In the years since the emergence of social as a separate entity for marketing purposes (roughly from around the birth of Twitter in 2006) we’ve figured out a lot about what social is, how it works, and what it means for marketers.

Now you could talk directly to a brand, and have them listen to you.

For consumers, this was great. For brands, it presented opportunities and challenges. It also entailed a pretty major shift in thinking.

So as memories of Social Media Week fade, has social now grown up?

Firstly, it’s worth defining ‘grown up’. I think the defining factors are:

  • a) has it been adopted across multiple sectors and territories?
  • b) does it have a proven model of effectiveness?
  • c) will it continue to be relevant into the future?

I was involved in the early stages back in 2008, when social was taking its first tentative toddles around marketing departments. It was new, shiny and cute. And some enlightened brands found it irresistible, ruffling its tufty hair by trialling a few content ideas, largely because they could.    

Regardless of results, social provided an excuse to showcase how a brand was forward-thinking, prepared to embrace new technologies and not hamstrung by conventional thinking. Who really cared if it actually achieved anything?

A few fledgling campaigns caught on and the architects were lauded as guiding lights; social media soothsayers. Others also got their fingers burnt. They dived in clumsily, tripped up and got a bloodied nose. But the smart kids learned fast and stole a march on their peers.       

In a recent Adobe Social/Econsultancy paper, two thirds of the 650 marketers surveyed stated that social was ‘integral to the marketing mix’.

They represented a mix of client-side and agencies from North America and Europe, from B2C as well as B2B. So in terms of ‘widespread adoption’, I think social gets a gold star.

Do you agree or disagree with the following statements? (Client-side respondents)

Now for the thorny issue of ROI. Without a plausibly credible framework, widely accepted by client, social budgets will hit a ceiling. Instinctively you’d like to support the attractive, if slightly geeky, new kid on the block. But only up to a point, unless he’s able to actually prove his brilliance.   

Solid case studies have helped to prove the business imperative for intelligent use of social media – the IAB’s recent report was a great example of how social can really impact a brand in a positive way.

The judging panel of the Social Buzz awards also remarked at a SMW event last week that ROI was starting to stack up and there were fewer “leaps of faith” being submitted for gongs.

A universally palatable framework remains elusive, however; one that isn’t just a popularity rating but a solid indictment of cost v benefit in pounds and pence. It’s tricky. But it is possible.

The Value of Social Advocacy framework we kicked off with BA, AEG and other partners is being test-driven by several brands but it’s still in its infancy won’t achieve its full potential unless some of the leading lights pitch in to crack the conundrum.

It’s worth remembering that its peers (press, TV, PR etc) don’t have water-tight ROI models, so let’s not be paralysed by fear that all the other kids in the class are older and better looking.

Finally, will social be relevant in the future? I think it will, but it won’t be called ‘social media’. I throw a strop when people dismiss ‘social’ as a channel. It’s not. Facebook is a social channel. Social media is a culture.

It’s a new way of thinking that acknowledges that a marketing department doesn’t have all the answers and invites customers to help to define a brand’s future. This needs buy-in throughout an organization and it needs to be transparent and long-term or consumers won’t buy-in.

Social’s influence transcends all marketing channels.

So I think social media is almost grown up. It’s in its teenage angst phase: At times confident, brilliantly expressive and attractive, at other times, awkward, ineloquent and embarrassing.

When it does gain full maturity, it will have changed its name, bought a new wardrobe and graduated into a valued member of the marketing family for a long time to come.