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The Fourth Wave of Social Media

The Fourth Wave of Social Media image 300px Waves July 2009 2

Like any thing else, social media is growing up and has been progressing through different stages or waves. One could certainly parse it down further and come up with more waves or segments, but it seems to me that we are now in the beginning stages of the fourth wave of social media.

Here’s a brief breakdown of what I think the first few waves were like:

First wave: Social media comes on the scene, but is primarily for individual users. Most businesses look at it as trivial, a fad, something not to be bothered with. After all, social media is that thing that kids do to waste time, and it’s got that Farmville game!

Second Wave: This is what I call the big land grab. Everyone suddenly jumps into “Gotta get a Facebook page” mode. They don’t know why, or even what they are going to do with it, but they have to have one. This is the stage where businesses start to “use” social media, but usually without a strategy. They might be on Facebook or Twitter, but it’s an afterthought. It’s what you do when you’re done with all the other really important marketing and communications stuff. Consequently, everyone is doing it, but very few are doing it well. And all that matters are the numbers: how many fans or followers you have.

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Third Wave: This is where businesses began to take it more seriously. We are just starting to see them recognize that analytics and measurement are important. Social media is clearly here to stay, and in fact, it’s something that is actually important; it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. And because it’s important, we see the rise of a whole new series of tools for measurement, automation, management, etc. We move toward programs, tips, and tricks…analyzing and over analyzing. While moving forward, we are also moving backward.

Now, I believe we are moving into the next wave:

Fourth Wave – We now recognize that we’ve focused too much on the marketing and communications campaign aspects of social media, trying to fit the square peg of traditional marketing and communications into the round hole of this new thing. It just won’t work. Data is more important than ever, but not just for the sake of numbers. And we’re reclaiming what was lost during the third wave, namely the human side of social media. We went to far with “programs” and systems, and now we’re also reclaiming the buzzwords that have lost their meaning. Understanding that customers are people, not just numbers.

This is where the rubber meets the road. This is where social gets embedded within the core of our business models and cultures. Social is no longer on the outside, but is fully integrated into every aspect of business, both online and offline, with clear goals. Social isn’t just an extension of what we do, it is transformational, affecting how we do business on a daily basis. It’s a mindset, not just a set of tools.

I’m really excited by what I’m seeing. I think much of this actually started earlier this year, but as we head toward 2013 I think we will have a better understanding of what this all means. It’s less about the tools and more about the overall strategy. I’m involved in a number of projects and business ventures that I hope will be at the forefront of this transition, and even in to whatever ends up as the fifth wave.

Granted, there are still businesses that are approaching social media as if we were still in the first, second, or third waves. That will always be the case. Heck, there are still businesses that don’t see the need for even having a website! But over the past few years we’ve seen the power of social media in very real ways, and in most cases, what we’ve seen has been less about planned activities, and more about the role social plays in our everyday lives in some subtle, and not so subtle, ways. When social shines and makes an impact, it’s less about us trying to make it work, and more about how it works in unique situations in spite of us.

What do you think the next season of social media holds for us? What changes and shifts do you see happening now, and in the near future?

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