What does a 9th century Zen saying have to do with the current state of social media? When the Zen master Linji said, "If you meet Buddha on the road, kill him," it was meant as a warning not to confuse the messenger with the actual message itself. Those who became fixated on the intermediary lost the deeper meaning.
Unfortunately, today's "social media" conversation is all too often like the Buddha on the road. Instead of discussing the profound impact the phenomena is having within businesses, society and brands, the conversation is often focused on setting up a Twitter account or the next "viral video" -- tempting eye candy that shifts the attention away from the transformative nature of this emerging form of human communication. It can be argued that the term "social media" itself is stunting the potential of the very force it is trying to describe and, hence, has outlived its usefulness.
To test the hypothesis, my consultancy, Converseon, utilized its proprietary Conversation Mining technology to capture and report on the online conversation regarding the term "social media" itself. The accompanying word cloud captures the actual current lexicon surrounding the term and found it, perhaps unsurprisingly, highly tactical. The larger the word, the greater the volume.
The conversation is dominated by technologies and platforms. Perhaps not surprisingly the primary words are "Facebook" and "Twitter." Not far behind are a range of tactics and pithy statements (ideally fewer than 140 characters). This is not a strategic conversation. It is, frankly, reflective of a relatively immature discussion.
Still not convinced? Here's another test. Next time you're trying to convince a C-suite executive about why to invest in social media, try to describe it by using the words in the word cloud. Bonus points if the conversation lasts more than three minutes. As one large west-coast brand recently said, "as soon as I mention the term social media, wallets close."
That's because the C-suite doesn't necessarily care about "social media." But through education, executives will care deeply about what social media can do. Indeed, social media's power is profound and can strongly impact a wide range of use cases within brands, including risk management, media, product life cycle management, customer care, HR, market research, and innovation.
Social media is driving greater collaboration and forcing organizations to reexamine their business processes so they can be agile enough to react to the real-time social intelligence being infused into the organization. The primary value of social media doesn't come from the tactics or the technologies -- many of which are transitory -- but from infusing its value across the enterprise to drive real and sustainable business advantage. And the examples of its power are tangible.
HP, for example, said that it saved $10 million in call center costs by infusing social listening into customer service. Procter & Gamble reported that nearly half of its innovation is coming from outside the company through forms of social engagement, like its InnoCentive initiative. IBM is infusing ongoing real-time social intelligence across the organization for myriad use cases. This is about business redesign.
It is also about the application of the social sciences. In our view, social media is about the evolution of human communication. Cultural anthropology, sociology, psychology, and linguistics matter in marketing again. Concepts like "social framing," whereby individuals often perceive issues through the prism of their friends, are starting to help us rethink the way we communicate and the ways people gather, act, and synthesize information. Rethinking social organization through social media is beginning to have a transformative impact on governments and businesses.
These examples are just the tip of the iceberg. Enterprise transformation is indeed at hand, driven by this thing that is inadequately described today as social media. There is a clear disconnect between the common association of the term with what it can actually do. It is on us in the social media industry to raise the maturity of the conversation surrounding the term so that it becomes adopted as core to corporate strategy and not just another marketing channel.
But how? Let's first realize that language is transitory and always evolving. Neologisms, or new words, emerge on an ongoing basis to better explain emerging concepts. There are, in fact, nearly 1,000 new words added daily to the Urban Dictionary. Many are slang terms with limited life spans. Others take root and become part of our broader vocabulary.
In 2001, when Converseon first formed, we struggled to find language to explain the new paradigm that was emerging that required new ways of thinking. The term "social media" first began to coalesce around 2003 to describe the impact of personal media and opinion through the emergence of low-cost publishing platforms. It was a term we adopted.
In those early days, we were delighted when people started to use the term "social media." The term quickly gained acceptance among the community and has since then, of course, gained pervasiveness beyond the expectations the relatively small "social media" community had in those early days. There are more than 160 million pages indexed in Google referring to the term "social media."
Now, almost a decade later, we look forward to the day we all stop using it since its very use is stunting. Like the Buddha in the road, it's time to kill it off. We certainly can't end the use tomorrow, but we can work together with those in the industry to begin to evolve the language surrounding it to better reflect its power. We are rapidly moving to a post-social media world, where all media is social, and brands and businesses recognize its power to influence the entire enterprise.
And the power of social is transforming agencies too. Instead of tactics and eye candy, the true value of social has to emerge from the inside-out. As enterprises begin to becoming "listening organizations" and infuse social intelligence across the enterprise with workflow tools, they are finding themselves tackling core issues like culture, governance, polices, infrastructure, workflow, and training so that they build connections, celebrate innovation, drive new relationships, and become agile enough to compete in this new social world.
This is an opportunity for agencies to help facilitate that transformation by becoming enterprise-wide solutions and helping create fertile environments internally at brands so that social can flourish. For brands to become social organizations, simple outside-in approaches are doomed to fail over time. Indeed, a growing number of organizations are beginning to have conversations about how social can transform organizations, but this is largely still in its infancy.
Language is power. Language isn't only what we use to communicate; it also determines how we think. In a post-social media world, we look forward to working with others to articulate a new, elevated vocabulary, and concepts that the C-suite can appreciate while giving the concept of "social media" the respect it deserves.