On social media.

Recently, people have been talking a lot about social media and, frankly, the term has quite the bad reputation. As someone who makes a living off things that include social media, I often jump into these debates and someone on the internet asked me to write up my thoughts on the topic. I have many thoughts, so I'm keeping this one general: I could go off on emerging media, experiential and interactive marketing, or even experimental marketing - likewise, I could rant for hours about the value of community and how it's morphed and grown immensely in importance over the past few years. But today, I'm keeping it simple, and I'm talking about "social media" as a generality. Consider this my starting rant (although I hope I'm not too ranty, or worse, preachy). If you like it, let me know if you want to hear more (and what you want to hear more of).



On social media.

All right, here goes. I’m going to go and talk a little bit about what I do for a living, and what I think of the state of one of the hot topic aspects of my job: Social media.

First off, let’s start off with a bit about me. I’m an English major and I have been working in various marketing fields since I was 17 years old. I knew, before college (and after) that I wanted to make a career within marketing, and I knew I wanted to work in the digital space. And I did that, until 2006 when my life took an awesome right turn into the gaming industry and I got a job as a thing called a community manager. (Stick with me now, this isn’t just a bio, it actually relates to what I have to say later on. Promise.) Now, back then, a community manager was seen as a forum admin, or someone who posted on the internet and talked to other hardcore people on the internet. Truth be told, one of the reasons I got the job was because I was very active on the internet in a gaming community, and so when the position was created, a person in the industry thought of me (also because I could write and was in marketing). When I stepped into that job, it’s safe to say I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing. I was given the reigns and told to create a community. I was told to make podcasts – that was my only firm mandate. So after freaking out that everyone was going to figure out I was a fraud and fire me, I decided I would build a community as I thought a community should be built and ended up doing some different and new things that went far beyond just posting on forums (and podcasts, of course). And it worked.

Fast forward to 2011, I’m the head of a community department with two community managers under me, I oversee our customer service team, and I’ve got a long title that includes the words “interactive marketing” in them. Those words didn’t come easily or quickly – titles are silly things, and often random, but people also put a lot of weight in them and assume things about people when they hear them (even if they shouldn’t, which most often, is the case). Social Media were words that were tossed around when people contemplated this title, and I steadfastly said no: I saw my position as one that interacted directly with consumers (interactive) and dealt with emerging forms of marketing (which are also largely interactive). Social media, at least in today’s world, is seen as a very specific thing (and most often just seen as Facebook and Twitter although there are a plethora of other mediums and sites that are just as awesome, depending on what your purpose is). I also had experience with (and here comes why my background matters) a title that grew up with a new wave of marketing and morphed and evolved over time – and during that evolution became a buzz word, was misinterpreted, and suffered stigmas that the dread words “social media” now are suffering through.

Community Managers, I think we can all agree, are fucking awesome. In fact, I was told by a guy pitching me on his company that his Social Media expert has a Masters in Community Management, to which I replied “oh my god, I feel so old, and I’ve only been in this industry for five years.” (Conversely, that statement is why I adore emerging media and experimental methods of marketing – I always want to be on that frontier, I want to be testing the shit that I can’t show ROI for because it’s never been done before – I like the fact that I’m one of the older-timers because that means I might have actually made a difference, and that’s really cool.) But back in 2006, Community Managers were something that was mainly used in the gaming space or other fairly hardcore industries with avid and active fans (particularly online). Today, honestly, I believe there’s a need for a Community Manager in practically every company because, face it, every product, service, or industry has a community of people, and they should be actively engaging them and growing them. And luckily, the world agrees with me there – and more than that, the world has caught up and understands that Community Managers do a ton of shit far, far beyond posting on forums.

So, now let’s get back to social media, or, as some call it, social networking: that evil, evil conglomerate that is Facebook and that annoying drivel that is Twitter. That’s not what social media is about, and if you think that, I hope I can help you out and help you understand what right now you don’t quite get. First off, I think we have to get away from all the stigmas that surround the term and break down what it is: Social, as in interacting directly with people and those people interacting with each other, and media, as in a the plural of medium, which is pretty much the general term for “a thing”. Social media is a thing that facilitates people talk to each other and interacting with one another.

That’s not evil, now is it? That’s a coffee shop. That’s a telephone. That’s a newspaper. That’s life.

(I’m super deep.)

(Not really.)

We live in a time when there are more ways to interact and connect and be heard and make a difference on the things you care about than any other moment in history, and that’s amazing. Whether you are looking for world peace or just want a feature in a video game, you have a forum and (if the company’s worth its salt) someone is there to hear you – but not just hear you, talk back. And more than that, you have a forum to not just talk to the officials, but to find others like you (or others that oppose you) and you have the power to grow that audience. Putting on my business hat, I have the power to find my hardcore and evangelize them to create more hardcore, and then spread the word of mouth to the less hardcore and even the casual – right down to the people who might just read or see something briefly but, because of the nature of social media, they have a much higher chance of interacting with that something because that something is, inherently, built to be interacted with.

None of this is bad, but people perceive it as bad. Now, people have thought marketing has been evil since the dawn of time, so I’m not going to tackle that issue, but I can say a couple things about why people hate on “social media” so much, starting with “because it’s now a buzz word”. People know this social thing is hot, and the new way to get your message out, but not everyone understands what that means, how to do it, or even how it should apply to the industry they are in. So people, as they have everywhere in marketing since decades back, basically throw shit at a wall and see what sticks. And since the medium is blossoming, and is inherently something people interact with and spread, that growing pain is much, much more visible to people than in the past (not to mention we live in a world where EVERYTHING is much more visible than it was in the past). Moreover, the people who are often targeted (and pay a ton of attention to) social stuff after the most vocal – particularly those who thrive within digital channels. All this combined means we see, spread, and cringe at the bad stuff – and let’s face it, there will always be more bad stuff out there than good stuff, so the signal to noise ratio is always going to be skewed. Mix in the whole “emerging media” and “no one really knows what the hell they are doing” you can see what so many people say “social media is evil and a disaster and total crap”.

Just like every industry or medium that has come before social media, it all boils down to the people behind it. If you get good people, and you have your head screwed on straight, you’ll get good results. Yes, there will be fuck ups along the way, but we’re all learning. And yes, since this is such a new area, there will be people like me back in 2006, stumbling into a new arena without a clear picture of what they are supposed to do. The key to success there is again all about people: hire bad people, you’ll get bad results. And that doesn’t mean they have to be industry veterans or an expert in the field – they just have to have skills, and common sense, and a viewpoint that works with whatever you are trying to accomplish. Too many people are relying on others to guide them to social media salvation by hiring external companies who have Social Media Experts with Masters in Community Management or by hiring people who claim to be gurus and show off a portfolio full of Twitters with 4,000 followers and Facebooks with 20,000 fans (scale the numbers as you see fit in your arena of play). This is not to say I would immediately discount such a portfolio, or shy away from a Social Media Expert: in fact in that case, I love those people, and want to work with them, but I don’t want to work with them because of the buzz words or the flash portfolio – I want to work with them because of the substance of what they show and the philosophy and vision they have.

I agree in large part with blog articles proclaiming “I will never hire a Social Media Expert” just as I agree with the blog articles retorting “I will hire a Social Media Expert and you should too” because both are, in part, completely on the ball: The people they talk about are the kinds of people I, too, would not hire and hire. The takeaway there is: don’t go to extremes. Not all social media people are shit, and not everyone who says they are a social media expert is, indeed, worth your time. Keep your head screwed on straight and cut through the bullshit just as you’ve cut through all the bullshit in the past. We all didn’t freak out and die when the Internet became big. We didn’t melt into a puddle when smartphones became a staple. We’ll make it through this, too, and we’ll make it through whatever comes next. And all I can say is, I’m looking at the horizon now, and I’m psyched about what next is (and I really hope I’m headed off in the right direction in terms of that next, but who the hell knows? We’ll see in a couple years, I guess!) And in 2014 or 2015, I’ll be somewhere else, with some other kind of title doing some other kind of thing, debating some other buzz word and the pros and cons of the new wild west of emerging awesomeness, and hopefully you guys can look back (as we do with community management now) and understand the value, be glad we had these growing pains and more importantly, that we stuck with it, that the thought leaders prevailed, and that we didn’t shy away from something new just because it had a rocky beginning, or turn our noses up because it seemed trendy.

Social media is just a term comprised of two words that are very, very general and applicable to every single person reading this blog. It’s what we do, every day. Social media is what we make of it. Stop hiding behind extremes and specific bad examples and make your social media awesome because trust me, you don’t want to be left behind. This is a powerful tool, and no one is going to care in a year or two that you were one of the cool kids who opted out of social media because it was lame – you will just be someone who wasn’t forward thinking enough to find a way to make it work and more than just make it work, make it something new, and then continue on to the next thing, which no one had even considered before. Do that, and you’ll do just fine – and everyone around you will be all the better for it.

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