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.