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Is Social Media Really the Great Equalizer?

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On the most recent episode of Marketing Smarts, while describing all the work that went into producing Fashion's Night Out (FNO) in Boston last year, Michelle McCormack referred to social media as "the great equalizer."

In her view, thanks to social media she and her partner, Richard Villani, were able to get the word out, garner press attention (front page of the Boston Globe), and generate the buzz that made the event such a success.

"We did agency level work with no budget," McCormack said. "You don't need to have a million dollars to do stuff like this."

I've been thinking about this notion of social media as the great equalizer and wondering if it's true. I can't deny that it helped Michelle and other folks to create a successful, citywide event on "no budget." And when one reads, as Michelle did, that a 21 year-old grad student launched a Facebook page that attracted more than 180,000 fans in less than two weeks---and even led to the launch of a start-up---it's easy to see why people believe that social media levels the playing field. In what era could an unknown person get close to a quarter million people involved in a project without spending a dime?

(For that matter, how could a kid with an annoying voice and a video camera get more than 17 million people to watch his stuff?)

"Everyone's a publisher," people like to say. Anyone with access to the Web can "publish" to a given social media (and blogging) platform, and, at least in theory, get their stuff in front of the Web's 2 billion+ users. Nevertheless, you also are competing with these same 2 billion people. In other words, lowering the publishing bar---and the Web in general---didn't just make you equal to CNN (at least in access); it made everyone equal to CNN (or Kim Kardashian or whomever).

To paraphrase a common truism, when one bar is lowered, another is raised. Consider what happened with cable television and the accompanying proliferation of channels. Yes, the bar had been lowered as far as getting a show on television, but the bar had been raised in terms of what you had to do to get people to watch. When there were three channels, the barrier to entry was high, but so were the chances that you could get enough audience to sell advertising against. When there are a thousand channels or more (Technorati currently indexes over 1.2 millions blogs alone), your cat can haz its own show, but the chances that anyone will see it or care are vanishingly small.

What has become equalized is the ability for people to publish stuff that no one pays any attention to. Moreover, equal access doesn't mean equal ability. So, we publishers are not only competing with the millions who might not have that much to offer but also with the thousands that do. And if any of those thousands have resources as well as talent, then we're back where we began with the few producing for the many.

What do you think? Is social media the great equalizer? (And am I just a bitter, old man?) Or does the sheer breadth of equalization mean that nothing has really changed?

If you would like to hear my entire conversation with Michelle and learn about the success she's had in social media, I encourage to listen to this week's podcast here or subscribe in iTunes. Thanks for listening!

(Photo courtesy of Bigstock: Integration)


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My name is Matthew T. Grant, PhD. I'm Managing Editor here at MarketingProfs. I divide my time between designing courses for MarketingProfs University and hosting/producing our podcast, Marketing Smarts. You can follow me on Twitter (@MatttGrant) or read my personal musings on my blog here.

If you'd like to get in touch with me about being a guest on Marketing Smarts or teaching as part of MarketingProfs University or, frankly, anything else at all, drop me a line.

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  • by Derek Donnelly Thu May 3, 2012 via blog

    You are, of course, right. It is a great equaliser in terms of access but as you say proliferation means audiences shrink. Still, most of us have pretty well targeted customer bases and if we really work at targeting them we can get far less wasteful in our marketing.

  • by Matthew T. Grant Thu May 3, 2012 via blog

    You bring up an interesting point. By equalizing access, social media platforms do allow anyone to create, in essence, their own channel and make it has targeted as they wish. Competing for attention in general may have become more difficult, but competing for attention from a very specific audience on a clearly defined topic has indeed, as you point out, become easier.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment!

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