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The X Factor: Don't get hustled by the social media frenzy

Sean X Cummings
The X Factor: Don't get hustled by the social media frenzy Sean X Cummings

Feeling left behind these days? Is all the talk about social media and its implications having you scramble to figure out how to leverage it for your clients or your brand? Are you chasing after another agency that specializes in this emerging market? You are not alone.

Does the frenzy over social media this year remind you of something? Widgets maybe? Or viral marketing? Every year we seem to create a new buzz over… well, buzz. But is this trend different? It's hard enough for those of us in the space to catch up with it all. Just imagine what it's like for the luddite clients you have. But should you be chasing the golden goose this time?

First, let's get one thing straight: There are not going to be examples of companies that are "left in the dust" for not adopting social media because, to be honest, social media doesn't mean "one" thing. In some ways, it falls into the same category as viral marketing. Viral is not a cause, it is an effect of a program.

Social media is not a catch-all, the same way that "new media" is a catch-all for all things non-traditional. It's just a smaller diagram circle within our larger one, but it is growing and will have much more profound effects on the internet, society and our industry than anything we've seen before.

But what is it? Social media is merely a collection of various sites and techniques trying to get closer to the Holy Grail of every marketer: word-of-mouth transference. The difference this time is that unlike previous "hypes," it is the social infrastructure determining information, a multi-directional, multi-way chaotic conversation involving the consumer, and not the linear cascade from brand to agency to media to consumer… downward.

What is different about social media from all of the other over-hyped things we chase every year looking for consumer gold? In the normal social infrastructure, we, as marketers, have been isolated from the offline word-of-mouth transference of brand memes. We could not measure it. And that's where all the consumer decisions actually happen. What social media does, being digital, is give us a lens into that conversation. It allows you to plant the seeds of that and engage more directly in the active lives of those you are reaching -- to help create the memes instead of being reliant on the social chaos to do it for you.

You can prod meme creation, encourage it, and seed it, but be careful because you cannot control it. And that's why social media makes many advertisers wary, for when you start to monitor the conversation at that level, you will hear things you don't want to hear about your brand.

Those conversations were already happening, you just didn't know about them. Embrace them and learn from your audience.

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Right now, not leveraging social media is no more damaging than not adopting widgets or mobile. All of these technologies just provide lenses into our consumers, but most of them are still too nascent for the efforts required. Yes, you can have great results and show amazing returns on investment, if done correctly, but the closer you get to monitoring the meme, the greater chance you have of damaging something if done incorrectly.

What will happen is that there will be companies that figure out how to leverage it better than others. And when the scales tip, they will have the advantage, and greatly so. The pervasiveness of the social media space will continue to encroach on privacy, thus blending the normal duality that exists between the private and public self of our consumers and our brand. This will lead to a more open, honest work culture and enable a new blending of content and advertising based on truth, shattering the myth of the line between editorial and advertising that has been lost for decades but still pretends to exist. It will just be much more difficult to lie to consumers since they have the tools and the communication ability to weed them out.

One of social media's most limiting factors, however, is the human resources needed to fuel such programs and keep them alive. Too many social media programs languish on the vines. Social media is not scalable in the way some other media are. Yes, a social media program can go viral and get mass adoption, but that is still one program, and it is always hit or miss if one does. With TV, you can do one commercial, and if it resonates, scale without much work on the client end. With banners, it's the same thing, or SEM, or email. The ease at which scalability is possible without many resources is paramount at the client end.
In the end, it still remains an issue of the digital competency of most marketers on the client side. With good content, we can all educate those marketers on the promises and pitfalls of "the new." Be it widgets, viral, or social media, etc. At some point on the client end, there will be the need for social media assault teams, the same way that they have guerilla marketing teams. It is through those clients who embrace guerilla marketing techniques that you are probably going to find the least resistance, and those will be the clients who embrace and use social media correctly because they understand the value of meme monitoring and creation.
It is still an experimental medium for most clients, but that will grow as they understand the nuances. And it is in the nuances of digital media that breakthrough work arrives that we can all leverage.

Start looking for an agency that understands the social media nuances and specializes in this space, for there will be no more profound change to the consumer conversation in the next decade. Media is about to shatter. Are you ready for it?

Sean X Cummings is director of marketing for Ask.com.


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Commenter: Gordon Phillips

2008, May 13

I find your articles very astute in general but this is one of the most common sense pieces of advice I've seen on this subject. As a Creative Director who left the business in 96 to build homes (good choice for a while) I have now renewed my interest in advertising /marketing. Perfect recessionary strategy don't you think? Fortunately, by coming into this arena after having been on the sidelines for awhile, I'm crashing in with very little baggage. It's articles like yours that do me the service of practical education and a more current consciousness of the issues involved. All this just to say thank you and if you have any more suggestions for a 53 year young creative I'm all ears.
Sincerely Gordon

Gordon Phillips
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