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At times in the last few years, especially in digital marketing circles, it has seemed as though social media has ruled the world.

However, I’m beginning to sense increasingly suspicion and scepticism in the conversations I have with colleagues and clients.

Social media has been riding a wave of popularity, driven by strong public uptake and a love-hate relationship in the traditional media. Marketers have also been quick to spot an opportunity.

This popularity is hardly surprising. Coming from a tech PR background, I’m used to the ‘shiny new toy’ craze. Social media is the new kid on the new media block and as such, has been the envy of every other marketing discipline, especially when many are beginning to suffer a decline in effectiveness.

But the more ‘social media conferences’ I attend that churn out the same tired old case studies, most of which lack any real measurement, ROI or business result, the more I’m beginning to think it’s time to take a step back and really reassess the ‘power of social media’.

Those of us that are already out there doing work for businesses in this space need to re-evaluate what we are preaching. Those who are thinking about embarking for the first time need to think hard about the rationale behind it. We’ve gone past the honeymoon period.

Social media adolescence

We’re entering that spotty teenager phase and things are starting to get serious. We’re being asked, and are asking (hopefully), difficult questions. We’re being forced to justify spend to capture bigger budgets and social media is beginning to have a place at the strategising table.

This all forces us to see social media activity not as a quick one-off, flash in the pan, but as something more long-term, committed, serious and sustainable.

Sustainable social media

We’ve coined a phrase at Wildfire: sustainable social media.

It’s the idea that if social networks are just another channel, then they need to be nurtured and sustained as much as any other marketing channel would be.

As a marketer, you would never try and get PR coverage by simply blasting out an announcement to a hoard of people you hadn’t researched, met or encountered before. You’d never try to launch a multi-million pound ad campaign without some serious research and media planning.

But this re-evaluation goes further than talking about social channels. It goes further than technology and marketing. It centres around a shift in how we all – as businesses – communicate.

The term social media will die out

When all media is 'social' in it's purest form, there won't be any differentiation. That's why sustainable social media is less about marketing and more about business. It's a new way of thinking about how businesses communicate with their publics. It's possibly as close to the original concept of PR that we can get.

So, why it's easy to talk about Twitter and Facebook strategies, it's much harder to talk about business change and the changing perceptions and expectations of a more 'social' public. It’s harder, but it’s also absolutely critical.

‘Social’ is all about community, and community development will never happen overnight. Sure, big brands with big bucks that can hire expensive ad agencies to create work that will simply “go viral” will continue to use social media as merely another amplification tool. Those of us that (are perhaps forced to) approach social media in a more sensible, considered way, know that the real results come when you create, nurture and grow your own community. This approach too is much more sustainable.

So as we enter social media adolescence, it is time to ask those difficult questions and make some difficult decisions. It’s about taking a more professional approach rather than merely tagging ‘social’ onto every pitch, presentation or marketing meeting. It is about making sure that businesses are properly set up to handle being social. It’s about training and handholding. It’s about empowerment and transparency. And it’s about listening to your audience and your customers.

It’s time to stand up and admit when things aren’t going well instead of trying to pull the wool over someone’s eyes with a deluge of check-ins, retweets and follower numbers.

It’s time for social media marketing to grow up.

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Published 17 September, 2010 by Danny Whatmough

Danny Whatmough is Head of Digital, EMEA Consumer at Weber Shandwick. He can be found on TwitterGoogle+  and blogs at dannywhatmough.com.

21 more posts from this author

Comments (17)

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Alex Hardie

Sensible stuff. I was a little disappointed to see the 'Backlash' title and ready to dismiss this peice as a trendy headline grabber. But, by the end, you'd won me over. Morals of the story being, as far as social media strategies and community management are concerned: measurement, committment, transparency. Nice.

about 6 years ago

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Craig Killick

I agree wholeheartedly with your sentiments Danny. I think there are a lot of people who will see the walls come tumbling down soon with their social media strategies as they keep trying to hit hard for quick wins. Many already have.

Most organisations (esp. in B2B) need to realise that people don't really care about them. And if they don't, they can't be forced to. Reading great case studies makes it seem possible, but they are usually either huge consumer brands or niche players.

As you mention, I think social media has got a part to play, as part of a larger marketing mix... as long as the strategy fits with the medium.

about 6 years ago

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Danny Whatmough, Associate social media and digital director at Ketchum

Thanks guys.

Glad the title didn't put you off Alex! I genuinely think there is a backlash stirring at the moment. We'll see where it goes...

about 6 years ago

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Alex Hardie

Very valid stuff Craig. I'll throw this out there: we marketing folk are always thinking about generating new business. And quite right we should too. Social media is an opportunity to optimise revenues, sure. We should also remember that social media is as much about listening and understanding as it is an opportunity to flog product and service. Even if people don't care enough about you to say, become a fan on Facebook, they will talk about you. You can be sure of that. And it's important that brands and businesses are privy to those conversations, no?

about 6 years ago

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Danny Whatmough, Associate social media and digital director at Ketchum

Exactly! The technologies are great and having good creative ideas certainly help. But if you don't know where you audience are and how to engage with the community over time, you won't get very far. Recently, we've been speaking to potential clients who have all added 'social media' as a 'requirement' in a brief. We've often turned around and told them to get the marketing/PR basics right first before worrying about their social media strategy, because social media on its own usually just falls flat.

Interesting times!

about 6 years ago

David Edmundson-Bird

David Edmundson-Bird, Principal Lecturer in Digital Marketing & Course Leader MSc Digital Marketing Communications at MMU Business School

Like the thoughts Danny. I gave a talk last Monday on how executives and senior strategists considering incorporating social media into their briefs really need to go back to marketing principles and then decide whether its appropriate.

Bandwagon aside, we are at the same point as we were in 1998 with "the web site" - everyone wants one, few know why or even if they should. Some of the key mistakes I've heard in presentations revolve about it being a direct line to the customer. In B2B it's not true. It's a way to start influencing but its not a sales route. Like so many recent pieces have said, customers probably don't want to "engage" with a brand - "I want to eat the food I don't really want to film myself doing it to show 1000 other strangers."

about 6 years ago

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ed

modern marketing is all about the self fulfilling prophecy. who is this clandestine nay-sayer? shouldnt he be defrocked by the chartered institute of bullshi..er..marketeers?

yours,

'they spent my payrise on social media consultants'

about 6 years ago

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Stuart Macdonald

Nice post Danny and couldn't agree more Alex Hardy (esp first comment). Seems every man and his dog is an expert and well hmmmm to that. I don't want to read the same churned out drivel - and if the media I am delivered is fresh - social or otherwise it is good and inspires my confidence in the author. Fun ahead I'm sure..

about 6 years ago

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Simon Gornick

Excellent piece and very refreshing too. Hyperbole always hides the truth. All that retweeting and 'liking' just doesn't add up numbers-wise. Social Media Marketing (for want of a better phrase in a see of nonsensical phrases) is a very labor-intensive operation. Winning or engaging customers one by one is simply not viable for larger businesses. Their Ad and PR spends are better channelled into targeted advertising. However, as weak as social media may be for larger concerns, it's the lifeblood of smaller outfits without ad budgets. If 1000 customers would serve your business nicely, and you don't have a marketing department - social media marketing might, with a little luck do the job. Of course, when you're budget is $0 it's the only shot you have.

about 6 years ago

Karl Havard

Karl Havard, Chief Strategy Officer at Econsultancy Guest Access TRAININGSmall Business Multi-user

Hi Danny, I agree with your post and would like to take it a stage further to see what you think. The term "social media" or even the "social web" will hopefully soon just be referred to as the web. Virtually, every website will have an element of interaction and include the various sharing buttons enabling the spread of content amongst friends and colleagues.

What I struggle with (and always have) is why "social media" is always strongly associated with Marketing. An organisation, agency or individual who start with this positioning will create and implement a flawed approach...in fact if the focus is around push marketing then you'll probably cause more damage than good.

The web, and all its socialness (made up word) is about people communicating with each other, on whatever subject matter they choose. There are a lot more people using the web than organisations, so doesn't it make sense to tap into the things they hold important around your brand? This means many customer facing departments need to incorporate the social web and work hard to ensure cross channel integration. Ultimately, if a business does good things, word will spread, so one of the tac tics has to be to make it easy for people to spread the word. The ROI measures need to be applied across the entire brand engagement journey (not just conversions) and measure cost savings, increase in buzz, sales, awareness etc. So I see "social media" starting to shave and like many older teenagers, is now making some bold and probably inappropriate fashion statements just before it finds its true identity. More accurately, it's the people who are adopting and adapting "social media" for their business who are going through this phase.

about 6 years ago

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Gina Cuclis

The headline of this piece doesn't match the content. I saw this on PRSA's Issues & Trends, and almost didn't read it. What you say is very sensible.

about 6 years ago

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Danny Whatmough, Associate social media and digital director at Ketchum

Thanks for all the comments guys.

@Karl - I think the term 'social' is still important as it clearly defines the shift in focus but I agree that it will just become engrained in everything. Coming from a PR background, I'd argue that the best Marketing is when you, as a business, is communicating closely with your end users. This has always been challenging in the past and we have often resorted to using influencers to achieve this (via journalists and analysts etc.), but 'social' gives us the opportunity to cut out the middle man. It's not easy but when done effectively and integrated with other marketing (and business) activities it can be a fantastic way to reach prospects and customers in a less marketingy way.

@Gina - I think the title - while deliberately controversial - still stands up. It's this very real backlash which I am seeing, which I'm sure will continue to grow, that is (hopefully) forcing marketers to reassess the way they approach social media.

about 6 years ago

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Ricky

The role of social media in the marketing mix is directly related to society's mainstream perceptions of it. Much of the cynicism social media encounters, stems from a lack of cultural acceptance and an unwillingness to accept newer, modern means of communication. There are those, like ourselves, who embrace it and want to find ways of best using it but the mainstream are yet to be fully converted -if ever?

The effect upon human emotion and specifically the perceptions of individuals are what need to be addressed because at the moment, as Danny points out, SM is starting to peak and fall back. What interests myself is whether in 1,5 or 10 years time, individuals and businesses will view SM as a norm and necessity rather than a fad or phase like today. If so, we are all headed in the right direction.

about 6 years ago

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Lloyd Trufelman

Social media is a useful tool for PR and marketing, but its use needs to be put in perspective. New communications technologies do not replace previous ones; they augment them and become catalysts for adjusting the media mix. Those who think because their company has implemented a social media campaign all other existing mar-com channels are not needed brings to mind all those ago who years ago found out the hard way that setting up a blog was not the single magic marketing bullet they through it would be. Truly effective campaigns must integrate social media with other new and mainstream media platforms to reach increasingly fractionalized audiences.

about 6 years ago

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wholesale electronics

The role of social media in the marketing mix is directly related to society's mainstream perceptions of it. Much of the cynicism soc...

about 6 years ago

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Andy Jacobson

Facebook, Twitter, et. al. are still in there infancy. And there's plenty more s/n applications coming down the pike. 

Dan, while I do think there does need to be some accountability in whatever efforts a company puts its energy into I think its too soon to try and define what Social Media means to a company.

Most of the successful companies that have to come define Social Media have been started by "kids" who understood that existing media channels didn't allow for engaging conversations or community development. 

Give it some more time and let it have its successes and failures and, just like any adolescent it'll grow up in due time. But start measuring it and giving it artificial expectations and it'll become of little value to society—just as most of today's "market tested" advertising has turned off consumers and wasted its clients' time and money.

almost 6 years ago

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wholesale electronics

Dan, while I do think there does need to be some accountability in whatever efforts a company puts its energy into I think its too soon to try and define what Social Media means to a company.

Most of the successful companies that have to come define Social Media have been started by "kids" who understood that existing media channels didn't allow for engaging conversations or community development.

almost 6 years ago

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