Social Media is a Behavioral Shift, Not a Broadcast Medium
One of the critical mis-steps people make in social media marketing, or really any marketing trend more widely, is to focus on medium over behavior. We get caught up debating the merits of this platform over the other, of this new app versus its competitor, and what often gets overlooked is the actual approach consumers are taking that's leading to those offerings in the first place. And that's the part that's important. Really, it doesn't matter if Periscope beats Meerkat or Facebook Live becomes the dominant live-streaming platform - the behavior, and the audience trend behind the growth of those apps, is what's crucial to understand.
Of course, we bloggers perpetuate this, writing posts comparing the pros and cons of each, and prognosticating about their future - but that's what we do, and it's an essential part as it builds wider understanding and awareness of the various offerings. But in that, we can sometimes get caught up in the immediate discussion and miss the wider scale shift that's happening in the background. For example, social media has transformed the way we communicate, an evolutionary shift that's not going to recede or disappear. The communications landscape is different, people have come to rely on these tools. There simply won't be a future where social media doesn't exist, whether you're using Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or something else entirely.
In this context, the details of the mediums themselves are far less important - what we do need to recognize is that things have changed, audience behaviors have been re-shaped. The way we interact has evolved, and is evolving further every day. And in that, it's important to also take into account what it means for marketing strategy, and how understanding those behavioral shifts is crucial for constructing marketing messages that will remain in-line with shifting audience expectations.
The recent Apple vs the FBI case (which has now been resolved) serves as a reminder of just how far consumer behavior has evolved - or at least, how much consumer sentiment has shifted in regards to online tracking and data privacy. At the core of this debate is Apple's insistence that it has a moral duty to its millions of customers to withhold their private data, which those customers have stored inside of their Apple devices via use. Smartphones these days track all kinds of data, starting with the basics of who you've spoken to and extending to websites you've visited, places you've been, notes you've made, etc. Given the rising use of smartphones, they're effectively becoming a non-stop spying glass, a capacity that could even extend to them recording what you're saying, with or without your knowledge.
Now, of course, there's more to it than that - Apple's not necessarily going to flip a switch and start recording everything you're saying in real-life conversation, but the building blocks for such a technology are there, and not just in terms of technical capacity, but also in terms of public acceptance. For example, internet users are already being tracked based on what they search for, what apps they use, what devices they access the web from, where they are. Would it be that much of a leap to imagine we might soon be tracked based on keywords we mention within everyday speech?
We can already do similar via social apps - on Twitter, for example, I can track each of my followers down to very street they live in via freely available apps.
Most people are aware of this by now, most users have some level of conscious understanding that everything they do online is being tracked, but for the most part, we really don't care. Why? Because smartphones are so much more convenient. Because everyone's on social media and we want to be too. Because who cares if your data is being tracked? It's not like they're using your personal identifiers to single you out and steal your identity. Of course, in some case that's exactly what is happening, but for the most part this approach is correct - big companies getting access to your personal interests and behaviors doesn't give them some magical way to force you to buy their products, it just means they can reach you with more targeted marketing messages. And is that such a bad thing?
Even a decade ago, if you'd said that brands would be able to track your personal information, down to your address, your movement patterns, your psychological leanings, there would have been mass panic - even now, when you break it down to that level it can be concerning. But over time were growing to accept this level of tracking, it's become a part of how we communicate and interact. What's more, for the next generation, this is how it's always been. They'll be used to supermarkets tracking their purchase history and sending them push notifications to remind them to buy cat food. They'll be used to the lights in their house switching off then their smartphone leaves the virtual geofence perimeter, signifying that they've left the building. They'll be used to this, because it's becoming increasingly normal for our behaviors and habits to be tracked, and that's only going to become more embedded as wearable devices also become more commonplace, tracking and uploading our inner workings 24/7.
Right now I can track mentions in Twitter, down to a specific region.
Soon, we'll be able to track the same, based on actual real world conversations - mentions that will be logged but not recorded, then anonmyized so as not to personally identify the speakers. Imagine how valuable that data would be for marketers? They'd be able to track responses to real-world ad placements, what people are saying about billboards and how that then influences purchase behavior around that site. What's more, they'd be able to track this data on a huge scale, providing increased understanding about what people are concerned about, where they're talking about it, what physical factors influence their discussions. The societal understandings of such insights will be significant, but the cost will inevitably be the loss of privacy.
But as more of our data is being tracked anyway, will people really care?
It's in this context that the mediums themselves pale in comparison to the wider trends. What we're learning, via social media and other evolving online platforms, is how to target audiences more specifically, how to use these new data trends to fuel our marketing efforts, how to locate and connect with like-minded people on a scale never before possible. In that sense, it's almost irrelevant to debate the viability of Twitter over Facebook or Google+ over LinkedIn - they're all different, no doubt, and they all have different methods and processes to follow to best reach their own specific audiences. But the process through which we're utilizing these tools is what's most important, that we're learning to adjust to new user behaviors and trends, and match those with our own efforts. In this sense, we're evolving our understanding with them - so while we can (and should) work to get a better understanding of how each platform operates and what different user groups like and expect, the learnings we're taking from such efforts are also valuable in a wider sense. If Twitter was to cease to exist tomorrow, the lessons you've gained from having access to Twitter would still be hugely applicable and hugely beneficial in other forms. If Facebook were switched off, none of the time you've spent developing your understanding of your audience or connecting with your community would be wasted - it'll have positioned you to make more informed choices about how you reach people, how to use data and what you need to listen for to grow your understanding moving forward.
Social media, as a communications medium, has given us a whole new way to connect with people, to learn about human nature and what makes people do the things they do. That's important, more so than most people realize, and it's worth taking a moment every now and then to step back and analyze what it is you now know and have access to because of social platforms. For those of you not utilizing social, you're missing out on a whole new way of thinking, of learning your audience behaviors and trialing and testing new ways to connect. And while you're debating the value of these platforms, whether they'll be a fad and whether Facebook will be overtaken the way MySpace was all those years back, those who are getting involved are learning.
To them, it won't matter if one of the current networks is defeated or usurped by some new upstart, because what they understand is their audience. "I'm working with Twitter this way because this is what works on that platform", "I'm doing it this way on Facebook because this is what my Facebook audience likes". And when the next platform comes along, you'll learn that, armed with the increased understanding of the shifts that have come before it and why they've occurred.
Because understanding social media is not about understanding the specific platforms, it's about understanding people. Social media is not a new broadcast medium, it's a behavioral shift. Getting a grasp of that distinction is crucial to maximizing your social efforts and making the most of the opportunities afforded to you because of these platforms. Social media is making us learn more about who people are, as opposed to simply what they do.
And that is truly valuable, regardless of which platform wins or loses.
Follow Andrew Hutchinson on Twitter