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I'm a professed 'social media' skeptic. I believe that much of the hype around social media is unjustified.
I believe anyone arguing that every corporation should be seeking out 'conversations' and becoming 'friends' with customers on social networks largely reflects a misguided and naive marketing philosophy.
That said, I don't doubt the power of 'connection' and 'community.'
Before the phrases 'Web 2.0' and 'social media' had even been coined, I had been intimately involved in the creation and development of websites with strong community components. All told, these websites had generated hundreds of thousands of thousands of registered users and millions upon millions of interactions in the form of message board posts, content uploads and user-to-user communications before Friendster had even launched.
I still employ 'connection' and 'community' to this day in several of my online ventures, although I would argue that artificial attempts at getting consumers to develop relationships around toothpaste and laundry detergent are not the best uses of these concepts.
If one considers that 'connection' and 'community' are the key components of 'social media,' there is perhaps no better recent case study highlighting how social media can be applied in a truly effective manner than the Twilight series of vampire-romance novels that teenagers have really bitten into.
If Twilight sounds familiar to you, it may be because the movie adaptation of the first Twilight novel (also called Twilight) was recently released and in less than 10 days grossed nearly $100mn. Blockbuster status, to be sure.
How did a then 32 year-old stay-at-home-mother named Stephanie Meyer, with no prior novels published, take a dream she had about a romance between a vampire and a teenage girl and turn it into every author's dream - more than 25 million books sold and a knockout Hollywood adaptation?
The Internet had a lot to do with it.
As the Los Angeles Times details, despite the fact that publisher Little, Brown paid $750,000 to win a bidding war for the Twilight manuscript, the book house initially only published 75,000 copies and created a less-than-inspired website to promote the new book.
That wasn't good enough for Meyer. So she created a personal website, StephenieMeyer.com, that was far more personal and intimate than the website Little, Brown developed. She posted blogs and was eager to engage personally with those who would comment. Not content to relegate the 'conversation' to StephenieMeyer.com, she went to other websites and interacted with individuals on their online turf.
In the process, Meyer built up a small but passionate fan base. She encouraged her fans and supported their efforts to build and contribute to the "community" that was growing around Twilight.
To be sure, it wasn't easy and success didn't come overnight. The Los Angeles Times notes that Twilight didn't 'go mainstream' until the third novel in the series was released in 2007. The rest is, as they say, history.
Before we praise Meyer's savvy use of the internet, however, we need to praise the quality of her product. Twilight's success is obviously not only the result of her promotional prowess but the result of the creation of a 'product' that appeals to its target audience.
If Twilight didn't have enough substance to spark readers' imaginations and to keep them turning the pages, no amount of strategic marketing would have taken the series as far as it has come.
In short, Meyer had a viable product and using many social media components, was able to help it get the exposure it needed to thrive in the marketplace.
Today's breed of social media proponents, of course, will extoll the virtues of Meyer's use of social media and they'll eagerly highlight how the same principals that provided promotional umph for Twilight can be applied by corporations.
Unfortunately, it's not that simple.
Twilight is a story, an idea, fantasy, entertainment. It is not toothpaste. It is not a commoditized consumer electronics product. It is not a soft drink.
People interact, engage and build communities around passions, causes, ideas, fantasies - not everyday products.
The same principles that Meyer employed to help gain exposure and build loyalty amongst readers can be applied by corporations but they're not likely to produce a similar result.
Of course, this isn't all that surprising.
One need only look at the popularity of virtual worlds like World of Warcraft and video games like the Legend of Zelda and the relative lack of popularity of most of the virtual world initiatives created by corporations to see that what people want to interact around is based on a lot more than the mere availability of something to interact around.
Twilight is a fantasy world in novel form and Meyer, through her personal interaction with readers and support of the formation of community around the fantasy world that original appeared in her dream, was able to inspire others to make the Twilight fantasy their own.
Fans were interacting with Meyer - the author of a book they liked - not a 'Community Manager' at a multi-billion dollar corporation that makes pet food.
Creating similar types of interaction around products like pet food and toothpaste isn't likely and trying to do so probably isn’t a worthwhile investment for a consumer goods brand, which has a different set of marketing goals, different resources and more formal ROI criteria than Meyer did when she went online to engage in her own life's passion - the books she wrote.
In my opinion, the success of Twilight demonstrates perfectly the value inherent in taking a holistic approach to marketing. When evaluating which parts of the media mix are ideally-suited to achieving the desired outcome, one needs to understand his or her product and its place in the world.
Had Stephanie Meyer promoted Twilight in the same fashion that Gillette promotes shaving products, for instance, I probably wouldn't be writing about Twilight. Conversely, it's no surprise that as companies try to foster 'community', 'engagement', and 'relationships' around everyday products, I am not writing about their successes.