Thursday, March 25, 2010

What the hell is Social Media anyway?

There is a lot of buzz around Social Media at present. It is a space which every company feels they should be in. But what is Social Media?

Social Media is a term which has come to represent the ways in which the internet is being used to connect people in a two way, conversational style. It allows any individual to generate content and share it with the rest of the community. This content can be text, such as comments, questions or opinions, or it can be photos, videos, audio files…anything which someone can create on their computer - or cell phone for that matter.

Think of a traditional website as an online brochure. It is a one-to-many form of communication in which one person talks, and everyone else listens. “Come and read what we want you to read. Now give us a call or go away.”

Telecom’s website is a classic example of an online brochure. Visitors can read what Telecom has to say about itself, but to interact with the company, they then need to leave their computer and pick up a telephone, or send an email and wait up to 24 hours for a reply. Telecommunication companies should be doing better. I am already at your website, I want to engage with you now! Help!

This kind of website is like a deaf and blind person yelling from a soapbox and handing out business cards. Social Media is a barbecue where you can invite your friends and customers to talk with you, while other people eavesdrop. And it is the eavesdropping which is the difference.

Social media is a many-to-many broadcast style. This is most usually thought of as the big networks, like Facebook, Twitter, LinkdIn and YouTube. Services like this are indeed the most social of Social Media networks. They are entirely composed of user generated content and, depending on your privacy settings, this information can be instantly viewed and shared all around the world.

However the term Social Media should not be limited to just these services. It should also be used to describe any website where people can post their thoughts and have them read by anyone else. Forums and (most) blogs invite visitors to comment, question or debate. Some corporate websites do this very well too.

By publishing content generated by visitors to your website, you can turn your online brochure into a social media portal. You are allowing social interaction through the media you have provided. This can be done by building the functionality into your site, or by embedding it from existing sources.

The point is Social Media is not just Facebook and Twitter. Any website can be a Social Media portal. You just need to be lucky enough to have people who care enough about what it is you are doing to want to interact, and you have to be brave enough to publish what they want to say about you.

That is not to say that you should be publishing anything anyone wants to say, but it is important to acknowledge people’s frustrations when they arise. You may be amazed to see your brand champions jumping to your defense, particularly on fan pages on Facebook, or through twitter. These kind of set ups can be very self-moderating towards negativity, but you do need to consider a system to control offensive and incorrect comments. More on that later…

So, if I had to define Social Media in 3 words? "Eavesdropping with consent."

That is how I define it anyway. Maybe you disagree? If so, send me an email. I aim to reply to all emails in 24 hours. Just kidding. Abuse me in the comments section below, or catch me on Twitter, or Facebook.

Footnote: I don’t know if Social Media is still the correct term, but it is a hell of a lot better than the extremely esoteric and self-empowering “Web 2.0”.

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