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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Is Social Media the Answer?

The world is buzzing with talk of Social Media. Everyone seems to want to bake it into their communications campaigns and many feel that it will be the dominant selling vehicle in the years to come. Ad pros under 35 shake their heads in bemusement if the affable older fellow in the room with the tie and cufflinks (that would be Mr. Cole) suggests that it might not comprise one stop shopping a few years from now. Here are some of my thoughts on social media and, as promised earlier, there will be several more commentaries on the topic over the next year.

Social media is simply user or consumer-generated content. It allows companies to interact with customers and also serves as a platform for people to engage in networking or communication across the world. It comes in many forms most famously Facebook, Twitter, the fading MySpace, Internet Forums, Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts and Microblogging.

Virtually all of us are engaged in Social Media. If you are reading this blog, you are part of it. So, to test the hype, I took my own small, highly unscientific poll of businesses to see what people thought.

Roughly 30% said it moved sales and was so valuable that everyone should be using it. Some said that they could not separate its impact from other advertising and promotional activity. A larger group dismissed it as a waste of time and money and used language that I will not share with you to define the bad experience.

But something is definitely happening out there. You see a mass of bewildering and sometimes inaccurate facts to profile Social Media. But no other medium has reached hundreds of millions of people in such a short of time as Social Media—maybe 9 months? Small company success stories are remarkable when you see people with $10,000-20,000 budgets do nothing else and watch sales jump and inquiries arrive on line from more than 25 countries. Other changes are afoot. My dear school, Boston College,reputedly stopped giving incoming freshman their own e-mail this past year as everyone appeared to have a Facebook page.

Small businesses seem to love it. Dan Simons, a Washington restaurateur, said “Social Media for business is now life or death.” He constantly monitors on line forums, local review sites and thinks that customers sharing their opinions are re-shaping the environment for small business. Adults under 30 repeatedly tell me that they use reviews on the Facebook pages of friends to choose restaurants or current movies. My university students echo that sentiment as well.

Sound too good to be true? Well, that is where is the crusty curmudgeon in me begins to surface. I can see how Social Media can make or break a bistro and the word of mouth it generates can elevate a film’s audience. But, I am a little more skeptical about package goods, for example, across the board.

The Social Media gurus all mouth lines such as the following:

1) Whatever you do, don’t focus on your consumers—engage them!
2) Don’t create a product; rather, create a consumer experience.
3) A brand is not a promise; it is a relationship.
4) Never sell to people, especially young adults—establish a rapport and have two way communications with them.

Some of these comments have elements of truth but give me a break! If I am selling DRANO, do I need to engage someway first via two way communications? I think some of these gurus need DRANO for their clogged minds.

What is going on? One theory that has been stewing in its own juices with me for some time is that smart people of all ages in the business realize that TV is in trouble. It is not as effective as it was several years ago. But, it is still very effective. Too many desire a simple answer to a complex problem. If 15 years ago, you could run some TV spots, have a few nice magazine ads, and drop some coupons, your product could get some traction. Now, it is trickier. You have to look at a few dozen things. Many of the new wave things that you tried from simple internet banners and buttons to early mobile tests failed. So, you are looking for a new silver bullet that will work like television used to for so many of us for so long.

Well, Social Media is not going to be that silver bullet. I am betting that there will be never be another medium like TV. Media teams several years from now will have to look at 50 things and the labor intensity for an ad agency to do the job ethically and well will be enormous. Clients will blink at the requests for sharply increased media planning fees but that will be the stuff of truly sound execution. The mantra will be test, test, never rest as our global merry go round develops and evolves.

So, I stress that I like, even love Social Media and enjoy being a part of it. But, it is not going to be the single or dominant solution that many seem to think it will be for any company or brand of size.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com

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