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The ‘Social’ In Social Media

As I have started to embrace the world of social media from both a professional and personal perspective, people have asked me: “Do you think social media is for real? Is it a lasting phenomenon, or just a bandwagon fad that we have hyped to an extreme?“  Not everyone asks it that way, but is a very common theme.

I have asked myself the same question, more than once.  There are some easy, dismissive responses to that question, such as “it has been around for over 20 years already” or “750 million Facebook users can’t be wrong“. Fine, you got me! We can agree that it has been a long evolving trend, and that Facebook, Twitter, and social media in general are wildly popular right now. Does that prove that it is here to stay? Not necessarily, but the current explosive growth and sheer scale of adoption make it difficult to believe otherwise. But for me, that isn’t quite satisfying, because it doesn’t tell us much about why social media has become so successful.

I have not actually been an avid user (don’t think less of me!), and I suppose that is why this question has plagued me. I went years without logging into Facebook, and I just signed up for Twitter at the beginning of this year. I use LinkedIn to a limited extent, but only because it seemed practical and useful in an obvious way. In my current quest to master social media I have become much more active, but I still don’t post often to Facebook,  and my Twitter following is embarrassingly anemic – maybe you can help me out there!.

In my explorations, I have become convinced tat there is a very tangible value, even to people like me, in this new world order.  I certainly don’t need to read about what you had for dinner on Facebook, or track your every move on 4Square. However, the ability to get a glimpse of the daily lives of old friends (and even acquaintances) is interesting, and not just in a voyeuristic way. Very often there are meaningful moments captured and shared, like the birth of a child, or even simply a birthday, that would have gone by unnoticed. You can argue that true friends would be sufficiently engaged in each other’s lives without such tools. That is true to some extent, but life is hectic and busy, and even good friends across the country can go long periods of time without contact.

Even beyond those milestone events, the more casual interactions are enjoyable too. Hearing about a friend stuck in an airport, or having fun on vacation, or complaining about lack of power after Hurricane Irene. Bits and pieces of our lives, shared with an extended group of friends. It makes us feel connected, if even in a superficial way, to a set of people who would otherwise probably evaporate from our lives. And deep down in our DNA, human beings are programmed to need that connection, even to crave it. We are social creatures at our very core, and social media quite literally provides powerful tools to satisfy this basic necessity. While not as important as food, water, air, and shelter, ask anyone stuck on a deserted island and they will probably put human interaction somewhere on the list (disclosure: I have not conducted extensive research on people stranded on deserted islands).

With that in mind, I feel more satisfied about the answer: social media is here to stay. It doesn’t mean the current incumbents such as Facebook and Twitter will always dominate or even survive, but the phenomenon will last and evolve, probably becoming even more ingrained in our daily lives. Phew… now that we have resolved such a great mystery, I can relax and go tweet about it.

But wait a moment; did we really answer the entire question? When some people question the prominence of social media, they are really asking about its importance to the business world. It is fantastic that we can all stay digitally connected to each other, but do we really need to connect to our favorite brand of hot dog? Or how about hair coloring? The cable company? Favorite beer? Well, of course beer… silly question.

The relevance of social media to business is a multifaceted topic, to which thousands of blogs and articles have been wholly dedicated. However, I think the basic answer is simple, and so is the reasoning behind it.  Consumers are spending several hundred million hours per day engaged in social media activity, and it is becoming a progressively larger part of all online activity. Guess what: if that is where the customers are, than smart businesses need to be there too… or a competitor will be.

Exactly what companies do and how they make money doing it is not nearly as simple, and I am pretty sure it hasn’t all been figured out yet. Of course, there are some obvious areas such as simple advertising, but that isn’t much different from other digital forms of advertising. The real power of social media is in its interactivity; the tools it provides for smart organizations to engage consumers in a meaningful way. This has huge potential in almost all marketing disciplines, such as brand management, customer relationship management, market research, to name a few. But it isn’t limited to marketing; customer service is a prime target for social media overhaul.

So, at the end of the day (or at least the end of this blog), I now have an answer; perhaps the next time someone asks the question I will simply quote the short link URL to this post. I certainly don’t claim to be a social media ‘expert’ , whatever that might mean, but I think a basic understanding of this topic goes a long way. I will leave it to others to make dire statements such as ‘ignore social media at your own peril’, but I do think it is important, relevant, and here to stay.

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