Social Media, is it Gutenberg? Democracy? or Freedom? or just a fad?

Converse All Star Facebook page, notice the 12,696 photos contributed by fans. How would you like to have that many fans contribute to your product page? What would you tell that many fans?

With all the buzz about social media, can we tell if this is the biggest change we have seen in communication? or just a fad? Or are the changes so fundamental that only the next generation will be able to tell how big it is? Sometimes this question comes up with people who can’t bridge the gap from the old ways of doing things to the new ones. For them a blog is just a few articles and a few comments. Seeing the process of developing articles and targeting them at a focused audience and starting a dialog is not clearly visible. Even seeing hundreds or thousands of page views or unique visitors in statistical reports does not get them excited. When I see people who like new technology but can’t see how to use it I think of how use can be explained. Or when I see people who “dipped their toe” into blogging but have not immersed themselves all the way (so they do not see results or understand how it works to the end) it just seems like a false start. One way to explain blogs is to use analogies of other big changes. Another way is to use examples, specially from large companies like Microsoft, Oracle and Intel. Examples from individuals like Tim O’Reilly, Seth Godin and Malcolm Gladwell are also useful. They all adopted blogging as a form of communication. Large company blogs are good examples of the use in corporate communication. There are other examples of popular and well written blogs which applies to individuals and smaller companies. Finally, books and sites of writers who explain and track trends are useful to explain the ideas behind blogging as a communication trend.

Social Media, Blogging, and WEB2.0 — IS STILL A BIG DEAL ! !

Social media concepts and use are still a big deal. Blogging was a hot trend in communication from the mid 1990s, today social media sites are still growing fast and attracting attention. Social media sites’ ease of use and fast adoption are changing the way people communicate. More people can get their own personal messages to many people. More companies and organizations can communicate with fans. This is what Facebook and Twitter have done in a very short time. Social media sites are easier to use than blog sites like Blogger or TypePad. The social media sites offer the ability to connect with many people to create interest groups (which blogs tried to do with mail subscriptions, social tagging and RSS distribution.) For the most part, all the connection schemes in blogs have not become popular. They did not offer a way to manage subscriptions and message distribution via e-mail (RSS) did not become popular with readers. Today, blogs and social media sites complement each other. If you are a blogger or an avid blog reader, you can now use Facebook and Twitter to tell many more people about your blog. Blog article writing and photo editing are the same on social media sites, now you have group subscription features which are helpful in attracting comments and distribution of your articles. Although most social media sites are popular because of the short messages, usually a few sentences, people are reading more. This makes blogs more useful and interesting.

Concepts are easy, work is hard, results are slow…

The concepts of social media are easy to understand. Communication is based on connection between people and groups are organized around a topic or mutual interest. Messages are sent to people directly (to e-mail addresses) or posted on “walls” or “pages”. There are other concepts to learn, they are simple and many people understand them quickly. But the work is not necessarily easier than before. There is much more writing and message formulation to be created. There is more to read and comment or debate than was needed before. There is much more to analyze and synthesize into trends. There are more sub-segments to develop, now every sub-specialty has it’s own little world of pages and blogs. There is also the complexity of creating a large amount of information and combining a few simple techniques to manage and distribute the writing. Blogging has become complex. Enough to create a professional specialists like copywriters, editors, promoters and distributors. A blog can become an entity by itself as complex as a magazine and as influential as a TV channel. Running a blog and making it a useful communication tool is as demanding as work on other media formats (TV, newspaper, magazine, radio.) The idea of building a community of readers and contributors is easy to see but not easy to do. For some, it is hard to master the skills of building a blogging community. The work of building communities is new, especially in the high-tech world where until now socialization was done one to one. We had newsletters, but they were one to many communities without interaction. Writing clear and interesting stories or even commenting on current events to start a conversation is not easy for every product marketer. But these skills can be learned and with practice bloggers get better at it. As most of the skills are slowly being learned there are new specialists that can help individuals and companies use social media sites better. But it will take time if you are not in it yet. Companies who did not run a blog until now and want to jump into blogging and social media, need to hire people with experience. Then they need to get going, which may mean setting guidelines, developing strategies and testing new message strategies. So get going now and don’t worry too much of how long it takes and how quickly you get to your fan statistics. Every company has it’s own ability to use blogs and comparison to others is not always the most useful way to assess progress.

Gutenberg? Democracy? or Freedom?

One way to compare how big the shift of communication can be, is by using big stories from the past. Is social media and the use of the Internet for communication the biggest thing in a century an inflated claim? Looking back at the Gutenberg printing press, software developers of WordPress, Live Journal and Type Pad, have a similar claim. Today’s presses do not resemble anything like the one Gutenberg invented 500 years ago, yet the basic concept of a few people creating an idea and spreading it to a large number of people is exactly as it was 500 years ago. Today’s presses and the publishing industry does not look like Gutenberg’s invention and his first big seller: the bible. What blogging and social media companies like Facebook and Twitter are thinking, parallels Gutenberg’s printing press. It gives anyone the ability to publish (on the Internet.) Individuals can be “heard” and “seen” by anyone. Groups of people can produce interesting detailed publications. Without the cost of printing and shipping, people can produce magazine quality publications. The technology and it’s use are here, now it’s a matter of writing and promoting effectively. Since publishing becomes so cheap and simple, any idea can be published and “tested” in the real world.
Some go as far as comparing the ability to spread a message today to the way Benjamin Franklin and the American revolutionary leaders did to gain independence for the American colonies. Franklin became instrumental in spreading the idea of American independence. He was a well established printer and publisher in Philadelphia. Blogging companies hope that somewhere around the world, a strong message just like American independence, will use a blog to spread a new message. Another hope is the use of blogging will spread among many people. Either in shared blogs with many writers, or in small groups. People will tell of their needs, ideas and desires. Specially when it comes to public policy and government, giving many people a way to communicate and tell their story is a form of democratic discussion. The idea of free public discussion using electronic digital method is not new. But now it is simpler and more accepted. Blogging companies are hoping for the spreading of public discussions using blogs and social media sites. In the US, Arianna Huffington’s blog is an example of public discussion of government issues and social policy. The Huffington Post has become a full fledged operation much like a magazine.

Is this going to make you money? Corporate use:

The use of blogging and social media sites can help a company promote and spread their message directly. Unlike older forms of communication: advertising and P/R, new communication techniques are needed with the new media formats. Social media pages are more analogous to events and customer clubs. Product marketers and promoters know the power of promoting to a select group of buyers. Until now, group promotion was done in a physical format: parties, conferences, performances (concerts) or through direct publications (magazines, newsletters.) Now the technology of social media with the shift in consumer’s trust is bringing the same capability to the product marketer’s laptop. Some companies have started, see the Facebook Converse All Star shoe page. The page is fun and simple, features mostly pictures. Converse All Star held a photo contest with thousands of people entering creative pictures of their shoes. Consumer product companies can use Facebook and other social media sites to get people excited about new products. It also gives product fans a way to communicate with each other. This feature was not popular until now, even blogs were mostly one to many format. Social media changes the way we communicate between us, all we need to start is promote a common interest.
For as long as people have been advertising and marketing the question of value of promotion has been with us. As the old advertising quote goes: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” (attributed to John Wanamaker an American retailer) Social Media spending may be similar to the old way of advertising more than anything else. With the mass use of social media sites, you may also get the same results as in advertising. Yet, social media is a focused form of advertising. In a Facebook page like Converse All Star, probably most of the fans like the shoes. There are probably a few sideline lookers who are just there to gawk and a few competitor product managers as well. Overall, a Facebook product page is targeted at the right audience. The other aspect of social media and blogs is fan participation. How do you get people to tell their stories? comment and show their interest? Again, these are skills you will need to develop. Once you have regular customer participation, they will tell you what they like and what you need to be better (design, price, availability, selection.) Overall, yes, you can make money with social media sites and blogs. Especially in the corporate world where communication directly with customers is an important aspect of your business.

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3 thoughts on “Social Media, is it Gutenberg? Democracy? or Freedom? or just a fad?

  1. Great post.
    I think that the newness and flux of social media has meant many opportunities for people, online publishers, and businesses. We are just in the early stages of social media revolution.

  2. Well said!
    Social media is now getting to large and undifferentiated. There is now a need to segment demographics and speak to them specifically about their shared area of interest.

    http://www.WeStayGreen.com does exactly that for the environmental community. It uses the power of the collective community voice to communicate directly with product manufacturers to inspire change in the products we use every day. The social network is FREE and they plant a real living tree for every new member that signs up.

  3. Yossi, Ross,

    You are both correct. Until now we had to depend on newspapers and maybe magazines to share ideas. Specially big ideas and new creative ways to do things. Newspapers only printed letters to the editor when they wanted to show their balanced reporting. Magazines print op-ed letters to clarify old articles. But we are not in the 1980s any more. Using the Internet for information and for real live opinion (plant trees) is new, but it is something we have been waiting for a long time. Now comes the work itself. It takes lots of effort and brains to make the technology useful for many people. Nice to have a Facebook network of thousands, but how, what, why, and when are you going to tell them something that will make a difference?
    >> >> ANY IDEAS? EXAMPLES? OR JUST OPINIONS ? ?

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