Using analogies to explain social media. Its a bit like…

Trying to explain social media to businesses can sometimes feel a bit like Thomas Eddison trying to explain the lightbulb at a convention of oil-lamp manufacturers.

Forgive me for indulging in an analogy at the start of this post, but to start in any other way would be a bit like Gordon Ramsey launching a new restaurant and serving boil-in-the-bag ready meals (something that surely could never happen).

Analogies can be very useful communication and explanation tools, especially when trying to explain something that is new, different and where there are few real-life examples available.  They allow you to borrow from a store of familiar experiences and export them into the unknown.  A good example is the automobile.  Cars were first presented as an analogy – i.e. a horseless carriage – combining two things which were familiar to explain something that was new.  Likewise, North American Indians described the train as an iron horse.

For this reason I find analogies very useful in helping people understand social media.  Analogies also have an advantage in that they are very easy to illustrate and thus ideal for PowerPoint.  PowerPoint is, we are slowly realising, a visual medium and putting only words into it a visual medium is a bit like (insert your own analogy here).  The best analogies also have the potential to raise a smile, occasionally even a laugh, which is always a good thing.

Following are a selection I find particularly helpful – all of which are my own construction, with the exception of the first (which is probably the best).

Fireworks and bonfires

This I have borrowed from the excellent Slideshare presentation by John Willshire.

Traditional marketing and communication is about fireworks.  Single messages (or campaigns), designed to be seen by many people but which are expensive to launch and last for a very short time.  Social media is about bonfires, creating spaces that draw smaller numbers of people to them at any one time – but which can be kept alight almost indefinitely and help create conversation and engagement.  You can launch a firework to draw attention to your bonfire but putting fireworks on a bonfire is never a good idea.

The Land and the Sea

If traditional media is the land, then social media is the sea.  You can travel very easily across both – provided you understand the difference.  Which leads on to …

Floating cars

Most organisations approach social media in the same way that a motorist might approach the sea when they encounter it for the first time.  Their first instinct is to work out how to make their car drive across the water.  And when someone shows them a boat, their reaction will be “where’s the wheels on that then?”

Most attempts at social media currently are floating cars – i.e. traditional campaigns and approaches with crude  adjustments to try and make them float.

Stand-up comedian

Doing social media is a bit like being a stand-up comedian.  Understanding your audience and getting engagement is critical.  To do this you need to know if the audience is laughing at your jokes and you need to know that in real time.  This is pretty much all you need to know.  Knowing that the mother-in-law joke scored exactly 73.6 on the laughter (sentiment) scale or receiving a report after the performance that tells you that 35-45 year old males laughed 3 percent more than women of the same age doesn’t really help you that much.

I use this, of course, to illustrate that our whole approach to monitoring, measurement and metrics is often wrong.  Detailed metrics and demographic analysis were essential when we were crafting one-to-many mass messages or campaigns and investing huge amounts of money in one-shot launches.  We don’t need them in social media.  Try out a joke – if they laugh, build on it.  If they don’t, drop it and move on.

In a similar vein…

“Let them eat Twitter” – Louis XVI and the demographics of the mob

When Louis XVI saw the mob coming over his back garden fence – he didn’t ask his advisors for a demographic breakdown and a segmentation and targeting strategy.  Knowing that it was a large, angry, armed crowd was all he really needed to know to form an effective response – i.e. pack the family into a coach and head for the coast.

The connected crowd is a similar sort of thing – it may not always be large and angry, but it is pretty easy to get a sense for where it is at and how you need to respond.  Calling for more numbers usually just delays, and thus inhibits, your ability to respond.

Monitoring tools and video editing software

Most of the expensive social media monitoring tools out there are a bit like video editing software.  Simply buying the software isn’t going to give you the result you are looking for (or make you the video).  You need an expert technician who knows how to twiddle the knobs.  And you need guidance from the director as to what the end result should be.

This is the biggest barrier to purchase faced by the makers of monitoring products.  The more sophisticated the product, the more knowledge required to make it work effectively.  This has to be both a knowledge of the product and the users business and social media space – i.e. a combination they don’t have.  This is a business space waiting to be filled.

Facebook and carpentry (alternative title: I tweet therefore I am)

I often get asked – should we have a Facebook page (or a Twitter account, or a blog)?  To which I say, does a carpenter ever ask “should I have a hammer?”   These things are simply tools, you first need to work out what you want to build.  And even once you have done that, simply having the tools isn’t going to get it built.

Carpentry is a very good analogy space to help get a perspective on almost all the bright new thingies of social media.  A carpenter may have many tools but they all fall into one of only three categories – hitty things, chiselly things and sawy things.  Even a non-carpenter will be able to go into a carpenter’s workshop and get a reasonable idea as to what all of his tools do.  However – knowing about (or even having) all the tools doesn’t make you a carpenter.  Likewise within social media there are only three types of tools – publishing tools, sharing or distribution tools and community building tools.  And simply using them (or even understanding them) doesn’t make you an effective social media practitioner. It’s a bit like someone thinking that because they can hit a nail with a hammer they must therefore be a carpenter.

Answering questions

Content in social media – in fact possibly the future of content as a whole – is all about producing specific answers to specific questions.  The trouble with an ad (and most traditional mass message content) is that it is an answer to a question that no-one ever asked.  (I know that isn’t really an analogy, it’s more a soundbite, but I like it none-the-less)  It’s also a game you can try at home.  Take any TV ad, assume that is an answer to something and try and work-out the question for which the ad is the answer.  The ads that generate the most ridiculous questions are the ads that won’t be around in the not too distant future.  They also tend to be the ones which currently win awards.

Shop windows and warehouses

In the past content was all about shop windows – a representative or illustrative display designed to attract passing traffic.  You spent quite a lot of money crafting your display, but you didn’t try to put all your stuff in it (because display space was scare / expensive).

In the future, content is going to be about stocking and managing a virtual content warehouse.  This warehouse will contain lots of stuff: information on everything you are doing, information that illustrates your brand story and information that answers all of the questions a potential customer or stakeholder might have.  You won’t drive people to this warehouse to find the content – instead you will pluck it off the shelves when required and insert it (as links) into all the relevant digital spaces (conversations) you are within and let it then spread of its own accord.

Content as a raw material, not a finished product

This is one designed primarily for the media and publishing organisations – but it has implications for anyone with an aspiration to produce content (i.e. everyone).  At the moment, the media sees its role as being a producer of finished content products – a daily newspaper, a specific page, an individual article, a TV programme etc.  What is happening is that consumers of media (not producers) are assuming responsibility for assembling their own, individually tailored content product.  The future for media therefore lies either in understanding and supplying content as a raw material or through facilitating the process of individuals creating their own finished content product.  The Guardian / Alan Rusbridger please note: involving readers in producing your finished content product does not meet these criteria.

Social media and gardening

The whole area of gardening is very fertile territory for the growth of attractive analogies.  For starters: traditional digital approaches were all about creating walled gardens – expensive, highly crafted destinations to which we drove an audience (i.e. a website or any other form of web platform).  Social media, on the other hand, is all about gardening (not gardens) and therefore the commercial opportunities lie in creating plant nurseries – i.e. material (content) that gardeners can pick up and put into their own gardens.  This fundamental change in orientation is what lies at the heart of any successful social media strategy – launching content that will thrive in spaces, rather than driving people to places.

Next up – creating and managing a garden is a good analogy for what an organisation has to do if it wishes to enter the social media space.  It is possible (albeit highly expensive) to buy yourself a garden.  However, if you then don’t understand and participate in the process of gardening, that garden will deteriorate very quickly.  To do gardening, you can either hire a gardener (expensive) or start to develop knowledge on the basis of experimentation, research and possibly selective consultation with an expert.  If you have a small garden, you will probably be able to maintain it yourself.  If you have a large garden, you will probably end up getting a gardener in to do certain things that are either specialist (designing the garden in the first place and/or pruning your climbing roses once a year) or utility (mowing the grass once a week in the summer).  The rest you will do yourself.

This has implications for the role of agencies and outsourcing.  In the past you could hire an agency to do everything for you (make your ad, run your PR campaign etc).  In the future, the agency role will revolve around doing either specialist things (designing strategies, creating stories) or utility things (outsourced monitoring and basic response, maintenance of basic content streams).

Gardens also have to work in real world of wind and rain, hot and cold.  A greenhouse or a conservatory is not a real garden (albeit you can use them to propagate plants (ideas) for later transplant).  Traditional communication is the equivalent of gardening in a greenhouse – i.e. an environment that is managed and sheltered from reality.  Ads and all other forms of one-to-many mass messages are hothouse flowers – they rely on the construction of artificial environments (the world where women really do talk about what washes whiter) and they will wilt when put out into the real world.

Finally – developing successful gardens takes time and it is an ongoing process.  Not everything will work, constant maintenance is required, many things will take time to really become established and unpredictable events can sometimes give things a bit of a battering.  Likewise with social media.

Andrew Keen’s head

I use Andrew Keen’s head as an analogy to understand the difference between traditional institutionalised media versus a process-driven social media – the shift from institution to process (especially in relation to trust) being one of the tectonic shifts at the heart of social media.

It doesn’t have to be Andrew Keen, it can actually be anyone’s head, but I use Andrew because he is a high profile limpet clinging to the rotting timbers of traditional assiumptions (another analogy for you).

If you looked at the content of Andrew Keen’s head from an institutional perspective (much as we might look at a newspaper for example) what we would be presented with is a random mess of fragments of information, thoughts and experiences.  Fortunately we don’t assess Andrew simply through an analysis of what bits of information sit upon his mental shelves.  Instead we look at how Andrew gathers and then connects all this random information in order to generate intelligence.  Intelligence is a process and connectivity lies at its heart.  The same applies to social media.  You cannot assess its worth simply by looking at its bits (this is what people do when they say “Twitter or YouTube is all rubbish and nonsense”), you have instead to understand how these bits become connected to produce intelligence.  Social media is not about finding the needle in the haystack or screening out the signal from the noise.  Social media is the hay and it is the noise.  Of course most of Twitter is ‘pointless babble’ – that is its point.

The story of the two candle makers (I am sure I didn’t invent this one)

Once upon a time there were two candle makers in a town.  One candle maker saw his business as making candles, the other saw his business as providing light.  The oil-lamp was then invented – so who do you think went out of business and who prospered from a new opportunity?

I use this in two instances.  Firstly when trying to get ad agencies to understand how they can adapt to the world of social media – i.e. to think about narrative marketing – creating brand stories rather than brand propositions – and to apply their creativity to bringing stories alive rather than making ads or campaigns.  Secondly when talking to any organisation that performs some type of intermediary function in order to get them to focus on what they are doing, rather than how they are doing it (given the how they do it part is probably going to change significantly or become redundant).

Enough.  There are others.  I find myself inventing analogies all the time – in fact I sometimes apologise for the many mixed analogies within my presentations by saying I suffer from the clinical condition Multiple Analogy Disorder.  And the only good thing to be said about that is that it is better than suffering from Multiple Acronym Disorder – because that really makes you bonkers.



  1. Pingback: Социалната революция, обяснена в една история за мамути, Гутенберг и лагерни огньове « idpetkova
  2. Pingback: Социалната революция, обяснена в една история за мамути, Гутенберг и лагерни огньове « idpetkova
  3. Pingback: Социалната революция, обяснена в една история за мамути, Гутенберг и лагерни огньове | Интернет маркетинг и реклама
  4. Pingback: Социалната революция, обяснена в една история за мамути, Гутенберг и лагерни огньове | Jar of General thoughts
  5. Pingback: Social Media Analogies | aldissandmore - a technology and digital meme curation blog from Tim Aldiss
  6. Pingback: Qantas: chasing the wrong type of engagement « Richard Stacy @ Stacy Consulting
  7. Pingback: Socia Media Marketing es como … — Andreas Wiechert

Post a comment

You may use the following HTML:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>