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Why we need to kill "social media"

Why we need to kill "social media" Rob Key

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. 

Stay informed.To learn more about the changing social media landscape, attend Rob Key's insight address at the iMedia Agency Summit, May 16-19. Request your invite today.

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.

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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.

Rob Key is founder and CEO of Converseon.

On Twitter? Follow Key at @robkey. Follow iMedia at @iMediaTweet.

Rob is CEO of Converseon, the independent, award-winning full service social media consultancy that has helped brands "join the conversation" to meet business objectives. since 2001.Converseon utilizes proprietary Listening/Engagement technologies...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Jeff Molander

2010, May 06

Karyn + Robert's comment = Marketers should move forward as marketers with Robert's realization (and actions that make things real). That is, nothing has changed beyond the environment. We are, today, tools of the tools (I point at Karyn's need to "be something" to the C-suiters) rather than just being marketers... patiently applying what we already know works to tools -- WHEN THEY'RE READY.

Commenter: Sari Signorelli

2010, April 28

The word cloud is very enlightening--the very soul of social engagement is barely in the conversation: sharing, create, personal. You really nailed it regarding the evolution of human communication and it's transformative impact. It's the equivalent of the printing press in many ways.

Commenter: Shiv Singh

2010, April 27

Great thoughts all around. I'm more with you Rob on this - social media is the wrong terminology. Does anyone have a mass media business for example? In my opinion social media is the phenomena and a hugely important one but its one part of the equation.

That's why a few years ago, we started using the term Social Influence Marketing as an equal partner to Brand Marketing and Direct Response (the two traditional pillars of my marketing). My book also emphasizes this distinction and explains why Social Influence Marketing is critical and how it extends beyond the social media platforms. Needless to say, the impacts of social extend beyond marketing too and into other parts of the enterprise. And that's where words like Social Business, Enterprise 2.0 and others come into play.


Commenter: Karyn Cooks

2010, April 27

Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! I find myself cringing at the sound of my own voice every time I use some variance of "social media marketing." I'm a firm believer in everything it stands for and can accomplish but the term for so many - not just the C-suite - conjurs up snake oil and fakes.

So what have we concluded? Do we move forward as "hybrid marketers" or "digital bridge builders" or...I'm not being facetious...honestly exploring how to convey that this is all a lot bigger than a tweet. Especially when those holding the purse strings are determined to tie success to an old broadcast ROI model. (I'm sure you've all run into this!)

I realize it's our responsibility to educate those reaching out to us, and sometimes it's a much longer steeper climb up that hill than we'd like, but it's still our job to shepherd the process at that level in order to create relevant strategies.

Will we find C-Suiters reframing? Like a good movie, the plot thickens and this too shall be continued...

Commenter: Robert Bacal

2010, April 26

I have a completely different interpretation of what you've written. I agree though that the conversations are "immature". I disagree that anything will change that. Media that appeal to lowest common denominators and "coolness" either fade away, or the remain anchored by immature uses.

Social media has never been driven by function and purpose but by buzz and mass popularity (with a few exceptions). That's because, in part, there are no new functions or purposes because social media is not a quantum leap. It's barely a stagger forward. What separates it now from what has come before is that it got buzz, got cool, got popular.

It's a "tool" looking for a function.

You imbue this thing with great significance, and I don't.

It's based on "hype and hope", just like the Internet Bubble prior to 2000. We've seen it before.

Stay tuned. Working on a book on this topic.

Commenter: Pascal Belouin

2010, April 25

Hi Rob,

I agree with a lot of what you wrote! I wonder the problem with the "social" is could not be that everybody is potentially an expert, as everybody (well most people) 'interact socially' every day: turning back to sociological and psychological literature to see what it has to say in regards to issues of meaning, communication or interactions to gain a better understanding of the phenomena we can observe on platforms such as Twitter or Facebook could give use priceless insight as to who use such media!

Commenter: Corinne Schmid

2010, April 25

Great read. I agree that social media is not about technology and is an enabler to communicate and share ideas. As for 'real-time social intelligence', it may sound old fashioned, but aren't we really talking about Knowledge Management? Isn't social media a vehicle and enabler that advances the ways in which we communicate, collaborate and distribute knowledge and information?

Commenter: Shel Holtz

2010, April 24

Rob, Jeff, and everyone, I've posted a longer analysis of the issue on my blog, along with a video of several practitioners who were present at New Communications Forum offering their takes.


Commenter: Rex Hammock

2010, April 24

Do I need to point out the irony of a post arguing the need for "getting rid of social media" to appear under a big category graphic that brands the column "Social Media"

Commenter: Gaetan Fraikin

2010, April 23

Hi Rob - great article. Very insightful. The real value of these new tools is to create a conversation, the most important part of which being "listening".

You guys obviously excel at it for your clients at Converseon, and your article corrects a well needed misconceptions. We at Audacity are already changing our approach. Thank you.

Gaetan Fraikin / Audacity Chief / Strategic Branding + communications / www.audacitygroup.com

Commenter: Jeff Molander

2010, April 23

"We'd all be much better off if we stopped lumping everything under the social media, and instead focused more on the SPECIFIC outcomes that socialization of business can produce."


Commenter: Kym Romanets

2010, April 23

Before you get rid of the term let's define what it is.

Social Media. It is media that is social. So it is "media" i.e. words, images, video that is "social" ie. allows for interaction/conversation as in comments and ratings etc.

So social media IS the technology and, of course, it's content. It is Facebook and it is Twitter and it is Blogging and it is YouTube and their ilk and ... their content.

It is not "the profound impact" that their content may or may not be having the people getting talked about.

The only impact is that listening to what people are saying about you in online communities is a whole lot easier than sending teams out to eavesdrop at dinner parties, on the sidelines, in the coffee shop, outside the school gates or inside the dressing room. Being able to be social yourself as in responding to complaints in said media is an added advantage.

Joining the conversation is trickier. Forcing your way into social situations is never easy and often comes off false. Like a Mom trying to joining the conversation of two 8 yo girls - that attempt at humor that is met with silence and embarrassed looks.

No-one knows how to do that right yet.

So I reckon the niece of a small business owner probably has as much chance of getting that right as anyone else ...

Commenter: Jeff Molander

2010, April 22

Hi, Shel...
Well there is certainly enough 'research' to go around such that we can each have our way with questions like how worthwhile banners are.

*** By the way, I wonder if you'd call them all "books" and do away with categories like "history," "romance," "mystery" and "current affairs"? Overgeneralization produces oversimplification.The telephone is a social medium but I wouldn't classify it "social media."***

With all due respect I'm not sure what you're talking about here. You appear to be refuting something I said though. As for Rob's entire point in this article -- I think you're right. It leads to over simplification. And that's what he and I seem to be calling for. And to your point about the telephone -- exactly. I believe you just agreed with us???

There are also many types of communication. Face-to-face, phatic, and so on. Oh, wait. Maybe I should just call them all "communication."

*** Social media has a distinct definition. ***
Sadly so. And one that's given to it with the intent to obfuscate in my opinion. It's given to it by those who sell it with the intent to take something very common sense... and, in fact, old... and convert it into something un-imaginably difficult and "new."

***... are you suggesting that all media has a potential social dimension to it, as distinct from the tools that are designed explicitly to facilitate social interaction? ***

Yes, all media does have a social dimension to it. Period. Just like all water has a liquid dimension to it.

*** If I'm trying to accomplish sales, how do you know how effective your social efforts were versus, say, your paid advertising in a magazine? You don't measure it all the same way. (Or, perhaps, you do. I don't.) ***

Clearly. I measure it this way: How many actions (sales, leads) did my social media investment produce. I measure my paid ads in a magazine using direct response techniques. Ta-daa! You can do it this way on the Web AND in print, via broadcast, etc. Blasphemy!

Commenter: Shel Holtz

2010, April 22

I do ignore banner ads, Jeff. Statistics indicate many people do not.

By the way, I wonder if you'd call them all "books" and do away with categories like "history," "romance," "mystery" and "current affairs"? Overgeneralization produces oversimplification.The telephone is a social medium but I wouldn't classify it "social media."

There are also many types of communication. Face-to-face, phatic, and so on. Oh, wait. Maybe I should just call them all "communication."

Social media has a distinct definition. Perhaps you're applying it to more than it warrants. Or, are you suggesting that all media has a potential social dimension to it, as distinct from the tools that are designed explicitly to facilitate social interaction?

I suggest you look at The Altimeter Group's white paper, issued today on social media measurement, and consider how this might be applied if nobody distinguished social media from other media. If I'm trying to accomplish sales, how do you know how effective your social efforts were versus, say, your paid advertising in a magazine? You don't measure it all the same way. (Or, perhaps, you do. I don't.)

In the end, I think we'll just agree to disagree.

Commenter: Jeff Molander

2010, April 22

Hi, Shel...
*** Explain to me how streaming a Netflix movie is social. ***

Acts are not our subject. The subject is media. Right? The way people interact with media is social. They share, gripe, compliment, barter, agonize over, rant, etc. ICQ and email is just as social as Twitter. Maybe even more so since more people actually use it interactively.

*** How a clickthrough banner ad is social? ***
Do you ignore things in real life, socially? I sure do. I also ignore banners -- as do most of us. We hence use it socially.

*** What about the online site of a publication that does not accept reader interactions like comments or ratings? How many corporate destination websites have social elements?***

You're forgetting that we have instant messaging, email and a million other ways to socially interact with that site's one-way dialogue.

*** And tell me: Would you measure the effectiveness of a Facebook campaign the same way you'd measure an email distribution? ***

Because we're trying to accomplish something, friend. A sale or a lead. To measure it in any other way would be foolish. Wouldn't it? Burger King did it with their Whopper Sacrifice campaign -- which, of course, was killed off by Facebook since they have no ability to monetize the direct response marketing that Burger King engaged in -- where it measured its Facebook campaign ROI to the penny in qualitative terms (upsold customers, coupons redeemed, profitability of the actual campaign).

*** I appreciate your enthusiasm, but the real world just isn't there yet. Smart people distinguish social media as a subset of "new media," because NOT all media is social. ***

I got it. They're all stupid. Bait a guru and get a guru response I suppose. Nuf said :)

***They already think they understand "media" because they've been spending money on it forever. ***

Shel, respectfully, this is just more positioning and glorification. You just told us that executives don't understand, or know how to properly invest in, traditional media. I truly cannot argue with such a statement that is rooted in an "automatic, perpetual ignorance" of key execs.

Commenter: Shel Holtz

2010, April 22


I beg to differ: All digital media is NOT social. Explain to me how streaming a Netflix movie is social. How a clickthrough banner ad is social? What about the online site of a publication that does not accept reader interactions like comments or ratings? How many corporate destination websites have social elements?

And tell me: Would you measure the effectiveness of a Facebook campaign the same way you'd measure an email distribution?

I appreciate your enthusiasm, but the real world just isn't there yet. Smart people distinguish social media as a subset of "new media," because NOT all media is social.

Conversely, non-digital media has social dimensions. I spoke with an advertising creative director who said collateral advertising (e.g., billboards, magazine ads) drive traffic to social properties, either intentionally or unintentionally.

But let's assume for a moment you're right, that all digital media is social. Does that mean the leadership of institutions understand what that means? They already think they understand "media" because they've been spending money on it forever. If we fail to make the distinction, we make it easier for them to believe they already know how to use media -- as a one-way, top-down delivery channel. (And make no mistake, there's still a place for traditional marketing and advertising.) Without educating the C-suite that something's different, there's no incentive for them to treat it differently. We'll continue to see insipid measurements like Advertising Value Equivalences (AVEs) applied to social channels where they have no relevance.

Commenter: Jeff Molander

2010, April 22

It's critical that we stop creating something out of nothing -- over mystifying "social media" when, in fact, all digital media is now social. To continue setting it aside and treating it like it's a different animal is dangerous... and the need to educate has little to do with the matter. In fact, I see it as more of the same -- a means to stifle. I believe I just called you an obstructionist... so I'll be careful.

If we continue to believe the hype-and-spin... that the rules of business have forever changed we risk believing that engaging, Tweeting and Friending is more important than making sales or capturing leads. Or believing that somehow all we need to do is DO social media and the sales will roll right-on-in based on some kind of aimless "conversation.”

And there is a direct connection between listening to "the experts" as they continue to "educate" us and this belief.

The fact of the matter is there's little to be educated on here. The only reason why executives at hospitals don't understand is because they're being told to not understand -- that they cannot possibly understand or measure this stuff. They're told this by "experts" who have a vested interest in preserving mass communications strategies that provide quantitative novelty (be they Tweets, Friends or number of mentions/clippings), not qualitative outcomes (sales and leads). And "social media" is a great place to conduct that kind of business.

"Social media" has thus far been today's "mass media." It sucks. It's advertising. It's lousy persuasion rather than demand creation... for the most part.

So I urge all the "experts" to stop glorifying and mystifying this "new thing" called "social media" when, in fact, it's obstructing the path forward.

The world of business has been radically altered -- the rules have not changed because of "social media." Nothing has changed, in fact, beyond the environment. The hyper-connection of people via machines.

Dramatic environmental change does NOT prohibit large groups of business people from understanding, adopting tools within the new hyper-connected digital realm. But people do.

Commenter: Brett Greene

2010, April 22

Rob, you are so right. All media is social. All websites are media properties (though the majority of them don't use any of the potential of this). And the value in social media is in how the tools and tactics facilitate the connection and validation desire that is in all of our DNA.

The social psychology aspect of the social media phenomenon is why it is a phenomenon.

In speaking with the C-suite it's important to not talk about social media and instead talk about interactive marketing that generates brand awareness while extending a customer into a lifetime customer. This is the best starting place because it shows value where it matters to them - how they can better grow their company.

Brett Greene

Commenter: Brian England

2010, April 22

Great piece Rob, and a POV I've tried to advocate for a long time. Social is much more than a marketing program, indeed that is a small fraction of its benefit to companies. Imagine if 10/15 years ago somebody tried to sell a corporation a means by which that corporation could listen to their customers, understand what they need, what they don't like about your products, and enable those same customers to help each other? Thats what we have and have had for those companies paying attention. Sadly, some are still mired in looking only at what they touch, and the world will pass those by.

Commenter: Shel Holtz

2010, April 22

Rob, I've heard this argument before and while I believe it will be true one day, I firmly believe the "social media" distinction is still critical today.

Those of us who deal with social media routinely certainly recognize the need to integrate social media strategically. However, with the vast majority of organizations, it's still uncharted territory. We still need to help people figure it out before we stop talking about it as a distinct category of communication.

Consider that only about 10% of US hospitals employ social media at all. Many of the hospitals that bring me in to help develop social media strategies are run by leadership teams that still think blogs are about cats, Twitter is a place to tell people what you just ate and Facebook is populated by a bunch of kids.

Also consider that no standard framework for measuring the value of social media has emerged and very few organizations are even trying.

I appreciate the enthusiasm that leads to the belief that it's time to just call it media -- Steve Rubel has long been a proponent -- and I wholeheartedly agree that throwing social media tactics against the wall will never work. But the distinction continues to be important, and will be for some time.

Commenter: Paul Garcia

2010, April 22

I agree whole-heartedly. People are blinded to the effect by focusing on the activity. The name is useless, but the urge to connect (or refusal) says volumes about individual and group consciousness.

Marketing is another abused word. Most people communicate or advertise, but very few are performing all 8 aspects of Marketing. It's like going out in public wearing only 2 of 8 pieces of clothing if ALL of marketing is not how your business breathes.

Commenter: Jeff Cannon

2010, April 22

Rob - great article. When a non-marketing oriented owner of a small business starts telling me about his neice doing his social media campaign, my first thought is "this whole avenue is dead." What most people don't realize is social media is about more than Tweeting or Facebook Fans [now likers?], it is about implenting a consistent content strategy across a range of media.

Perhaps it's time to start going back to the concept of "content marketing?"

Either way, seling social meida is about education. I only hope brands with budgets will realize this before some of us move on to the next media opportunity that comes up.

jeff cannon