Recently a brand manager asked me: "I know this is a stupid question, but what is Social Media?" To echo the old adage, there are no stupid questions -- just stupid answers. As such, I can offer nothing but a dumb response. Frankly, I have no idea what is Social Media. My descriptions don't do it justice, and while I can list myriads of examples, I can't articulate a clear definition. Perhaps I need to steal the Supreme Court's definition of pornography; I'll know it when I see it.
If you Google the definition of "Media," you will get a straightforward answer. Do so for "Social Media" and your computer might explode. Given the millions of dollars spent in this area, it bewilders me that Social Media lacks a singular definition -- one on which we can all agree.
Some people define Social Media as participatory media, but that is far too simplistic. Certainly, some aspects are participatory in nature, but not all participatory media is social. Others call it a set of tools. If that is the case, I guess construction workers are the new black. Still others consider Social Media just a fancy name for online Public Relations. While blogger outreach is a big part of the social field, I think that is a naïve view. One way or the other, the term 'Social Media' is slowly becoming a shibboleth without real meaning.
Social media is hard to define because it is an umbrella term that encompasses many disciplines and approaches to mass communications. Social Media encompasses a spectrum of opportunities, many of which must be viewed in the right light to even be included. That is, they are social only in the right context. Even the lowly Flash banner can be considered Social Media under the right circumstances. A 728x90 SWF is just a banner. Adding Facebook Share/Like links suddenly makes it a social banner. Companies post their ordinary TV commercials on YouTube in the hopes of winning the viral video lottery. Every traditional media element can be viewed through the social lens. Social Media, it seems today, is media itself.
Defining Social Media is more than just an academic exercise -- there are real world implications. After all, how can companies participate in it if they do not know what "it" is? Codifying the term Social Media gives rise to meaningful next steps. Then you can define the parameters of a project and properly fund it. By extension, this helps determine the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) based on practical expectations. The KPIs should reflect the objectives, not the other way around. Since we can measure everything online, any elements of social media should be associated specific Web metrics. Just like page traffic, online buzz can be quantified by a third party. However, if you have not defined what you are trying to measure, objective results will be impossible to measure.
I am increasingly wary of the term "earned media." It implies that that Social Media has no cost. That is simply not the case. First, corporate Public Relations are not free, at least not when you involve a PR agency or a full-time employee. Yes, the media distributes the message at no cost, but someone must first create the message. Second, there are costs associated even with "free" social platforms like Facebook or Twitter. There are opportunity costs for the time spent on updating social media. Blogging is fun at first, but it can quickly become a chore. A marketer has to account for the time it takes to blog/tweet/re-tweet/post/check in every day. That is time not spent on other, perhaps more vital projects. Time still equals money, or so my boss tells me.
Ultimately, each company will need to create their own Social Media taxonomy; one size does not fit all. In the same way that "digital advertising" does not really mean anything, neither does the term Social Media.
Instead, these words stand for a collection of related but most definitely separate topics. Advertisers organize their digital efforts by tactic: email, mobile, search and display. They view each piece of the puzzle as a separate surgical instrument. Indeed, there are specialty ad agencies with expertise in each of those practices. Social also has to be broken down by tactic: online PR, corporate blogging, Facebook functionality, consumer insight. Each is but a part of a larger strategy to engage consumers, but none represent the totality of social media in and of themselves.