.

I’ve written countless blog pieces, opinion articles and PR plans in which I extol the virtues of a three-step plan to social media nirvana .. listen, analyse and engage.

When you were a child did you ever say a word over and over and over again until it sounded like meaningless nonsense? I’m fairly sure I wasn’t the only one to do that. But if you’ve never done it, give it a try.

So it is with words that get hijacked – they can begin to lose their meaning.

I was reflecting on this in the wake of Facebook’s most recent set of changes, which are designed to give users of the service more control over what shows up in their News Feed. At the moment the News Feed is an all-in-one repository, but users will soon be able to filter different types of content into separate feeds. A little like the way you might sort your emails into folders.

There are two points of interest for businesses using Facebook as part of their marketing mix. The first is that from now on they will be able to use bigger images and video in the advertisements they place in the Facebook News Feed.

The second is that their potential audience has now been given the tools to automatically siphon advertising into a separate feed which they can ignore completely for as long as they like.

Which brings us back to the E-word.

Brands have been trying hard to engage with people via social media for years. Facebook just shifted the goalposts.

Want to be seen, listened to, remembered for your Facebook marketing? Well, you’ll have to be that much more interesting, memorable and shareable.

It’s not a revolutionary concept. But if it stems the flow of lazy thinking that lurks behind too many companies’ attitudes toward social media marketing, that’s not a bad thing.

Stop trying to have a conversation with me about the things that matter most to you but least to me. Instead, show me something that holds my attention, that reflects well on you without your products being the hero of the hour, and which makes me want to spend my money with you rather than your competitors.

Be engaging.

The war for digital hearts and minds

There’s been a bit of a turf war going on in the advertising/marketing/PR world for several years now, and it’s not really showing any signs of resolving itself.

It’s the war for digital hearts and minds and it’s being fought across all the major social media networks. From the familiar landscapes of Twitter and Facebook, through to the newer territories of Microsoft’s Socl, the revitalised MySpace and on into Pintererst, Instagram and beyond.

In business communications circles, everyone acts like they have the right to own social media: advertising agencies, marketing consultancies and PR firms. And it doesn’t stop there – there are digital creative agencies, interactive marketing houses and tech-based SEO companies. All claiming they have the secret sauce that will help a brand cover itself in digital glory.

But it’s the PR world that has the strongest claim, in my opinion.

Before you pull a muscle shouting “he would say that, wouldn’t he” let me explain why I think that.

One of the key functions of the PR industry is to intercede with the media on behalf of its clients. The media is changing, indeed has already changed, due to the impact of the internet and social media. The PR industry is changing with it.

Circulation figures for all newspapers are lower, as are advertising revenues from their print-based activities. The BBC, the Financial Times and the Guardian are just three of the UK’s major broadcast and print names that are investing heavily in their digital output. Some titles, including Newsweek, have turned their backs on print altogether.

This move to more digital-friendly output from mainstream news providers is more than a passing phase. The traditional reliance on the written word has decreased as video and graphics are increasingly sought out by readers and viewers, and this is a tide that is unlikely to turn any time soon. As a result, the PR industry has had to learn how to craft its clients’ messages and brand stories into formats that meet the needs of these changed media requirements.

But my reasons go deeper than simply the ability to update story formats.

Despite the many different views on what constitutes successful social media engagement, there is perhaps one aspect that everyone agrees on, and that is that social media requires a more discursive approach to corporate communications. The audience you reach via Facebook, for example, is not receptive to one-way communications, they will expect brands to listen as much (more, even) than they talk.

Get that bit wrong, and the rest of whatever it is you’re up to won’t matter a jot.

This is why, in my opinion, if any of the marketing disciplines can claim any form of ownership of social media outreach, it has to be PR.

PR is the only branch, if I can call it that, of the marketing tree, and I realise I probably can’t call it that, where conversation is one of the fundamental building blocks of the whole discipline.

In the event of a crisis that has dragged you into the media spotlight, who is it that businesses turn to for help? It’s not the ad agency. It’s not the web designer. It’s not the marketing consultant. It’s the PR people.

Why..? PR people have no magic powers, after all. Well, it’s because the PR world knows how to listen, how and when to talk, how to avoid making things worse by lying, and how to think on its feet.

Nowhere are those traits more welcome than in the world of social media.

This piece was first published on the Nexus Communications website. You can find it here.