The Blog

Who's Afraid of Social Media?

The mores of marketing in the social media environment requires advertisers to behave in a manner that it counterintuitive to how they have traditionally behaved.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

Is your email box inundated with invitations to connect with long lost acquaintances or people you've never met? Do you wonder how you got so popular all of a sudden? Or perhaps, you find all the recent attention quite intimidating. For many, social media introduces an entirely new level of social anxiety and complexity regardless of age, gender and social class. And this isn't limited to consumers either; marketers are just as perplexed with how to navigate this new territory.

According to Wikipedia, social media (sometimes also referred to as social networking or consumer-generated media) is "an umbrella term, defining all of the activities that come together in a utility that uses multiple communication mediums' of words, pictures, or videos to create visual displays, picture-sharing opportunities, connection points, and the creation of personal meaning and community building opportunities." The key to social media is the human connection and sharing that takes place.

One of the misconceptions of social media among adults, even ones who belong to social networking sites, is that it's for teenagers. However, even networking sites like MySpace, which started out as a hub for 18-24 years olds, now bolsters an older demographic of which sixty percent is over 25 years old, according to Hitwise. For adults, social media offers the advantageous of reconnecting with past acquaintances, meeting new people, staying in touch with current friends and sharing information with anyone who is interested.

But social media also comes with its limitations and can introduce a whole new set of social inadequacies. For one thing, a lot of interpersonal behavior and communication are verbal and physical cues. Social media relies on strong written skills and for many this isn't a strong suit (although video is gaining popularity as well). Therefore, trying to exclusively communicate in a form where one isn't strong, can lead to miscommunication. In the same manner, relying primarily on written communication to decipher the intentions and character of someone you've met online can be challenging.

Another common problem with social networks is that regardless of the topic, one may not be met with open arms, and the experience can be reminiscent of cliques during one's high school days. People's personalities don't necessarily adapt to a new medium. If one is controlling, competitive and judgmental in the natural world, then they will probably be the same in the virtual world.

For marketers, social media introduces a fresh, but daunting opportunity to communicate with customers and prospects. Advertising spending is definitely on the rise, with IDC's Social Networking Services speculating that social networking revenues in the US will hit $1 billion in 2007, up from $400 million in 2006. However, most advertisers don't understand the context of communicating in this platform and what they don't understand unnerves them.

The mores of marketing in the social media environment requires advertisers to behave in a manner that it counterintuitive to how they have traditionally behaved. In traditional advertising, the advertiser interrupts, talks at prospects, doesn't listen and hides behind big production commercials. Conversely, in the social media space, advertisers need to listen more than they talk, they need to react to the feedback they receive (in fact, they need to allow and encourage the feedback) and they need to keep their message simple and genuine. There's no hiding in this space.

So, why would an advertiser take this risk when playing it safe is so much easier? No one gets fired for playing it safe, right?

Wrong. The advertising landscape is changing and marketers who behave like it's 1999 are going to get left behind. The rules of future communication, regardless of the medium, are going to look a lot more like social media communication than traditional models. Brands that are going to survive are going to have a sold foundation to stand on. And if they don't, they will be called out on it regardless of their participation in the social media space.

The good news is that the space is wide open for the taking. However, entering the social media space for marketers is a lot like running for political office: any dirty laundry will quickly be revealed. Therefore, marketers need to understand their brand(s) and be prepared to learn even more. They also need to have tough skin, because honestly can be brutal. But out of this will develop the holy grail of communication, which is a relationship with a customer or prospect, and then, social media will not seem like such a big, scary monster for either party.