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The rise of social media over the past decade has been extraordinary, with a profound impact on brand marketing. Yet much of the potential of social media remains unrealized and, for many brand marketers, unrecognized. In key ways, social media are misunderstood.
First, social media aren’t actually media. But by calling them media, brand marketers frame their thinking and planning in ways that put them at a disadvantage. It’s hard to see beyond the expectations created by the media characterization.
Media are means of communication by which sponsors reach an audience. Traditional media were established as content delivery systems underwritten by advertisers in exchange for the attention of viewers and readers to ads. Inherent to the very structure of traditional media is an engagement between brand marketers and consumers. Not so for social media.
Social media were developed, and continue to be launched and managed, as ways for people to share and communicate with other people. The essence of social media is interpersonal engagement. Unlike traditional media, the core functionality of social media has nothing whatsoever to do with brands and advertising. At the heart of social media, there is no exchange of content in return for attention, which is why social media aren’t actually media.
Brand marketers can get more out of social media by helping people talk to other people. While brands are central to the engagement with traditional media, brands aren’t front and center when it comes to social media. The marketing objective with traditional media is optimizing the exchange between advertisers and audience. Approaching social media in this way misreads the opportunity. It is not about brands getting a message across; rather, it is about helping people have better interactions with their friends.
This, then, is the second thing to recognize about social media. It is all about giving people social currency to spend. Financial currency is spent in brand engagement. Social currency is spent in social engagement. This is not to suggest that financial transactions are irrelevant to social media; only that social currency must be spent first.
With traditional media, social exchange is neither here nor there. Brand engagement is primary, whether or not social exchange occurs. With social media, on the other hand, social exchange is the crux of the experience, and thus social currency is the medium of exchange. What people want in social media is social currency to spend.
While Facebook has a nearly ubiquitous presence these days, a recent Pew study found that 61 percent of Facebook users report taking long, multi-week breaks from doing anything at all on Facebook. People don’t have the time or interest to stay current, largely because Facebook content becomes boring or irrelevant or trivial. In other words, sooner or later, people run out of interesting things to share, after which social media lose their power of social engagement. What people need is fresh social currency to spend. This is the opportunity for brands – not to get consumers to talk to brands but to help people talk to other people.
At The Futures Company, we have developed an organizing framework for social currency based on the concept of kinship and the rising importance of relationships and social ties. The four categories of social currency are Place, Push, Partnering and Participation.
Place means venues brands can provide for people to interact with other people (not with brands). Push means content that people can send out to others, irrespective of whether others respond or reply. Partnering means dialogue, interaction and conversation. Participation means things people can join in, whether or not they tell others or talk to others about it, or social comparisons that people can make of themselves against a group.
All of these types of social currency underwrite or facilitate a social interaction. Such interactions are the essence of social media, and thus the best thing brands can do in this context is help people have better, more satisfying interactions with other people. For brands that do so, the financial payback will follow, but as a result of spending social currency first.
Finally, social media play a secondary role to traditional media. Over time, this may change, but for now, this is the way social media work. Brand marketers know this implicitly. When media integration is discussed, the emphasis is on how social media can amplify the reach and persuasiveness of traditional media. Never are traditional media considered as amplifiers of social media – it’s always the other way around, in which social media are viewed in a subordinate, amplifying role.
Part of this is just the fact that social media, hype notwithstanding, are a niche phenomenon. In another study, Pew quantified the profiles of Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, Tumblr and Facebook users. In every instance, Facebook included, it’s a niche profile. (Facebook skews disproportionately female relative to total population.)
Even more telling is yet another Pew study showing that the affective sentiment of Twitter opinions is never consistent with the overall mood and opinions of Americans at large, which is not surprising given that a mere 3 percent of Americans are regular tweeters. (Admittedly, a higher percentage of people follow tweets, but while higher, this percentage is still very low.)
Tweeters go their own way; they do not speak for most people nor do they lead or shape the opinions of most people. Rather, they talk to themselves in a place of social exchange where most of the communication is a form of push. This is not to speak ill of Twitter. It is merely to put it in proper perspective. It is a niche phenomenon, thus complementary to traditional media. But brand marketers think otherwise.
The most recent CMO survey conducted by the American Marketing Association and The Fuqua School of Business at Duke University finds a continuing shift of marketing spending from traditional to social media. Marketers are making bets at odds with reality. This may be because brand marketers are trying to get ahead of the future, and if so, this would be laudable. But if we are honest with ourselves, we are forced to admit that such far-sightedness is rare. Rather, brand marketers are shifting funds because they believe social media have rapidly become the best means for their brands to reach consumers. Yet this presumes that social media are now the best channel for brand engagement. In fact, social media are something else.
A recent Adobe study of opinions about marketing among both marketers and consumers found that magazines are, overwhelmingly, the favorite place people like to get ads, followed by TV. Social media barely register. Similarly, traditional media dominate the rankings of the best place for marketing and advertising.
None of this is an indictment of social media. It is simply confirmation that social media are about people-to-people interactions not brand-to-consumer exchanges. Brand marketers must get this distinction right if they are to get right with their management of social media. Kinship is the guiding principle for social media – how to bring people together, not how to bring a product to market. By bringing people together, brands will find a connection with consumers. But it will involve social currency first. Only if people find value in that will financial currency trade hands.
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