A lot of people claim to be social media experts, but Marta Kagan actually knows what she’s talking about.

Kagan is a self-confessed start-up junkie who currently heads up the Boston office of integrated marketing agency Espresso. Her slideshow, “What the F**k Is Social Media?” was a social media hit a year ago, and the follow up — What the F**k is Social Media: One Year Later — has been shared even more widely. (Our editor Chris Lake did a riff on what social media can’t do for brands here over the summer.)

I spoke with Marta about what the fuck is and isn’t social media today. And whether social media can cure cancer.

What the fuck isn’t social media today?
Hardly anything. The abundance of tools that are available to
enable sharing ideas, opinions and information online is almost
overwhelming. Even those individuals and brands who still prefer a “broadcast” approach to sharing content online have found that The
People Formerly Known as the Audience can freely take that content and
make it theirs; they can blog about it, mash it up, remix it, poke fun
of it, praise it, hype it, spoof it… Yeah, I’d say that at this point
virtually all media is social media.


What the fuck can’t social media do?

Well, it can’t cure cancer… yet. Though it is already being used
to raise money for cancer research, recruit patients for clinical
trials, and share non-confidential information that’s pertinent to
developing treatments among physicians and researchers. It can’t solve
all of your business problems overnight. It’s not a silver bullet. That
said, smart organizations are becoming social organizations. They’re
using social media not just as another marketing channel, but as a
remarkably effective tool for improving customer service, conducting
market research, crowdsourcing ideas for new products and programs,
improving knowledge-sharing, collaboration and job satisfaction among
employees, and building loyalty among existing customers. Social media
has the potential to spread ideas and information like wildfire. We’re
only at the very early stages of understanding and harnessing its full
potential.


Are companies right to use social media as mostly a customer service tool?

It certainly seems that more companies are catching on to the
idea of using social media—and Twitter, in particular—as a tool for
providing customer service. But I think, with a few exceptions, most have been
approaching it tentatively, timidly, and with only a partial
commitment. You can’t assign an unpaid intern (or even a paid employee
for that matter) to tweet on behalf of your company a few times a day
and call that good customer service. I think it’s certainly
possible—and should be the goal—for companies to use social platforms
more broadly to enhance their approach to customer service. Zappos has
done a remarkable job of this. BestBuy has earned a lot of praise for
their recent efforts with Twelpforce. But the truth is that most
companies have a lot of room for improvement in their approach to
customer service, period. Adding social media to a poorly executed
customer service policy is like putting a bandaid on a severed artery.


Can brands going into social media looking to increase hard sales?

As long as one remembers that the rules of engagement
are not the same as in traditional advertising and sales channels. It’s
about building awareness, relationships, influencing decisions,
stimulating word-of-mouth—not shouting about the ‘deal of the century’
or cajoling your audience to ‘buy now’. You wouldn’t propose marriage
to someone on a first date, would you? It would be equally
inappropriate to expect sales to happen as an immediate result of an
interaction with a prospect on a social platform. It’s a soft sell. But
the opportunity to influence is there; and there’s an overwhelming
amount of research that suggests that consumer-driven marketing (or
word of mouth) is the most influential touchpoint during a consumer’s
active evaluation phase. So yes, absolutely social media has a role in
sales.


Do you think the economy has had a positive or negative effect on social media adoption?

It has definitely had a positive effect on social media adoption.
Marketing budgets are being squeezed. Marketers need to make a better
business case for the dollars they spend. Social media offers an
opportunity to reach more people on a deeper level than traditional
advertising or paid digital media. And it’s infinitely more measurable
than traditional advertising. In a tough economy, these are enormous
advantages for a marketer. Hell, in any economy, these are enormous
advantages for a marketer. But I do think that the economy has forced
more people to explore social media sooner than they would have if the
purse strings were still loose. It has accelerated the pace of adoption
undoubtedly.


What the fuck has changed in social media over the last year?

Adoption has grown immensely. The abundance of sharing tools and
applications have multiplied; the demographics among social media users
have shifted more from the early adopter set to the mainstream.
Companies are getting smarter about how this medium can integrate with
their existing communication channels. We’re all a little less paranoid
about privacy and security—well, most of us anyway. That said, we still
have a long way to go. This period reminds me of the point at which
‘web 1.0’ had finally gone mainstream.

When I did the original What the F**k is Social Media deck in July of
2008, Slideshare was still relatively new. It took almost a year for
150,000 people to view the presentation. The sequel, published a year later, took less than a month to reach that volume. And I
don’t think that’s because the sequel is that much better. I think it
points to the fact that we’ve reached the tipping point. People are
indeed getting on the train.