There are literally hundreds of articles about the impact of social media. I've written a few posts on the subject, well before before social media became the catch phrase for anything online. But I still find myself asking if it really changed marketing. And if it did, then what did it really change?
Did social media really change anything?
To really understand what social media changed, it might be useful to consider the most significant change to communication prior to the Internet. That change would be the introduction of television.
In 1941, watchmaker Bulova paid $9 for a 20-second television spot before a baseball game. The graphics weren't anything special, but the message was clever: America runs on Bulova time. From that day forward, some people argued that television changed marketing.
After all, television advertising became the most effective mass-market platform on the planet. Companies could buy up local, regional, national, and even international spots to deliver relatively quick memorable messages, ideally, in between segments of programming chosen because of their ability to reach particular audiences based on demographics and psychographics.
But did television advertising really change marketing?
Those who argue it did, probably don't understand marketing and advertising as much as they think they do. Television did not change marketing as much as some people think it did.
It didn't change the products. It didn't change the mission or vision of the companies that bought spots. It didn't change physical distribution channels. It didn't change the importance of developing strong contrast points or a unique selling proposition between one product and closely aligned competitors.
So what did it really change? Mostly, it changed message delivery.
And social media? Sure, it goes further than television did. After all, some companies exist solely because of the Internet (just like some solely exist because of television). But, by in large, social media didn't change marketing as much as it did message delivery, but one step further than television.
What is social media and why does it fit within marketing?
Social media describes technologies that people use to share content, opinions, insights, experiences, and perspectives by interacting with each other in an environment. It is one of the few communication vehicles that empowers people and companies with the potential to become broadcasters with the ability to reach people on a one-to-one, one-to-some, and one-to-many basis. So yes, it is a powerful platform.
But there are many things it did not change about marketing. It did not change most products. It did not change most missions and visions. It did not change the need for a strong contrast or unique selling proposition.
What it did, for the first time on a mass scale, was create an environment that allowed marketers to receive near real-time feedback on their various marketing messages. And, it helps to hold them accountable.
When a company changes a logo, people might have an opinion about it. When a company offends prospects, social media can deliver a negative return on investment. When companies fail to deliver on customer service, the complaint doesn't exist in a void.
But even within this context, that doesn't change marketing ideologies. In fact, there are scores of social media companies that neglected traditional marketing. So what does social media really change?
Social media adds brand relevance to the marketing mix.
Aside from real-time feedback, social media offers a very distinct marketing advantage. But most companies never consider it. In fact, this is why small businesses have mostly stalled with social media and why social media has mostly stalled with big brands.
Most companies invest all of their online activities in broadcasting mass media messages online. But what most companies miss is that social media gives brand relevance equal weight to brand reputation.
Coca-Cola makes for a great example. It might be one of the most celebrated brands online, but the perception does not measure up to reality. Coca-Cola has 36 million fans on Facebook but less than .2 percent are active. Why? Because Coca-Cola puts out a steady stream of product-centric messages, the least interesting messages on the Internet.
"Do you remember your first Coke?" "Rumor has it only two people know the secret ingredients of Coca-Cola." "Make a sour lemon smile - pop it in a Coke." ...
The monotony of it all is almost overbearing. It's like going over to a friend's house to talk about how great they are, every single day. Even the most once loyal friends would eventually burn out.
It's understandable. Brands and small businesses have a hard time talking about anything else. They want to push product. They want to drive sales. They want it to be all about them, every single day.
Except, this thinking runs counter to online communication, with consumers (not companies) dictating which topics they'll talk about online. The burden to prove brand relevance belongs to the company.
How to demonstrate brand relevance within topic spheres.
For most companies, it need not be difficult. Scanning mission statements or mottos of Fortune 500 companies, some have logical starting points. If Albertsons wants to make life easier for its customers, it could introduce new products, highlight healthy choices, and share recipes. Estee Lauder has no shortage of natural and retail beauty insights, especially those used by celebrities and consultants. Mattel has no shortage of popular and nostalgic content to draw upon. And so on.
But it doesn't have to be this obvious. Social media can further any number of communication goals, ranging from shifting public perception (e.g., environmental issues) to becoming a subject matter expert.
Or, it might be simple. An Italian restaurant in Las Vegas might consider cooking, culture, and proximity as topics. An eco-tourism company could engage in topics like environmental issues, history and culture, or photography and art. Accountants can share insights into wealth management and legacy planning. And so on, all while staying true to their mission and vision.
How to increase brand relevance is instinctively a marketing challenge, especially because the solutions are as varied as the organizations operating within any market segment. In fact, it's the same approach employed by so-called influencers who have risen to have some sway within their subject areas.