Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

Though there are some who still like to debate social media's ability to impact business -- the digital flat-earthers among us -- there is one thing that can no longer be doubted. Social media has grown to undeniably define the tone, tenor and style of modern branding and communications.

Not that long ago, it was not only common to still hear business leaders scoff at the very notion of communicating anything in 140 characters, it was often used as a way to distinguish yourself as an Experienced Communications Professional.

Today, even the most staid and serious of organizations are prioritizing the medium's brevity, immediacy and powerful connectivity as an imperative. But without a deeper understanding of what social's rise really signifies, many brands are still just trying to stuff the same 10 pounds of baloney into new nine-pound bags.

Social is not about character counts, or specific sites, or chasing emerging platforms like fashion.

Social is a correction.

And like all corrections, it is a rejection as well -- namely, a sharp retort to the self-important super sizing of brands in the bling era and the sweeping, emotionally manipulative language that came to dominate much of communications.

In the past, a brand was like the great and mighty Oz: A little man behind a curtain who, through the magic and machinations of branding, was able to conjure the imposing specter of something much bigger. Something so much larger than life that it became a veritable lifestyle.

It is extraordinary how incredibly anachronistic that now feels -- and how dramatically we have shifted in the other direction.

Today, successful communications strives to achieve almost the exact opposite. More than ever, brand success is contingent on the ability of large teams of people working together to appear much smaller. It requires a careful balance. Brands must train -- and restrain -- themselves to speak in a very human brand voice, distinct enough to stand out yet small enough to align seamlessly within the latticework of social communication.

The opportunities this presents for connection and communication are amazing. But so are the challenges.

Creating a truly unified and compelling brand voice requires clarity, spontaneity and expertise. A brand must employ and empower communications professionals who can speak quickly and effectively with complete command over technology and platform and total understanding of audience and brand -- in real time. Like driving a cab, it is a very hard job -- especially if you can't drive.

Almost daily, there are examples of organizations and their representatives speaking with shocking lack of thought or coordination. It's not pretty. From fundamental messaging missteps to crass, tone-deaf handling or exploitation of crises, the result is communications with all the tact of drunken karaoke. The damage can run the gamut from sheer but mere embarrassment -- quickly followed by the now drearily mandatory public apology or human sacrifice -- to serious erosion of brand equity and value.

But when the right people are given the right communications mandate and mission, the results are astounding. One clear, clever, well-timed and well-executed message can deliver almost inconceivable amounts of positive exposure and connection. One simple tweet at the right moment, one beautifully executed and appropriate response, one concise and compelling message can forge and reinforce consumer connection with a speed and strength we have never seen before.

It is deceptively simple. Successes should never be written off as lucky shots, especially when there are more than one. What appears to be a casual, witty aside or addition to the conversation is quite often the result of precisely timed and flawlessly executed strategy.

As lifestyle marketing gives way to life-size marketing, smart brands are recognizing that, regardless of platform or audience, it takes a lot of hard work to appear effortless. But no matter how many people they have behind the curtain, it's a good time to appear a little less great and mighty.