Social Media and the Scheme Meme

by Chris Kenton on January 18, 2007

I’m ramping up for my gig as a guest blogger for Unica next month, and I’ve settled on the topic "The Power of Social Media". I’m immersing myself in various discussions on the Web, and there are two memes that immediately emerge when you dig into it. The first is that Social Media is the new panacea for marketing, resetting the balance of power between businesses and consumers, and forcing marketers to be more transparent and accountable. The second is that Social Media is just the new Smoke and Mirrors marketing game, that nothing has really changed but the buzz words.

I’ll be digging into these ideas a lot over the next month, but I just wanted to explore the emptiness of this dichotomy. There is no question that we have new communications tools and technologies, and that these tools put more power in the hands of consumers to share information that signficantly impacts brand image and purchasing decisions. From that standpoint, we are in the midst of a major transformation, and no company that wants to remain competitive can ignore this fact. But how companies deploy these tools to attract, influence and even manipulate prospects and customers is a different story, and snake oil strategies as old as trade itself will continue to evolve as well. Just because new tools make it possible for consumers to see increasingly behind the curtain, does not mean that the only plausible strategies for success will be tactics of transparency and integrity. Would that it would be so.

Already, we have some shining examples of how a company can embrace the function of Social Media, while completely negating the form. Edelman, one of the world’s largest and most influential public relations agencies has fully and conspicuously embraced the Social Media concept, remaking the image of the company as an enlightened practitioner. And yet, in just over a year, they have repeatedly demonstrated their reliance on their time-tested stock of manipulative communications strategies. The most famous was last fall’s fake blog "Wal-Marting Across America", a promotional scheme engineered by Edelman, sponsored by "Working Families for Wal-Mart", which is just another old-school PR trick, the supposedly independent organization fronting for the client.

So while Social Media holds tremendous promise for empowering consumers, I wouldn’t swallow the hype that businesses will "lose control" of their marketing. Sure, there’s a lot of disruption as the rules change, but the fundamental game hasn’t changed. The real dichotomy is the difference between those businesses that see customers as a resource to be mercilously mined, and those that see themselves as part of a market community. That dichotomy has always existed, and the new technology doesn’t change it. It just provides new tools and new challenges for both kinds of businesses to pursue their objectives.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Carol January 18, 2007 at 3:07 pm

Chris,

We are looking forward to your blog. The practices of co-opting “consumer content” and simulating true social media seems to be growing. If marketers are not transparent about when they are doing this (funding social media), I think it has the potential to harm the entire concept

I’ll be interested to see what others have to say about this.

Carol

Victor Cook, Jr., New Orleans, Louisiana January 19, 2007 at 10:44 am

Chris,

Wikipedia’s first post on “Social Media” contains this statement:

Tina Sharkey (co-founder of iVillage, former head of AIM and Social Media at AOL, and now head of BabyCenter.com) first came up with the term “social media” as a form of community-driven Internet content in 1997 and registered the domain “socialmedia.com” shortly thereafter. Whether or not this is precisely correct, it offers a time line on the use of the term.

So, it comes as a surprise to me, ten years on, that I had not heard the term used before I read about it on your blog. And I’m a marketing professor that’s supposted to know about such things!

Now that I’ve confessed my ignorance, maybe you can help me with a definitiion of “social media.” Is it any media vehicle that:

(a) has no acquisition cost and
(b) has a zero transaction cost?

Or, is it more (or less) than this?

Chris Kenton January 20, 2007 at 10:36 am

Carol–

There are a lot of challenging issues as social media grows. Not to continue jumping on Edelman, but they’re in the midst of another controversy for sending $2000 computers loaded with the new MS Vista and Office software to influential bloggers. Reputable media companies have ethics provisions for such situations, along with high expectations for full disclosure, but the blogging community is comprised of many independent writers who may or may not see a problem with accepting such gifts or disclosing them. If these are the peers we look to for more insight and advice on purchasing decisions, what are our expectations for their conduct, and how do we view Public Relations companies that try to influence them through the kinds of lobbying efforts congress is now legislating against for our government?

It’s a brave new world.

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