Recent, and increasingly desperate, efforts by some players in the social media space to monetise their audiences and convince investors that they have a sustainable business model, has many of these players looking distinctly old world.
Package it any clever way you want, it is the provision of an audience to a brand in exchange for money, which is advertising. Advertising - apparently not dead yet.
The media part (ie, the way we make money from this stuff) is now overwhelming even the most social of social media brands. The problem is the nature of the beast lies not in the media part but the social.
Imagine a dinner table filled with friends and family. Laughter, smiles, maybe a good argument or two.
Now imagine one person holding up a sign offering cheap deals on hotels, while another holds a sign telling you about the song they just bought on iTunes. All the while the conversation continues.
Someone else holds up his bottle of beer and asks you to 'like' it. And three days later that brand is still popping up begging for your likes. Creepy? No kidding. Yet that is what is happening in a lot of social media spaces today. "This dinner brought to you by Alka Selzer". Yuk.
We don’t mind advertising when we get something in return. All those Olympic sponsors ensuring we get to watch our favourite sports for free or that terrific series which would not be possible without ad support.
But there is a time and place. Our intimate conversations, such as we now hold them in social media, are not that place. Even if you technically can insert yourself into that conversation, don’t.
So how should brands behave?
We believe that the purpose of the virtual for a brand is to get you closer to a real experience. Most brands survive by selling real products to real people in real physical settings. Even the virtual brands are rather fond of real money.
Brands need to be useful and take action in this fast paced social environment and in order to stand out from the crowd, the agencies that support them should strive to create platforms and content that are both worthwhile and worth talking about.
For what it’s worth, here are my thoughts on the matter:
- Be Social: First up, forget the media part. Think social. Social - as in 'be social'. To be social has at its heart a touching but essential 'do unto others' quality.
- Stories Win: A good story-teller is welcome at most parties. Social means - don't be a bore. Don't just talk about yourself. You are invited to the other person's party. So don't monopolise the conversation, and don't go thrusting your brand's metaphorical business card at people. If you are entertaining, fun, and know a thing or two of interest to others, then chances are you will be invited back.
- Be Polite: Social means think about your place in the universe and don't intrude. Like telephone calls during dinner or too early on a Sunday morning - even friends and family have to observe unwritten rules of behaviour. Brands who think "Wow, we can be with consumers 24 hours a day now... how great is that?" need to get a grip. We don't want to hang out with our toothpaste brand all day, even if they aren’t that annoying. And don't go slamming your logo on everything in sight... or on a site. Know when to leave the party.
- Timing is Everything: Content may be King, but context is Queen. Social means that you should make some effort to talk to the right people in the right place at the right time. Given the right context, your message is more welcome and more likely to be spread further.
- Be Useful: The original purpose of branding was profoundly utilitarian - 'it does what it says on the tin'. In the landscape of sameness and lack or real differentiation, digital can help brands gets back to their roots. What can your brand do to be of relevant assistance to its consumers using digital media? They might just be reminded of why they loved you in the first place.
- Do Something: Help consumers take action. And set the example yourself. Branded action is a powerful new force to do some good and which mobile is only just beginning to unlock. We have only begun to scratch the surface of the power of micro-actions.
Ultimately, nobody knows anything, as two-time Academy Award winning screenwriter William Goldman once said about trying to pick movie hits.
We don't really know exactly how, and sometimes if, any of this social business is going to work.
Don’t let that deter you though. You need to constantly think of improvements you can make.
Branding today needs to think more like software. It is a continual work in progress. So get started. But spend more time thinking about what it really means to be social first.