Half-Baked Social Media Cake

Do we understand enough about the present to predict the future? I get asked almost daily to reveal what I believe the future has in store for social media development. I find this topic strange because we barely understand what is happening now in social media. Undoubtedly those of us claiming any kind of expertise in social media are often seduced on keeping up appearances by giving our opinions and predictions at a frequency equal to a self-loading paintball gun. But it’s that very frequency where lack of understanding is proven; an overload of misleading information meant to serve singular purposes, companies and/or people is the problem not the solution.

As  a social media enthusiast (note: I did not say “expert”), I can honestly say I know more than most but still can’t keep up with what is going on if I am always talking about it (to paraphrase the old saying: “Those who can’t, lecture.”) So instead, I read a lot. I think a lot. I listen a lot more. And most importantly, I am social. I interact with all types of people, I hear their stories and work to help them socially, whether that means helping them be more comfortable in social interaction (online and off) or helping them communicate to their customers in a way that is engaging and beneficial both to their brand and to their bottom-line.

I personally don’t want to make predictions about social innovation when we are stuck in the midst of self-promotion. Instead I prefer to reminisce, reveal unspoken vulnerabilities and share my “hopes” for the future.

REMINISCING – There are three key happenings of the past that have been clear indicators as to why social media blew up.

1. Abundance in Marketplace = Abundance in Ad Space.

With the rise of the internet, businesses have seen more opportunity to market their offerings to larger audiences. As the space crowds, so does the push to use extremes tactics, forcing the customer to question, distrust, and ignore information all together, eventually developing “banner blindness.”

As marketing models began failing, savvy marketers had to look at the one model that has never failed: word of mouth marketing. And who spreads word of mouth marketing? The consumer. So the inevitable question was asked: “How can we use the internet to harness word of mouth marketing, and how can we get the consumer talking?”

2. Reality Television – You too can have your 15 Minutes of Fame.

While marketing leaders are thinking about how word of mouth marketing and social media can deliver on their business goals; pop-culture generations are thinking of how it can gain them popularity. Research from the University of Buffalo and the University of Hawaii concludes young people who watch reality TV are more likely to accept a large number of unknown friends than their peers who do not watch shows like American Idol and Survivor.

The researchers deemed the younger generations – with the “quantity approach to friending” – are responsible for the early adoption of online social networking and for promoting use to later generations. The quantity approach however, decreases the effectiveness of word of mouth marketing – how do you know whom to trust for information when everyone is talking at frequencies that cause many internet users to tune out all together?

3. The Financial Crisis / The Ultimate Tipping Point.

Whether you were let down, surprised or could foresee the collapse coming, the result was a massive cry for accountability and transparency. These themes inspired social media usage as people understood they could get direct information from people within companies and government and from people outside that had information they were willing to share and were not confined to keep private for any reason.

Now here is the catch: while I summarized the above points in regards to history, they are not really historical points. I personally believe each one of them is still happening now and is relevant to how the future social media landscape will shape up.


Have we really asked the right questions to reveal what is actually going on? Here are some assumptions worth exploring:

Social Media Assumption #1 – Everyone using social media knows how to use it to their advantage. Really? Well, only half of Facebook’s 350 million people bother to log on daily. And a recent study done by Barracuda Labs said only 21% of Twitter’s 19 million users qualify as a “True Twitter Users” given the following (not-to-demanding) parameters:

1) User has at least 10 followers

2) User follows at least 10 people

3) User has tweeted at least 10 times

Clearly, the majority of people using social media are not even sure why they are doing it, how it can be helpful to them and/or why they should take steps to learn more about it. How can we expect social media users to perform and act as we want them to in connection to our promotions? In my personal relationships I’ve learned that “unspoken expectations” are usually what kills the relationship. Isn’t the same true here? People are lead to social networks by infomercial-styled promotions that promise “proven methods” and value for everyone without consideration of the individual’s social and internet skills. Everybody has a different rule book they follow, however we have not done so well matching the right rule book up with the right person.

Assumption #2 – Social Tools help people become more social. There are two types of people that are most likely to embrace social media tools; those that are already very social and those that are technologically curious. When they are both, then it’s no wonder why people at SXSW were talking about Geolocation “being the next big thing in social media.” But what if someone lacks social skills and they are uncomfortable in a social setting? Geolocation tools do nothing for you if you only have a few friends and find it difficult to make new ones. Most people stay in the small groups they know. If we want more people to embrace and use social media we need to help them understand how social interaction benefits them personally. We also need to help them be more comfortable socially. A recent study at the University of Michigan pointed to a link between physical activity and social skills. The study suggested physical activity through team sports and exercise classes helps develop leadership and empathy toward others – two crucial skills needed in successful social navigation. As we all seemingly convert to technical means for communication (email, text, Skype, online social networking) we can’t forget that true social development happens via live activities. In short, if we are comfortable in real life social settings we understand and do better in online social networks.

Social Media Assumption #3 – Online relationship work differently and/or interfere with relationships offline. There are no shortcuts to relationship building. As soon as someone develops a formula for trust, someone else breaks it by using it for manipulation. Whether relationships are created for business or personal reasons we can measure their effectiveness yet we can’t sell or force a relationship where there is no curiosity in the first place. I am purposely speaking in broad terms here. Life online can’t exist in a bubble. It still creates a real connection to people, places, businesses and brands. Spending too much time in social networks is an effect of something else, not a root of a problem. As such, businesses who outsource conversations they should be having personally with their clients will be perceived as disingenuous.

FUTURE HOPE FOR SOCIAL MEDIA – I interject a lot of hope into what I see in the future because I don’t want the space to implode on itself. I want people to get it. I want people to use it strategically and benevolently to achieve goals that best serve them. I want businesses to use it ethically to find their best customers and offer them what they need. To that end I see social innovators of the future focusing on one of the three areas:

1. Filtering – Clay Shirky, author of “Here Comes Everybody,” said it best when he stated: “It is not an issue of information overload, it is problem of filter failure.” The internet has a lot of information in it and when we use social media to share it, it can get rather noisy. Everyone has a different tolerance for privacy and for “small share” (code for small talk in social networks). The more we live and learn in social media the more we are going to need to be able to set our own privacy and filter controls. Whether you believe in Dunbar’s study that we can only manager 150 meaningful relationships at one time, the 80/20 rule proves over and over again, success rates are based on quality not on quantity.

2. Mutual Thinking – The most successful social media campaigns and social innovations happen because of careful consideration to mutual energy. Groupon.com gets this so well. They are harnessing group buying – and group “desire” – to offer incredible deals to the consumer while creating quick sales for business. The site is easy to use and understand and they pay $10 for each first time Groupon user someone refers. Everybody wins for sharing information. If theirs is an example of mutual thinking, here is one that is not: Retailers like Crate and Barrel continuing to think like retailers. Last month I received a Crate and Barrel catalog in a custom four-color envelope, enclosed with the catalog was a sheet of 10%-off coupons. I couldn’t help but wonder how much money Crate and Barrel  could save by not printing and mailing the catalog, and how they could then use the social media space to announce what they did and how they were going to pass the saving onto the consumer by lowering their prices for the duration of the print freeze. Would people be eager to shop Crate and Barrel if they announced a price drop in consideration to their customers? Would those customers be thrilled to talk about this in Social Media? And would Crate and Barrel ultimately see a profit gain because of it? I think so however they are not thinking about what is best for their customers and allowing companies like catalogchoice.org to think innovative on their behalf.

3. Positive Psychology/Social Media Interaction –If social media tools allow us to connect with anyone and everyone then why not use these tools to connect in the most optimal way? I hear complaints about social media usage all the time. The number one complaint is always about sharing and/or pushing useless information. That complaint is easily solved in so many ways, so why are still talking about it? There are so many positive attributes to social networking; so many things we can do with the tools to positively impact our health, happiness and success. (causecast.org, socialvibe.com and creativecitizen.com come to mind)  I am pretty sure the computer hackers who were the first innovators of social media were not thinking about the positive psychology attributes when they started out.  I would like to see the next innovators be a collaboration of technical, psychology and sociology experts who equally care about social responsibility and wellbeing.

“Behavior is just motivation filtered through opportunity,” said Clay Shirky at SXSW. If we can create mutually beneficial opportunities using social media, behavior will shift for the better. This is the future that I see and look forward to participating in.