Social media
Social media: Are we too close to the fire?

As a professional marketer, among the leading questions I’m asked is “how do I best take advantage of social media for my business?” And there are good answers to that question. Creating content is one. Building relevant networks is another.

But what I’m finding is that the real question I’m asked is “what the heck is social media, really? And please help me to make some sense of it!” To offer an analogy, humans always knew about fire. Lightning struck, and fires started. We eventually learned how to best control it to do remarkable things like keep us warm and cook our food. Extending that thinking, social media is in some ways like the early interactions with fire. We know it has amazing potential. It can and already has opened new avenues and possibilities for worldwide communication. But how do we tame it entirely?

First I think it’s important to take a look at how people use social media today, in early 2014. Note that I’m talking about people, not business. Take a look at the social media mainstays: Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Youtube, Google Plus. Even LinkedIn, the closest you’ll get of the bunch to a business network, is personalized. “Congratulate Joe on his new job.” I’ve even gotten, on LinkedIn, “Wish Mary a happy birthday.” Yep, businesses are clumps of people.

Social Media Colors
Image: Mary Henderson

So right now, people use social media for so many different purposes that it leads to confusion. You’ve got the “at the Shake Shack having a burger!” posts mixed in with “looking for tips on writing a killer press release.” And articles like this one. On Pinterest, you’ve got people posting pictures of themselves in front of the Eiffel Tower next to product shots of cross trainers. People wonder “do I need to use Google Plus?” or “should I start a company page on LinkedIn?” Search the internet and you’ll get this advice: yes, no, and maybe. There are absolutely no correct answers to these very good and very realistic questions. Other than if you’re in business, you absolutely need some type of presence on the internet and in social media.

And here’s the good news. This is exactly where social media should be right now. Crawling comes before walking, walking before running. And we’ll be running soon enough. In time, social media will settle and clarify. It wasn’t so many years ago that we never heard of the social media platforms that are so much a part of our lexicon and our lives. The big social media mainstays will continue to refine themselves. New platforms with even more niche function and purpose will develop and gain prominence. Most will fail, but one or two will stick. One or two might even redefine the social media landscape beyond where it is right now. We’ll get better at using it, and do so with more comfort. My guess is that there was a lot of anxiety around early fire, right? And like early fire, social media has untold benefits once we fully come to terms with how to best use it.

When I’m asked by clients how to come to terms with social media, I answer with a question. What do you want social media to do for your business? What’s the intent? Depending on the reply, sometimes social media isn’t the best answer to what they’re trying to achieve. At least, not just yet.