Commentary

Final Stop Of The Day: Universal McCann's Brian Monahan

So by this point, I've pretty much figured out that Interpublic forecaster Brian Wieser has no intention of releasing a hard number associated with his new social media forecast, because his conclusion is that much of what we define to be social media, isn't media at all. And it's probably not much of an ad-supported medium. At least not in terms of the way advertising has historically been defined.

So it was fitting that we ended the day with a conversation with Universal McCann San Francisco digital media guru Brian Monahan, who doesn't believe that social media is actually media.

"I think of social media as a patform, but I come at it from a technologist perspective," said in response to Wieser's "what is social media" question.

"I would define it as technologies that facilitate the discovery, participation and sharing of content.

"I think of social media as a set of tools that let people connect with each other."

Monahan may look at it from a technologist's mindset, but he is informed by some pretty high quality consumer research that U.M. has been fielding on the subject -- a series of global research studies subbed, "The Wave."

The most recent Wave research, which surveyed more than 20,000 consumers worldwide, found that social media is reaching critical mass: blogging has "plateued" worldwide, consumers have embraced "microblogging," and people want to join and participate in social networking groups.

In fact, the UM team has begun to develop a fascinating theory about the relative role of social media.

"You can't think of it as mass media," Monahan said. "You have to think of it as gravitational mass media."

By that, the UM execs mean platforms and tools that enable people to "connect with each other."           "I would go so far as to say that all media are becoming socialized," he said.

One of the other fascinating insights to come out of the new Wave study, the fourth in a series, was how people answered the question: "Thinking of sites you visit regularly, what actions do you take regulalrly?"

Monahan said something like 70% said they register with the sites, but about 30% said they "create a profile." The finding suggests that social media is baked into how many consumers think of the Web.

But what's truly fascinating about Monahan's perspective, is that he doesn't believe social media actually exists as a discrete consumer medium.

"There's no such thing as social media," he asserts. "There's just media that are socialized."

Interpublic's Wieser seemed relieved to hear that, because it more or less supported his own thinking, and his rationale for dispensing with a "number for social media."

That's not to say there isn't money to be had -- or brand-building media strategies to be developed and mined -- via social media. It's just that they cannot be viewed in the way that traditional ad-supported media inventory can.

For agencies and marketers, Monahan said the chief opportunities fall into three categories:

Monitoring and reporting social media conversations that impact brands.

Public relations initiatives that can impact those conversations.

And "viral seeding" campaigns that can generate social media buzz, but which are relatively limitted in scale.

But even more radical notions about the future of media are evolving from this. One is that not just media is being socialized, but "all applications." Monahan said he got this notion from UM client Brian Hall, who is general manager of Microsoft's Windows Live.

Ultimately, Monahan said the trend toward socializing all media and applications will put a huge burden on bandwidth, but in the short term, it will create new opportunities for the ad industry to think about how it engages with and interacts with consumers.

"It's another way of reaching people who are opting out of the contactable databases," he said. "I think it allows brands to get into the media business in a much more scalable way."

As an example, he cited Bacardi, a brand that might attract relatively limitted opt-ins to its email list, or even visits to Bacardi.com, but which could tie into social media programs and content that relate to, and have a positive rub for the Bacardi brand.

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