I have noticed an increasing trend of late for articles and comment to emerge declaring that social media is failing. This example from The Telegraph is a case in point. These are not #socialmediafail pieces – i.e. examples of silly things organisations have done in social media, rather they are declaring the failure of the whole medium or more precisely the failure of the medium as a space for marketing activity.
The question we have to ask, of course, is what is it that is actually failing here. Is it a failure of social media, or is it a failure of marketing to adapt itself to work within social media. In my view it is the later. As I never tire of saying, social media is a completely different space with a new set of rules. You cannot drag traditional one-to-many mass marketing approaches into social media and expect that they will work. Cue favourite analogy: if tradition media / marketing is the land then social media is the sea. It is perfectly possible to operate in both environments provided you understand the difference. You can make a car that floats, as Top Gear are fond of showing us, but it is never going to be as effective in the water as a boat.
I think we can expect to see much more of the ‘social media doesn’t work’ sentiment going forwards. It is simply more evidence of the fact that the adoption of social media is tracking the Gartner Hype Cycle for Emerging Technology (see left). It demonstrates that we are entering into the Disillusionment phase.
Some have reacted to this by taking the extreme view, which is to declare marketing dead (as per this Harvard Business Review article). This is as misguided as the idea that social media is failing. Traditional marketing is simply become less effective as other alternatives emerge. It is not going to die, rather we are starting to understand the boundaries of its competence. Traditional marketing is actually a channel and message identification challenge defined by the ability to place single, concise messages in front of large numbers of people. Within the social space, the challenge is defined by identification of behaviours (not messages and channels) – i.e. the ability to reach exactly the right people, at exactly the right time, with exactly the right response – based upon what those people are doing, rather than who they are, or within which channels they sit. Both are valid approaches – you only get into trouble if you try and crunch the two together. The trick is work out how to use both approaches in a complementary, rather than supplementary, way. And it also means we are right to question whether social media should actually fall within the realm of marketing at all – a conclusion that this article in Forbes is edging towards. It is only when we fundamentally understand the difference between social and traditional media and develop a process (and probably department) that is adapted to work in the social digital space, that we will start to head up the Slope of Enlightenment.