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No doubt about it, buzzwords—from viral to meme to mashup to social media itself—abound. As Hugh Macleod joked in a recent Twitter post, "Pretty soon we'll have 'Social' prefixing everything: Social Marketing, Social Communicating, Social Cornflakes."

Yet, despite all the talk, the mainstream media coverage, the conferences, courses, and books on social media marketing, there's quite a bit of ambivalence, fear, and sometimes outright hostility directed toward social media by CMOs, CEOs, and CFOs.

All of this leads to the dreaded "we just want to stick our toe in the water, and see what this stuff is all about" and "we want to do a small, low-budget social media project and track the ROI."

Danger, Will Robinson!! Danger, Will Robinson!!!

Social media isn't a one-shot deal

Social media isn't a technique, a short-term project, an experiment, an event, a one-shot deal, or a quick fix. It's not something you throw money at, and using it doesn't guarantee sales or influence.

Social media is a set of tools that can help you make your company or your products or your services what people recommend to other people who trust their judgment.

Those tools provide absolutely anyone to establish credibility and gain trust. And the information, good or bad, that's created and shared with those tools stays in search engines forever.

Let's take a look at how and what people share with friends and family. Among the tools and applications they use:

  • Photo and video sharing
  • Email and IM
  • Podcasting, video casting, video conferencing
  • Self-published and self-promoted e-books
  • Text messages
  • Shared bookmarking and annotated link sharing
  • Social shopping
  • Blogs and microblogs
  • Business, personal, interest, and hobby groups

They use those tools to pass on information that is...

  • Interesting
  • Amusing
  • Poignant
  • Relevant
  • Useful
  • Educational
  • Arresting

Beware the kid with a webcam?

Nothing's really changed about the way information spreads, except the tools and the speed of transmission. In the past, people with a large network of friends, acquaintances, and relatives, and a storage well of trust, could influence a lot of people. 

Now anyone with a webcam can generate an opinion tsunami. A kid in Bulgaria can spread ideas, good or bad news, jokes, memes, or fashions—worldwide—faster than you can say "viral." One blog with a big audience can bring down a Fortune 100 company's stock. 

While corporations, agencies, and self-proclaimed social media marketers are debating the relative merits of listening to their customers, the customers already are on blogs, in consumer opinion sites, in social networks, on IM, and face to face... sharing their opinions about these same products and services.

The big bucks spent on traditional advertising and PR, online and offline, are nowhere near as likely to influence sales and reputation as what friends, family and coworkers say about something you are considering buying.

Communication isn't a fad

People young and old use these tools and pass along information in a casual way because this way of spreading information is now part of the culture.

Yet corporations are still expecting that a static Web site with no feedback mechanism, banner advertising, multimillion-dollar Super Bowl ads, top-down messages, and over-saturated search engine advertising will pass for communication. Then they wonder why their marketing doesn't drive sales.

A company that has open channels of communications that include social media tools has the opportunity to interact with the influentials. But they need to speak in a human voice, to answer and ask questions, to provide information.

Because in a crisis, only a company with open lines of communication can be heard. And only those companies that participate in social media will have the opportunity to be heard and perhaps believed.

The value of a network?

One of the big concerns of CMOs, CEOs, and CFOs (besides that they're about to lose their jobs) is that people will say something bad about the company in social media. And that's true, they will, if there is something bad to be said. But more often than not altruism drives word-of-mouth. And, of course, those same social networks can help a CMO or CEO find a job, too.

The more people a company can reach who already have strong social networks, the more likely the company can spread a message through those networks—if the company was already a trusted member of the community.

As Chris Brogan recently pointed out on Twitter, "The value of a network? Being able to reach out and ask questions. The price? Being there to help when you can." Networks also provide early warnings of problems, and give members a chance to respond and discuss solutions.

Social media provides the long-term opportunity for companies to be interesting, or amusing, or helpful, or serious about something their clients are serious about. That becomes an opportunity to listen and to change—and to become the topic of dinner-table and water-cooler conversation.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

B.L. Ochman is a social media marketing strategist for S&P 500 companies, including McGraw Hill, IBM, Cendant, and American Greetings. She publishes What's Next Blog and Ethics Crisis, where readers can confess their worst ethics transgressions and others can rate them on a scale of one to ten. She also blogs for MarketingProfs Daily Fix Blog.


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