Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Is 'social media' the problem?

I wanted to write up the IPA Social event last week, but unfortunately I've had my arm in a sling for most of the time since, so here we go a week later! I've written a few things on here about how the IPA Social stuff kicked off, which was basically about a few people talking about what we thought other people might want to also talk about. The first event last week got a lot more folk joining in, and there seem to be a few themes that keep coming up - there's obviously a big piece around measurement, which I'll leave to people who know more about it, but I'm really interested in the role of brands, and their agencies, in "social media". Over on Advergirl, Leigh House makes the point that

When we talk about consumers paying for content, we skip over how brands get into the conversation. Can we really rely on WOM networks to do the work of mass advertising? Do we all want to turn into blathering mouthpieces for our favorite brands?

(as part of a much longer and very smart series of posts on the changing economics of mass media).

And a lot of the themes are around how things are changing for every type of communications business: brands don't believe for a minute that there is a whole population waiting to promote their products if they could only design that Facebook page right, but they are getting differing advice from their different specialists on what has changed.

Is the term 'social media' the problem for marketers?
It seems that the
term social media itself is counter productive - a fundamental change in how people are able to communicate with each other will naturally have knock-on effects to all businesses that deal with communications. But it will affect each differently. So 'social media' means something different to an ad agency than to a PR agency because it impacts what they have traditionally done in different ways. So the advice that clients get from their roster is that 'social media' means a range of different things. Meanwhile the customer services and IT departments are finding that it means a set of other different things outside of the marketing department but intrinsic to the brand.

When you have a range of different disciplines, advertising, digital, PR, media, etc, in a room talking about something that crosses over (and changes) each of their specialisms, you naturally get different views of what is important and how to go about achieving it. Will's written a great piece on why a brand might not want to be social, asking why you would care more about what sharing opinions with your bank than how good it is at managing your money. Which makes sense from the perspective of what has changed for advertising. There's obviously some brands that aren't inherently social. In a lot of cases, it might be counter-productive for brand built around functionality and cost to try and make itself social. But only in its advertising, in what it says about itself. These type of brands also have over-stretched customer service departments in which NOT being 'social' ie not trying to initiate open conversations with customers, is far more counter-productive to the way the brand communicates. But these are outside of the role of most of the agencies employed by a brand marketing department because they don't sit within brand marketing. One of the key challenges to brands and their agencies that people have been talking about over the last few years is moving from campaigning to committing - as in John Willshire's great analogy about bonfires and fireworks. Someone (not sure who, sorry) at the IPA Social event challenged to this, saying that surely it is about committing and campaigning. Which makes sense; there's nothing wrong with 'social media campaigns', as long as they are part of a wider change in brand behaviour; but there's no point in talking about how you are 'listening to consumers' on TV and then ignoring them in call centres, as you'll get found out quickly and publicly. Campaigning has been the domain of ad agencies, while committing fits more into what we traditionally called PR. As media relations has evolved to include geniune 'public' relations (eg liaising with non professional journalists) among other things, PR agencies have been on the coalface of brands' moves towards 'committing'. This doesn't mean that 'campaigning' doesn't still have relevance, just that it will look different from what ad agencies have traditionally done (as Robin Grant rightly points out in his write-up of the IPA event). However, lumping all these changes to various comms disciplines together and calling them 'social media' makes it harder for marketers to understand the underlying changes, or the need to act on them.

To me the terminology is wrong because it confuses cause (structural change in communications that is far bigger than just our industry) with effect (that clients' objectives are best served by having a group of specialists relevant to their business needs). In that in a lot of cases clients find it difficult to put the correct roster in place because they are equally confused by the conflicting advice from specialists who concentrate on changes happening to their own specialist areas.... which is all labelled social media.


Rob Murray said...

Great post - although...i'd have to disagree with your assertion that the terminology is wrong though.

Social Media is the actual media, whether this be blogs, forums, social networks etc. Like print, tv, outdoor, it is just a media platform - a social one and in this context the term 'social media' seems to be a good description of what it is.

I think the term 'social media' starts to become ambiguous when, like you say, the different disciplines have different agendas. So in that respect I think you're spot on.

The term 'social media' has become very polluted and diluted by the hundreds of 'experts' out there and this seems to be a major reason why the term social media' is loosing its credibility.


Graeme Wood said...

Thanks for the comment Rob - in principle I agree, but in practice the ambiguity of the terminology means that what should be a fundamental part of communications tends to get relegated to an add-on to an ad campaign. I don't think that there is an easy fix to this other than more marketers and agency people having a deeper understanding about what has changed (at a basic level, the economics of media), and what hasn't (how and why people want to communicate with each other). The fact that these changes impact every comms discipline in different but significant ways means that the barriers to working out how this impacts on the brand you actually work on is set really high.... with the result that 'social media' is still a box to tick for a lot of brands. I think that this is more an issue for ad and media agencies, as a lot of the measurement is more aligned to PR metrics - so this post was in response to the IPA Social initiatives. But i do think that the terminology makes some very important stuff too silo-able

Richard said...


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