There are seven words you can't say on television, according to George Carlin, but there's only one you can't say at social media conferences. As Carlin put it, it's the one word that will "infect your soul, curve your spine, and keep the country from winning the war." This deadly c-word is "campaign"; utter it at your peril.
The aversion to the word has been a common theme at a lot of the events that have focused on social media lately, including the Word of Mouth Marketing Association's WOMM-U and IAB's Marketplace: Social Media. The word "campaign" has become the pariah of social marketing. Preferred alternatives include terms like "program," "initiative," or even "conversation."
At WOMM-U, I moderated a session between MySpace's SVP of Insight and Planning Heidi Browning, and Facebook's Head of Brand Solutions Chris Pan. The two agreed more often than they disagreed, and at the outset both wanted to stress the importance of long-term social marketing programs. Facebook takes a particularly hard stance on this, actively discouraging brands from hosting Pages (the official branded presence) just for campaigns. Pan noted that one marketer created a Page centered on its tagline, and it bombed with consumers. Then the marketing switched to focusing on the brand rather than the tagline, and interest picked up dramatically. Pan said Facebook will allow marketers to create separate Pages for personas such as mascots and spokespeople, but again, these are designed to be persistent representations of the brand.
MySpace takes a softer stance on the c-word. It's alright to have a presence there focusing on a campaign. MySpace is also a very different experience for marketers, as it requires a significant investment (at least relative to digital media campaigns; it's hardly significant for TV buyers) for marketers to create a presence, and much of that commitment goes to media on the site promoting the page. In that sense, marketers will wind up paying to run campaigns, but MySpace still recommends that it fits in with ongoing social media initiatives.
A few days later at the IAB event, the first speaker, Forrester Research's Josh Bernoff, started with an assault on the forbidden word. He said unequivocally that "social media is always an ongoing activity," and marketers should stop thinking about it as a campaign. He discussed how customers are talking to each other and said, "The only way to succeed is to become a part of this conversation in a long-term and permanent way."
My colleague, 360i VP of Emerging Media & Client Strategy Sarah Hofstetter, continued the theme at the IAB, noting, "Covering your ears is not a strategy." She continued, "It's important to get buy-in across the organization, including media, PR, creative, Web development, CRM [customer relationship management], and human resources. Get them more comfortable with the medium, and it becomes less scary. Then it's easier to say you have to be there." She implied that a lot of the disciplines mentioned are ongoing functions. There aren't any flight dates for customer relationship management or human resources.
That can make it daunting to pitch a social marketing program, and it will present challenges for agencies and vendors in the near term. Even if there are no campaigns for social media, there are still contracts. Just try getting into negotiations with a procurement department for a 50-year contract that renews automatically and see how well that goes.
This all highlights one other area where social media has something in common with search engine marketing and optimization. No matter how or where consumers search, people will continue to do so, even if it ebbs some years and surges others. Similarly, while some aspects of social media reek of fads, the act of digitally sharing content has been going on at least since the days of the bulletin board services of the 1980s, and the activity isn't going to fade away.
If you're a marketer, you may only be able to sign short-term contracts and plan for just a year or so ahead. Regardless of what you're doing on paper, you have to have the
mindset that your strategy is paving the way for a perpetual commitment, even if the tactics continually change.