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Are we losing focus on what social's all about?

Katy Lindemann, Senior Strategist at Naked Communications, asks whether amidst all the hype about social media, we’re losing focus about what social’s all about…


Katy Lindemann, Senior Strategist at Naked Communications, asks whether amidst all the hype about social media, we’re losing focus about what social’s all about…

There's a lot of buzz about social media. Agencies are proudly boasting about their credentials in social media. Clients are hiring heads of social media, and the trade press is full of the latest social media campaigns.

But I, along with the fine folks with whom I’ve been working on the IPA Social project, reckon it's time to confront the elephant in the room.

There's no such thing as social media.

It's a meaningless term.

It suggests the media - the places - are social. It makes it all about the 'where'.

It's not the media that are social ('where') - it's the ideas and the behaviour ('how').

Let’s not forget, after all, that social ideas - ideas that get people talking, which get shared and passed on - aren't exactly new. And social behaviour - engaging in conversation, sharing thoughts, ideas, opinions, rants and raves, is definitely nothing new. It's at the very heart of what it means to be part of society. The clue's in the name.

In fact people have been having conversations about brands between themselves for years, unprompted and unheard by brand owners. Every interaction that people have with your brand leaves an impression. If it's a good one, people might talk about it. If it's a rubbish one, they're far more likely to talk about it.

What’s changed is that people are empowered to be social in more diverse ways than ever before, more visibly than ever before. So that talk is much more easily shared, more openly, and can spread more rapidly.

If a brand is ultimately defined by what people say about it, and not what it says about itself, then these conversations play an absolutely fundamental role in brand-building.

We understand that branding isn’t just a marketing function – product, customer service and corporate reputation, amongst others, all have an equally important role in shaping brand perceptions. Conversations will take place about any aspect of a brand experience - so why do we insist on trying to hive off social as a silo and a specific marketing silo at that?

As soon as we think about social media, the tendency is to focus on the ‘media’ – and to start talking about it as another channel or line on a marketing plan, instead of the really important bits – the ideas and the behaviour.

And thinking about social as a marketing silo is problematic – because as soon as we frame it within the marketing context, we start to think about social in marketing terms – pushing out a message. Which is all well and good. There’s nothing wrong with thinking about how we can best harness the power of social to communicate a message. But thinking about this in isolation isn’t very helpful – just as it’s equally unhelpful to think about branding as being about pushing marketing messages out, without thinking about the many facets of brand behaviour.

We’re all in the business of creating and activating ideas that will get people talking and sharing, and to do this we have to consider every brand touchpoint - and how we can use these opportunities to connect people and brands in the most meaningful way. Thinking about social, understanding the conversations that take place, and how we can understand and influence them, is a vital part of this.

Every strategist and brand owner needs to understand social, and what role it should play in building their brand. A social strategy should be an integral part of a brand and comms strategy, and should sit across every discipline within an organisation – it can’t just be the responsibility of the social media manager. That’s not to say there isn’t a role for social specialists. Implementing a social strategy requires a robust understanding of how to behave in the social space, and experience in these craft skills counts for a lot. Specialist practitioners implement media planning and buying, advertising creation, packaging design, PR, POS, call centre operations, and pretty much every aspect of implementing a brand strategy you can think of. Social’s no different – specialist implementation is both valuable and necessary.

So let’s stop getting hung up on social media (the ‘where’), and start thinking about social ideas and behaviours – and the more interesting and relevant questions about ‘what’, ‘why’ and ‘how’.

The IPA Social project is trying to help to define some of the guiding principles for social communication and behaviour, in an attempt to start a conversation around these questions. As a starting point, we’ve defined ten principles that we think are important in the social world, and we want people across the industry to join the debate. Our aim with this project is to move the debate beyond simply the theoretical, and into the practical: what roles can social play for different brands; how do you define success; examples of approaches that have worked (and those which haven’t).

We don’t have the answers – yet. But we believe passionately in the importance of truly understanding social as an integral part of branding. So please get involved, we’d love your point of view.

To have your say or to find out more about the IPA Social project, please visit the IPA Social pages.

Last updated 27/10/2009

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