In media, you live or die on your ability to keep up-to-date, and to see what's coming around the corner. Right now, social media is both what's now and what's next - and it's an absolutely necessity to know what it is, what it's about and how it works. No longer just a trend, but a fact of life, social media is a full-fledged and still-expanding facet of our industry.
My colleague, MediaVest's Jill Griffin, likes to say social media is "connecting, participating, sharing, making conversation and building communities." Social media has upgraded both what we share (the content) and how we share it (the distribution system). Nowadays, you don't journal - you blog. Or you "vlog" (short for video blogging). Or you "moblog" (mobile phone blogging).
Stop asking, "Why on earth would someone engage in such a time-suck activity?" Believe it or not, social media is gratifying on a deeper level than we might care to admit. According to psychologist Abraham Maslow, the creator of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, humans have five basic needs for their survival: physiological, safety, belonging, self-esteem and self-actualization. All of this constant connectivity and exhibitionism touches on three of these five needs by providing a sense of belonging, self-esteem and, potentially, a road to self-actualization.
Right now, all marketers should know four basic forms of social media. First up are forums. They're niche in nature, as users bond with people of like interests by sending messages in real time. Next are social networking sites, personal Web pages and profiles that enable friends to share content and communication. People embrace these sites because they enable you to connect your past, present and future. Also stay abreast of content communities, which consist of sites that allow users to organize and share content (photos, bookmarked links and videos), and microblogging, an evolution of blogging that allows users to distribute bite-sized content online or via mobile.
So when in doubt, check it out. When I hear of something new, I've made it a habit of conducting a search so I can see it firsthand. I first think about my own experience (Was the site easy, intuitive and fun? Would I come back?). Then I put my consumer hat on and reevaluate. You would be surprised how many marketers make million-dollar decisions before truly understanding the relationship consumers have with new social media forms. (Remember Second Life?)
Finally, accept that social media is here to stay. As of January 2009, Technorati tracked more than 133 million blogs. Last April, according to Blinkx, viewers watched upwards of 140 million videos on YouTube a day. And last June, per comScore, social networking sites like MySpace attracted more than 100 million users monthly.
People who I never imagined in a trillion years would be so engaged with social media have a membership with multiple social networking sites. Take my husband, Robert, the actuarial finance guy - he's on Facebook, albanyfriends.com, LinkedIn and MySpace. In real life, my extended family (roughly 200 to 300 people) holds a rotating annual summer reunion. Now, we don't have to wait until July because we meet virtually through our Facebook group. What's next ... a tweet from my dear mom on Twitter?
Marketers have already moved past the first steps with social media, and have begun to develop more sophisticated plans, leveraging blogging, vlogging, and person-to-person networks to spread a brand message organically. But these are still early days. There's still much to learn, and many who haven't yet caught up.
Your agency should be well versed in this sector, and should get you up-to-date, too. So if you are an agency executive and you have not set up time with your client to explore social media because you fear the unknown, shame on you. If you are an advertiser and you have not received a proposal to test social media from your media, creative, interactive, or even your public relations agency - get rid of them. And give your friends at MediaVest a call, and ask to speak to Bill. (What a shameless plug!)