Digital articles of faith

Most disciplines, at some point in the course of their development, fall prey to their very own articles of faith. This is true of all things man is passionate about, from spirituality to war, from politics to mathematics, from geostrategy to literature and art: All develop different schools of thought, many of which eventually evolve into rivals. Hence we invariably arrive at Catholics vs. protestants, liberals vs. conservatives, nationalists vs. federalists, Macs vs. PCs, Pepsi’s vs. Cokes, Xbox360s vs. Nintendo Wiis vs. Playstations 3, etc. Social media, if indeed we can call it a discipline (perhaps digital social communications is a better term for it, since “social media” describes the pipes, not the activities themselves) is no different: Some believe that the DSC discipline is purely about content (the “content is king” crowd). Others believe that the DSC discipline is a (digital) marketing function, while others still, view it as a PR function. And on and on and on.

Before companies even realized the potential of DSC and social media, this new frontier in communications was already being fought over, flag in hand, by various groups wishing to lay claim to the lion’s share of its ownership, and thus define it for the business world by their own unique standards.

If to name a thing is to own a thing, then to define it certainly drives the flag of ownership deeper into the ground for those who manage to get there first, which perhaps helps explain the fervor with which various schools of thought have been battling for philosophical supremacy in this newly discovered digital world.

The thing is, this race for ownership of social media and its intrinsic value – through the minting of its principal function(s) – is complete bullshit. From a business perspective, no specific function or department owns social media: Not marketing, not PR, not customer service, not digital. Just like the telephone and email – which both also differ from paid mass media in that they allow senders and recipients to communicate with one another – social media plugs into any and every business function with equal ease: Social media belongs on every desk, at every workstation, with an equal measure of risk, opportunity, and perhaps more importantly individual professional responsibility.

From marketing to HR, from digital advertising to billing, social media finds its uses defined by whomever logs on to any of its platforms at any given time. Whether they are doing research, sharing news, linking to a special promotion, live-tweeting a bank robbery from the inside, letting someone know they are running late for an appointment, posting videos of a crime as it is committed, asking for restaurant recommendations, having a religious or political debate, checking into one’s favorite coffee shop, posting photos of their new grandchild, breaking up with a boyfriend, connecting with academics and celebrities, following events you couldn’t attend or recruiting your dream team’s final missing piece, the medium is as pliable as it is versatile: It serves any and all purposes, not just the ones flag-bearers with something to sell would like you to draw your attention to.

The Tyranny of content

Is content really king? The answer depends on whether or not you make a living selling, editing, or monetizing content. Professional bloggers, for example, use “content” to generate revenue: A short but carefully crafted blog post with just the right title, coupled to a solid mailing list and a little SEO savvy, will attract readers. In the short term, more readers = more chances someone will click on an ad or affiliate link. In the long term, more visitors and more clicks = higher valuation for potential advertisers = more potential revenue per click. Is it any surprise then, that so many bloggers-turned-social media experts spend so much time pushing the supremacy of content?

As for media outlets whose entire revenue model is based upon a similar model (advertising), what used to be news has now become mere content as well. Why? Because easily digestible, easily shared content with catchy titles attracts views. Views = revenue. Clicks = revenue. The real product being sold is the advertising. “Content,” which used to be news, valuable insights, art, entertainment, even, is now simply the pull, the bait to the proverbial switch. If you have noticed a progressive weakening in the quality of articles on the web in the past year, it is because much of it has become mere “content:” Filler with which to plug the empty spaces between ads, stuff to make you look, but not think, just interesting enough in the first two seconds to make you click on a link, but not enough to grab you once you are there.

An increasing number of media outlets couldn’t care whether or not their articles are interesting, well written or worthy of their long history of quality, relevance and importance. It’s just the web, after all. Journalists are being replaced by bloggers, many of whom aren’t paid anyway. The web, for many such organizations, isn’t about quality. It is a parallel world in which news and insights have been replaced by mere content: The fast food version of a porterhouse steak. Cheap (and often free) crap people will consume with a breadth and velocity not compatible with quality. More and faster keep the wheels turning. Keeping the public interested by an everlasting churn of quickly produced, quickly published bits of content means more opportunities for traffic, unique visitors, time on site and click throughs. Capture those eyeballs as fast and as wide as possible. Grow those numbers as quickly as possible. Yippee! Get me more of that link bait/content.

Yes, for that world, content is king.

From tyranny to federation: Curing operational myopia in the social media world

And you know what? There is absolutely nothing wrong with it. Ethically, it’s fine. Advertisers are happy, content producers and curators are happy, media outlets are happy, and the wheels keep right on turning, at least in the short term. But aside from the social mechanisms of new digital platforms – the shares, likes, retweets and digs that allow people to spread information through their networks – what the hell does any of this really have to do with being social?

Does setting up a discussion group on LinkedIn about a piece of content really stem from a desire to learn something from “the community”? Has Quora really been used to foster dialog by the content producers who used the platform to spread their product’s reach a little further? Or is it all still just another eyeball-capture play? In other words, has “social” simply become a new battlefront for the same old mass marketing it promised to transcend?

I ask this not to indict proponents of the “content is king” philosophy, but to remind you of three things:

  1. Motives drive interest. Not everyone who works with social media is motivated by the same impulses, outcomes and interests. Just like gamers and multi-level marketers don’t view or use the web in the same way, content professionals don’t view or use social media the same was customer service professionals. So take a step back. See the field from beyond their very focused (dare I say specialized) scope. Learn to discern biases so they don’t end up becoming your own.
  2. “Social” means different things to different people. The definition of the term as it applies to online uses (especially once operationalized) transcends the definition of the term as it relates to our lives offline – the definition we have known and understood for centuries. In the same way that a real world friend is not the same as someone you accept as a “friend” on Facebook, being social in the real world is not the same thing as a company being “social” on the twitternets. The familiarity of certain words, now used in a completely different context, can lead us down paths of false assumptions (and sometimes even impossible expectations). If you never assume that your definition of what it is to be “social” is the same definition used by a politician, a celebrity, a blogger, or a major consumer brand, you will be okay. If you make that assumption, get used to being disappointed.
  3. What works works. Social or not, “content” does plug giant holes between advertising banners on a computer screen. It attracts visitors and gives them something to share across their social networks. It is the fodder that motivates “likes” and “shares” and “tweets” and “digs” and “+1’s”. Opinions about what “social” should be or shouldn’t be are irrelevant. There is what works and what doesn’t work.

And since with different objectives come different tactics and activities, allowing for a pragmatic (rather than a philosophical) interpretation of what constitutes good social or bad social activities on the interwebs will give you an edge on the “either/or” crowd. Do what works. If all of it is 100% social and human, great. If it is 99% marketing and only 1% human or social, that’s great too. As long as it yields the right results, nobody really cares.

Do Huffpo and the AP really “engage” with their Twitter followers? No. Does that make their feed on Twitter any less relevant, any less effective, any less valuable? No. Ideally, you want to be as human and social as possible in these new channels. Of course you do. But not everything that happens within social channels needs to be about “engagement” and “conversations.” Broadcasting and messaging work well also. Every company is different. Every community is different. The ratio of push to pull, of monologue to dialogue, of sales to genuine human interactions has to be established by each company, by each Twitter account and Facebook page based on its own needs and circumstances.

In short, the “content is king” crowd has as much of a right to be there as the “customer is king” crowd, or the “engaging in real time is king” crowd, or the “listening is king” crowd. They all just need to understand that there is no king. There is no throne. There is no universal supremacy or hierarchy of purpose in the social space. Content, like engagement, are just two of many pieces on the chessboard. Two small kings in a federation of interwoven kingdoms, none of which can be effective without the other.

The social media salesmen

Every time I run into a so-called social media “expert” whose narrative seeks to counter this simple fact, every time I run into anyone bent on pushing a single element of digital social communications over the others, I know I am dealing with someone with something to sell.

“Content is king” usually comes from a crowd that makes money from content. “Measurement is king” usually comes from a crowd that makes money from measurement. “Engagement and conversations are king” usually comes from… “engagement experts” and “conversation strategists.” (Don’t laugh, these are real terms now.)

Look for the 360° approach. Look for analysis. Look for the professionals who will first audit your business for weaknesses, strengths, risks and opportunities. Look for people who can custom-build a social media integration program for your organization. Look for professionals who understand PR as well as customer service, and IT as well as HR. Look for people who can negotiate internal politics and drive buy-in, not just pontificate about how social business ought to work and how your company ought to change with the times. Look for people who understand that even antisocial company cultures can find a place in the world of social media without faking “being social,” and know how to make that work. Look for people who see the whole field.

Everyone else – the “social media marketing” and “social media content” salesmen – they aren’t selling anything new. Just the same old trinkets that have always been around since long before the internet. Creative has been repackaged as “content.” Editors have been replaced by “content strategists.” Web has been replaced by “social media.” Same stuff, simply repackaged to fit into a new demand pipeline.

Same old pig, new lipstick. Everyone has something to sell. Remember that next time someone tries to sell you on the notion that their little corner of social or digital rules the others.

(To be continued…)