Social Media Marketing: Sorry, Still Mass Media

I’m currently taking a professional development course at Portland State University called “Social Media Marketing” to brush up on the latest trends in social. It’s part of their Digital Marketing Strategist professional certification. The focus has thus far been how social media has usurped mass-media. Traditional forms of mass media have changed. It’s now social, spanning various digital mediums and social networks, and most importantly, there is now a conversational component. Everyone has a voice. The proposition is that mass media is no more. It’s social media.

Many examples were given about how Coke or Ford or Pizza Hut have created these amazing social media campaigns that have increased sales and brand awareness.

The sales pitch for this new form of media is that it’s better because it’s more social. The dialogue is more two-way. In class, we’re talking about how you can create a social media campaign to assist in reaching your big business goals. Lots of digital marketing consultants are talking about how content is king;  How creating a mix of various types of media, such as case-studies, interviews, videos, white-papers and webinars can really push the needle on engagement and drive towards your goal.

I’m also hearing a lot about the importance of community. “This company reached out to their community”; “That company promoted a contest with their community”. “Their community is 139,000 strong”.

And the term “engagement” is the big buzzword. “”Photo images improve engagement 54% over text posts”. “Videos increase engagement 32% over text posts”.

But just how social is this type of media? Is “community” really the right phrase to describe fans? And what does engagement really mean?

The media question: Just how social is this type of media?

Thinking about social media in this way still implies a packaged-goods media mentality: content is initiated by a firm, then conversation among fans/followers ensues. The difference is that now we’re allowing a much greater degree of transparency around the conversation. Which is good. But the themes and topics to drive those conversations are still controlled by the company’s talking heads.

Firms are putting forth their own content first, and then trying to muster conversations, competitions, games, around that authored content. This is the package-goods media paradigm. It’s still top-down.

What does true social media look like then? Bottom-up? I would put forth that it’s neither top down or bottom up. It’s across. It’s lateral. It’s across in many many different directions, but it’s neither up nor down. True social media is 100%  user-generated content (UGC). Take a look back at how Facebook started, before company’s with something at stake got their pesky hands in there. It was peer-to-peer. There was no commercialization. Friends connected with other friends in order to stay up-to-date with each other’s lives. All the content was what I would call True UGC.

The site I manage,, is another example. There is no commerce at stake. It’s fairly altruistic, actually. The community is figuring out ways to save more electricity. People are connecting and collaborating with one another to reach a common goal of accelerating energy efficiency.

My point here is that when we talk about social media marketing, we have to not kid ourselves into thinking it’s a completely user-generated world or that it’s a new form of media. It’s not. We’re trying to leverage people’s online social networks to promote our company’s products or services. And the only way to do that is to develop your own content, i.e. owned media, and push it out there into the digital ether. This slightly taints our somewhat utopian view of social media as completely social, completely organic. The stuff we’re talking about here is not that organic. Not that authentic.

The Community question: Is “community” really the right phrase to describe fans?

When we’re talking about social media campaigns for brands, those campaigns generally rely heavily on the big platforms: Facebook, Twitter, and maybe YouTube. When we use the term “community” to describe our fans or followers on these platforms, the assumption is, as with any community, that members feel a sense of kinship, have shared values, and communicate on a recurring basis with one another in order to build relationships. Social Scientist Michael Wu did some research and recently pointed out that:

…Only about 30% of the active [Facebook] fans re-engage with the fan page more than once (i.e. through posting). 70% of the active fans will post only once and never re-engage the fan page again! – Michael Wu, Lithium Blog

And further, the minority of fans who are engaging on fan pages aren’t developing relationships with other community members:

In order to build relationships, people must engage each other actively and participate reciprocally in conversations…Most [Facebook] fans do not participate in reciprocal conversations. The probability of a fan returning to the same conversation is very low, only about 9.6%. That means 90.4% of the active fans post only once in a thread and never return to that conversation again. – Michael Wu, Lithium Blog

When we use the term community to describe a group of fans, we’re looking through rose-colored glasses. There are very few, if any, meaningful relationships here. This is a packaged-good media channel that allows fans to connect with your brand. Leave it at that. It’s not community.

What does engagement really mean?

Something that is driving me a bit nutty these days is the preponderance of the notion “engagement”. This is the holy grail of social media marketing activities, it seems. But what does it really mean? How is it quantified and does its meaning and definition shift in different social contexts? These are all good questions, but no one seems to agree on the answers. To most marketers, engagement is a “secret sauce” metric that many social analytics providers cook up (some of the more prominent firms that have engagement metrics: Sprout Social, Kontagent, KissMetrics), . Engagement usually has to do with the number of conversations, comments, replies or retweets, but what the algorithm is, hardly anyone knows or even cares.

What I find peculiar here is that if engagement is so important (and I agree that it is), and if you’re driving towards some clearly defined, quantifiable business goals, shouldn’t engagement be extremely well articulated as well? I mean, in the context of social, engagement is the gateway to attaining your goals, right? As a practitioner you have to be able to correlate content –> engagement –> goal. If you’re a practitioner of social media you need to define what engagement is and how it can help you reach your goals.

So in sum: Social media marketing campaigns are perhaps just newly dressed, digital mass-media explorations. Tom Foremski of suggests that we even change the name of social media to: “social distribution of (mass) media.”


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