Social media's future isn't about content; it's about relationships

Peter Friedman post by: Peter Friedman

Editor’s note: This post from Peter comes as a response to Geoff Livingston’s piece, “The End of the Social Media Adoption Road.

Geoff has a well-thought-out article, but I challenge its fundamental conclusions:

1) “We’re rapidly approaching the end of the technology adoption curve for social media.”

2) “By year end 2011, social media will not be special, new or unique anymore. In my opinion, online will be just another information source.”

But I do agree with a third point: Increasingly,  “it will come down to who can work with communities in the best fashion. ”

The article’s premise rests on some traditional media thinking, or at least is missing the unique dynamic of social media. Social media is a multi-relationship dynamic that fundamentally alters lifestyle and work style in all age groups and demographics. Whereas all previous media forms, even digital (non-social) were not driven by relationships, but rather by the content itself and how individuals would pay attention to it. I raise this because we see brands and agencies repeatedly making the mistake of thinking about social media as a content source. They build interactive sites or Facebook Pages that do little to support the social dynamic and then wonder why they don’t get sustainable engagement results.

It’s not that social media can’t be used effectively as a content channel, but it’s not primarily about content and can’t be understood through a content lens. It’s about dialogue and relationships — a fundamental human and business need that since World War II has been suppressed by the rise of mass marketing, globalization, and technology — each functioning to make people feel steadily more isolated from each other. Media consumption has been a solitary experience. When the history of business is written, it will be about personal and social venues — be they medieval marketplaces, general stores or social media. The second half of the 20th century, with its one-way content dynamic, will be recorded as an aberrant period.

How does this effect the conclusions of the article? The adoption rate and penetration ceiling of social media will be driven differently than prior media forms. Instead of content and format, it will be driven by the capacity to let people dialogue, to have, deepen and enhance their relationships — and for brands to do the same.

1) Network effects combined with relationship dynamics overcome traditional media penetration ceilings.

The more people adopt social media now, the larger the base of potential relationships, such that even more people will adopt going forward. The driver is not the traditional media creation of content, but the participation of other people, exponentially increasing the relationship value and pulling more people in. In prior media forms, the potential market interest was limited by (among other things) the number of people that could be interested in the specific content and format.

In social media, the limit is the number of people interested in talking with others, in having relationships — whether relationships they have or the ones they might yet have. This essentially means the limit is the number of people on the planet who have or can get access to the social venues. This is all-encompassing compared prior media forms. Further, the value of social media cuts across age demographics more than any form we’ve seen before; as an example, think grandparents connecting with grandchildren. Finally, market penetration of social media for the middle and older age demographics increases over time. People will take this fundamental lifestyle change with them as they grow older. In particular those under 29 will never let go even, as they age.

Applying this to the Pew Research Center chart referenced in Geoff’s post (also shown above), it is reasonable to believe that all age groups will eventually reach or exceed the penetration rate of the 18-29 group. This means the 30-49, 50-64 and 65+ groups respectively have at least additional increases of 29%, 45%, and 70% in penetration yet to come.

2) Social media is a party

Social media is not an information source for brands to manage, but rather an ever-changing set of social parties to create and/or participate in.

Geoff’s post states that the slow-down of growth means social media will no longer be unique, but “just another information source” to manage. With high growth or not, I suggest the relationship dynamic is so different from prior media forms that it remains unique. Consumers will constantly be re-forming their own networked relationships, moving about different social media venues in real time, in seemingly random fashion. (At LiveWorld we call this “social flow.”) Brands need to transform their marketing from top to bottom to be driven by relationship engagement rather than content management. (At LiveWorld we call this, “Social Brand Flow.”) And it continues to make social media unique.

3) It’s about the relationships

But I do agree with Geoff that this is less and less about technology and more about about working with communities in the best fashion. However, that’s not new. In our 27 years of working with global brands on social media (yes,  27… we were in it early!), we have always believed that social media is about the relationships, not the technology. In fact too much emphasis on technology, like too much emphasis on content or even high production values has interfered with the fundamental dialogue-relationship dynamics.

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