It's interesting to look at statistics that show the swift expansion of online social media. These applications have grown rapidly, and show no signs of slowing down. The power and influence of networks like Facebook and Twitter are seen as billion-dollar opportunities, but I haven't seen much practical discussion of how to pursue those opportunities in the real world.
There seem to be some eerie similarities to the "dot.com" boom a decade and a half ago, when everyone thought that simply building a website would transport them effortlessly into a future of boundless profits. What does the tremendous increase of social network users mean, and what does it mean to us? Will the social media sensation slow down, and what will happen then? If we want to make the best use of the social media phenomenon and get the most out of it, we need to understand it, think about it, and avoid its dangers.
The rise (and fall) of "dot.com" demonstrated a real shift in the climate of opinion, and nothing seems to have changed since then. Before the emergence of the Internet in the 1990s, the usual procedure in business was to keep doing what worked, while remaining open to proposals for doing it better. Nowadays, however, the opinion-makers seem to be promoting the idea that the newest thing is better than anything now in existence, and so will sweep all present methods away.
The fixation on "social media" as the inevitable future of advertising and sales promotion is a prime example of this. Don't get me wrong: social media absolutely have a pivotal role to play in marketing communications, and I've observed many companies doing a terrific job of integrating them into their overall sales strategies. I just don't believe they're destined to replace all previous methods of building interest among prospects, and loyalty among customers. No medium can do those things. What builds interest is a value proposition that speaks to the prospect's condition; what builds loyalty is outstanding delivery of the good or service. Good marketers see social media as new tools, and they know when to use them. They also know when to employ more familiar ones.
If you look past the mesmerizing vision of all those customers and prospects glued to their networked devices, you see that communicating through social media basically is another way to enhance customer service. Successful organizations start by offering something that people want, getting their personnel to recognize that everyone plays a role in sales, and building staff enthusiasm for exceeding customers' expectations. Once that foundation is laid, all sorts of tools may be used to communicate the offering and to follow up. Without that groundwork, nothing will work for very long. But if the base is there, social media can be an ideal forum for reaching people who love your product or service enough to help you tell your story.
While saturation eventually will slow the growth rate of the social networks, their influence on our culture, how we see ourselves, how we relate to others and how we do business can't be reversed. As long as people want a sense of community and connection and think they have something to say, they will use social media.
So we need to embrace this new tool, and we need to take it seriously. The news is full of the dire consequences of carelessness for politicians, tech-savvy multinational corporations and everyone else. But we must not confuse means and ends. How many businesses have gone by the wayside because they got hypnotized by the next big thing? It's not enough to have a website or a microblog: you have to get people to come back to it. Social networking is about relevance, transparency and authenticity. It's about finding out who and where your customers actually are, understanding their needs and engaging them by offering them something of value.
By the way, the ability to communicate well and construct a legible sentence is not an option. Basic writing skills are a must. As a grand master of a very old medium warned, you don't get a second chance to make a good first impression.
And if you don't keep it relevant and real, your customers will say goodbye -- because they can. Bore them or lie to them, and you'll never see them again. The question should not be "how can we delude the largest number of people into thinking we're cool?" It must be, "how can we delight our customers?" The goal of any successful business plan should be to generate revenue through solid marketing, clear communication and great customer service -- always has been, always will be. If you focus on those objectives, you will have something that will stand the test of time.
Above all, let's not get blinkered by fixating on the next big thing. We should welcome any new method that helps us communicate, but it's a serious mistake to abandon existing methods that are working well. It always is worth looking for ways to make them work better.