Marketers and brands have been working really hard over the past five years to make sense of social media marketing. Traditional PR firms have tried to jump on social as the new outreach medium and communications platform. Digital agencies have been salivating over how to define and monetize community management. And less savvy or buzzword-driven marketers have tried to equate social with viral. I'd argue neither social nor viral really exist, especially viral, but that's another article entirely.
What is social media marketing?
Before we discuss what social media marketing is, let's define what it's not.
First, it's not a medium. Defining social media marketing as a medium or even as a channel is the easiest definition, but one that misses the mark the most in many ways. It's also very limiting. Direct mail is a medium. Radio is a medium. Social is big. Social is organic. Social is fluid. Social knows no boundaries.
Others, especially digital agencies, try to define social media marketing as community management. The way most agencies define community management, you could easily mistake it for customer support -- which shouldn't be outsourced in my view, especially to a digital marketing agency.
And, if community management is simply a channel to push marketing messages, or used as a campaign outlet, does community management equal social media marketing in this case? It's a medium or a messenger at best in this scenario.
Direct response marketers and paid media specialists too often view social media marketing as just another property or engine to run or place ads. I think any marketer worth his or her acronyms would argue that ad placement in social media platforms does not define social media marketing.
So just to recap and to expand in an efficient manner, I included a quick list of what social media marketing isn't below:
- It's not a medium or channel.
- It's not community management.
- It's not running Facebook ads or sponsored tweets.
- It's not posting and/or retweeting press releases or product updates.
- It's not viral.
- It's not a campaign.
- It's not about the number of "likes" or followers you receive.
OK -- so we've defined what it's not, but what is social media marketing?
It's a world view. It's a philosophy. It's a way of life. It's a commitment to conversations -- two-way and multi-way conversations. It's a commitment to transparency. It's not tethered to any site, platform, or medium. It's engaging with customers, employees, vendors, and anyone else who wants to opt-in or opt-out of a conversation with a brand. It's creating liquid content (for those of you who haven't seen Coca-Cola's 2020 content strategy, prepare to be amazed).
And, in 2013, it's completely within the sphere of digital marketing. Social is a sub-segment of digital. It can't be separated. For now...
Banning the words "digital marketing"
Digital marketing is a term that is near and dear to my heart. It's what we do. It's what we're best at, but it won't exist in the near future. All marketing at some point will be digital. All marketing in the near future will, at the very least, allow two-way conversations. The future will include smart and interactive billboards, radio, print, and more. Nothing will be static. No one-way or non-personalized advertising will exist. Maybe there will be a few token traditional outlets left, but they will be irrelevant just like the Yellow Pages.
Even things we think of as inherently digital marketing, such as SEO or PPC, will lose this distinction. At its core, search marketing is simply a search engine deciphering user intent signals. In its current form, it's essentially query-driven. However, you don't necessarily need a search engine to do this -- or even queries. We do now, in 2013, but the definition, media, and our traditional view of how we access and retrieve information is going to drastically change over the coming years.
I've heard others argue with me rather passionately when I say things like this. However, I'm quick to remind them that 10 years ago Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest didn't even exist. The iPhone didn't exist seven years ago. The iPad didn't exist four years ago. And less than 15 years ago, Google didn't either.
We can't remember the pre-social world, and we can't imagine a post-social one either.
Where it's heading
A post-social world is really about a change of expectations and interactions. Social media marketing exists and is relevant today because, just a few short years ago, consumers couldn't engage in the manner they can and do now. Light is defined by darkness and vice-versa so to speak.
However, as our offline and online worlds merge, this distinction isn't necessary. It's not only unnecessary; it's wrong and dated. In a post-social world, taking a channel approach will be limiting and will fail. In a post-social world, repurposing content from other media will be redundant and will alienate consumers.
In a post-social world, ad platforms will be able to transcend search engines, ad networks, TV, radio, and traditional. In a post-social world, the world will just be the world because social, digital, offline, and conversations will be integrated.
Thriving in a post-social world
So what does all of this mean?
It means gaining a competitive advantage won't be easy. It means optimizing media such as SEO, PPC, direct mail, etc., will yield little value. As I mentioned earlier, search engines are simply tools that are good at deciphering user intent. TV, radio, print, and direct mail are just media that have effectively used the "spray and pray" model for disseminating messages for the past 70 years. The biggest budgets have tended to win, and no conversation was possible or even desired.
To gain a sustainable, competitive advantage will be hard, but it is incredibly simple in a post-social world.
First, solve a problem that needs to be solved. Second, define your purpose and brand values. Then, prioritize your branding efforts, your creative, and your message. Finally, zero in on your audience and have 3D, completely integrated conversations. There will be no digital versus traditional. There's just a brand and its products communicating with customers and earnestly trying to make their lives better. To sum it up -- it's about brands creating value and communicating with their customers in engaging ways.
This actually sounds a lot like the golden age of advertising, but with conversations, not just ads.
Brian Easter is the CEO of Nebo Agency.
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