Social media ‘special sauce’

I’m reading a lot lately about the notion of status updates and alerts as key aspects – the ‘special sauce’ – of social media that need to be ‘harnessed’ for success in the global financial crisis.  But while I agree that social media and social networking are crucial to economic recovery (more on that later) I think that status updates and alerts are really only half the story of tools like twitter. They are important, but the reason why they are important is not often well stated, and this has led to complaints about privacy invasion and the breakdown of social behaviour understanding.

‘Presence’ is key in the information age.  But contrary to the fairly shallow definitions of the term, presence in the social media age is not merely about ‘place’ or ‘activity’.  In the age of twitter, ‘presence’ is as much about communicating locations, actions, news or ideas as it is about the desire to understand, share and experience more about these situations.  It’s about reception of information as much as it is about broadcasting.  A mere keyword is often sufficient to attract communication from like minds and the sharing of resources, analysis and perspectives all assist to collectively forge perceptions about an idea/action/product/service/place.  It’s not brand identity, it’s a changeable but influential cloud of responses; a library of experience that doesn’t just describe the entity, but also articulates expectations, drives further participation and shapes relationships.  Presence is actually much more powerful than brand identity because through the medium of social media it is inherently conversational, and thus can ‘learn’ from experience, not simply broadcast and repeat a message that defines sales goals.  It is organic and responsive and it deploys the wisdom of crowds concept with enough accuracy to be regarded as trustworthy.

And this is where the difficulty arises with perceptions about social behaviour.  Doubters about the value of status based social media interaction fail to realise that the rise of journalism, broadcast and later, new media, has in part been driven by a public interest need for trust – in our religious leadership, governments, judiciary, business and society.  In the consumer age, it was about ensuring that the goods we had access to were trustworthy enough to use and to improve our lifestyle.  In the information age, we have learned to be cynical of the brand communication being so expertly cultivated by governments, religious bodies and the private sector alike, and thus we turn to one another – genuine word of mouth marketing – as a source for trustworthy content.  We automatically seek out thought leaders and cultural leaders who provide information which we are more likely to find reliable, and shape our understanding and collectively create content through interaction with these individuals.

And so rather than our social skills being framented by the communication of presence, we are actually naturally educating and being educated about ideas, whilst taking responsibility for our own credibility and public standing on the world stage.  Presence is characterised by the range and interactivity of collective responses, not mired by the banality of reality-television style individual (mis)fortunes.  It is a context for cultural engagement.

So if you are trying to work out the ingredients of the social media special sauce, you have to first understand that the act of updating or being alerted by keywords in conversations is not an activity that can be simply ‘monitored’, or mixed to create something pleasant to taste.  And it certainly cannot be controlled.  Brand ownership is going to change, and change for good, as much as the rise of journalism and new media have changed the cartel-based activities of Lords Temporal, Commons and ‘Corporate’ (to borrow a theme) in time gone by.  Ownership – the very idea of absolute monopoly control – over entities will break down.  It won’t die; litigation arising from infringement of creative output or corporate brands and trademarks will survive for some generations yet.  But for marketers, the notion of brand identity control will need to shift from simple broadcast messages, to more fluid notions of community engagement.  The flavour isn’t going to be vanilla.  It will alter not just for every company and brand, but for every engagement and every moment.

This is something that may still take some time for the corporate sector to grasp, but by which it will eventually be affected.  Because it’s not a matter of choosing not to play.  The tools already exist.  The community is already participating. Social media presence is not just being here, it’s here.

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