What if big marketers, instructed to cut their media budgets, started to seriously explore the idea that they might be able to get TV-scale reach for free by taking social media and word-of-mouth marketing more seriously? Social marketing advocates have been talking about this for years, and are talking still, from both sides of the media world: The Wall Street Journal and a typical blog.
I hear you: most marketers have been looking at this for years and have been mostly disappointed. Facebook apps, viral videos, Second Life presence, corporate blogs – most of these have suffered from some major debunking of late:
But what if this is typical hype-cycle behavior, and the real problem isn’t with blogs or apps, but with the half-hearted way marketers have tried to use them? And what if, stripped of their budgets, big marketers decided to really take seriously the idea of using tools like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube to cultivate audiences the way digital natives do, for free?
What if they learned how to communicate effectively with people in social networks, about topics they cared about, without the sales talk? What if they then applied real science to the understanding of message diffusion in social graphs and learned how to manage the flow and the risks? And what if it worked?
Yes, this would mean the death of media as we know it. But it won’t happen soon. Here’s why.
While the jury’s still out on how or even whether social media marketing can be effective for brands, cost savings is clearly the wrong place to start. Although it’s true that, at first, free access to consumers on social media sites looks like a huge windfall for marketers, making social tactics scalable, measurable, and effective quickly consumes these savings. And once marketers realize that the kinds of things that can be accomplished in social media on a low budget, compared with the risks involved, the prospect becomes much less appealing. Hence the reticence of companies like Procter & Gamble, despite general acknowledgement that social media is here to stay and its timeshare will only increase for the foreseeable future, which should keep any systemic collapse of the medium at bay.
This means two things: first, the transformation of big marketing organizations beyond the experimental stage to full-blown social media participation will be a slow and costly process, unlikely to take root in a recession. And second, media companies still have time to establish new roles and relevance as proxies for consumer engagement. As the hype cycle teaches us, the time to look seriously at a new approach is when most have abandoned it for dead.