Earlier today, I had the pleasure of watching a fantastic debate between San Francisco writer and self-described "New Media Whore" Paul Carr and Internet wine guru and podcasting pioneer Gary Vaynerchuk of Wine Library TV about the true significance of social media.
Regardless of my thoughts on the issue, the video brought up some very good points for and against the importance of social media, both as a business tool and for its impact on society at large. I highly recommend viewing the video at Tech Crunch or YouTube to get involved in the conversation, or below if you're short on time.
What started as a response to omar of vleek.com's comment on Tech Crunch about social media being a simple digital extension of familiar social interactions quickly turned into a full-blown essay, so I decided to post it to the M.Y. Edge blog for posterity's sake (and, of course, your reading pleasure). For reference, I've pasted Omar's comment below:
I think social media is the translation of social interactions into the digital world. You want to share photos with friends so now you share them digitally on facebook.
You want to ask a friend a question s you text or facebook them.
It's a pretty simple concept.
I do think the only extremely dangerous or extremely beneficial thing about social media is ONE THING:
How fast information travels. A single online video can be watched by half the world at any given time.
That's dangerous and very powerful at he same time.
In the end it's a tool like everything else; its how you use it that makes the difference.
Kudos to Omar for pointing out just how simple social media really is. While at first glance, that’s pretty obvious, it's also one of the easiest things to forget when addressing social media as a new phenomenon.
From a communication technology perspective, this is an unprecedented way to mediate communication on a grand scale. Clearly individuals and organizations haven't made perfect sense of it. That's why we can enjoy great debates such as this and why so many people are cynical about its practical use in business.
From a social perspective, however, social media isn't really all that new. People are having the same kinds of interactions they've always had with family, friends, and co-workers. With social media, they're simply doing it online instead of at the dinner table or the water cooler.
My point is this. I agree with Paul that social media is being billed as the cure for all marketing ills, and this perception is misleading individuals and organizations every day. But there are too many success stories to discount it's power, and too many people interacting with facebook, twitter and the like to ignore. Would-be entrepreneurs hear stories like Gary Vaynerchuk's and read about average Joe's using social media to realize their dreams, and are inspired to try it themselves. At the end of the day though, it's the individuals with the creativity, smarts, and work ethic who are driving the productive conversations online that should be getting credit for the success stories, not the tools they used to get there. If you're counting on Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook to create revenue without bringing anything unique or useful to the table, you're doomed to fail.
This seems to be the major roadblock for most businesses struggling to make sense of social media. They've heard that hard sell techniques die hard on social media, but they haven't found a way to connect whatever content they do post to a meaningful conversation about their offerings down the road. Success with social happens when a business creates harmony between its unique selling proposition, its brand image, and its content. Social media, when properly implemented, should be a contributing factor to your branding and customer service efforts, not a stand-alone initiative. Simply having a Twitter account won’t bring you business, but as with other marketing channels, the right messages to the right people will. The impact that social media can have on your brand is tremendous.
From a business perspective (which seems to be at the heart of this particular debate), social media will help you make money about as much as taking a prospective client out for a juicy steak. Witty banter and delicious food can help establish a connection, but you'll get nowhere if you don't have something unique and valuable to offer. If that prospect decides to partner with you, their decision is not likely because of your impeccable taste in appetizers; it's because you used the meal as an opportunity to create trust in your brand.
The personal touch is one of the oldest tricks in the salesman's book for a reason, and social media allows today's marketers to touch more prospects with greater ease. But at the end of the day, its the salesmen, not the channel that will create value for your business.