How do you teach social media?
Last Friday I spend the day at the Plantijnhogeschool in Antwerp, giving the keynote speech at a conference organised by the European Foundation for Commercial Communications Education (now to be known as Ed Com). This is basically the place where the institutions who teach communications meet the agencies who employ the people they teach.
The main talking point revolved around the issue of how you teach social media linked to the continued relevance of “The Big Idea”. There seemed a large constituency of support from both academics and industry, that we still need The Big Idea, in large part to have a conversational starting point, and that social media’s problem derived from the fact that there did not seem to be such an idea that was visible within most social media campaigns. This was seen as a relevancy issue for social media, rather than a relevancy issue for Big Ideas.
My view, not surprisingly, was slightly different. In the first instance, social media does not “do” campaigns. Social media is about sustained engagement, often with small numbers of people at any one time, but which happens over a long period of time – indefinitely in fact. Secondly, in-so-far as social media conversations have to start somewhere, they don’t start with The Big Idea because that is not what people actually want to talk to brands about – it is what brands wished people would talk to each other about.
The Big Idea ‘du jour’ was T Mobile’s Life is for Sharing – prompted by the recent viral success of its Royal Wedding video as well as previous flash mob virals. Now Life is for Sharing is, indeed, a Big Idea and it has been used as a creative platfrom very effectively by its ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi. But here is the thing: you need Big Ideas to make ads but they don’t work in social media because T Mobile’s customers (even those that watched and ‘liked’ the YouTube clip) don’t actually want to talk about Life is for Sharing – or if they do, they don’t want to talk about that with T Mobile. What they want to talk about with T Mobile is much more prosaic. They want to know why their phone doesn’t work, or why, when the start “sharing their life” whilst roaming it costs them a small fortune.
But of course, these sorts of mundane customer service or product issues, were not seen as being relevant to brand image or marketing – the carts to which the old nag of Big Idea is currently harnessed.
And therefore, when it comes to teaching, the issue is not really how you teach social media so much as to whom you teach social media. If you see yourself in the business of creating the creative directors of the future, there is about as much point in teaching them social media as there is teaching footballers to play cricket. But if you decide that you are creating future communications practitioners, then social media is highly relevant – but not teaching social media as a form of media (which it is not) rather understanding it as a set of behaviours. We therefore need to look to more towards psychology, or even history, to provide a way to do this than we do towards creativity.