Sunday, August 15, 2010

How Social Media on the Internet Works

This is about why social media works and to a certain extent how. I have noticed that a lot of the discussion on social media is focused on technologies and popular applications. That is all fine and well, but it ignores the basic truth as to why social media works. The real reason social media works is that it fulfills a basic human need. We are social animals and we require socialization and social interaction to flourish. In order to get the maximum benefit from the use of social media one needs to recognize this.

The internet has been social from its start. Yes, the core idea behind its architecture was the dissemination of information, but this often ended up occurring between individuals who were identified as such. The early bulletin boards and forums with their posts and commentary relied on a social interaction to keep the discussion alive. There were hierarchies in place from the start, beginning with the moderators. Despite the theories involved there was an emotional component. I have witnessed enough flame wars on forums to know that is the truth.

Fast forward to today and the explosion we have seen in internet connection and participation in the past three to five years. Much of this has been fueled by the social media realm. People are coming to active participation in the internet in droves. First they come for the social connections. They have come to connect and maintain contact with distant friends and families, find dates, follow social trends, make business connections - all social functions. Where once they browsed a couple of sites and emailed friends they now connect on social media sites and share personal news and views and photos and videos. They participate in polls, games and contests. And of course, a popularity factor comes in to play. Or should I say, the perceived popularity factor and all the competition that goes with it. Competition is another human trait manifest here, along with pride in prestige.

Along the way they are exposed to information, either that shared by peers or made available through links, advertising and articles. I believe most folks avail themselves of this information and find it useful. And don't kid yourself, advertising is all about information. You want to inform buyers of your products and services so that they can consider becoming customers. Internet searches for comparison shopping is quickly becoming the de facto first step in a buying decision. And many of these seekers are not just concerned with price. They also want to find if there is a better or more appropriate product available. Reviews and comparisons of almost any product available are there for the viewing on the internet.

The wonderful thing about this for businesses on the internet is that it provides the most immediate mechanism for obtaining results on advertising (conversions)and measuring those results. This is true whether your desired conversion is a lead, a contact or a completed sale. Done properly the internet also has the best ROI of any vehicle available. This is due in part to the low cost entry point for participation and also to the efficacy of the medium. You just need to remember to factor in the time to craft a good campaign and manage it. The only comparably effective tool in recent history is the television sales ad with the 800 call in number and operators standing by. These are not cheap to set up but can be very profitable if you write a good pitch and have a lot of product to move.

Not to say that it is all about commerce. Many causes and community organizations use this to create awareness and to inspire and yes, facilitate action. Many educators and educational institutions have found wonderful ways to operate on the internet. Personally, a lot of my own ongoing self-education has been aided in a big way by the internet. People still come together in user groups and forums to share their interests and accomplishments. They teach each other and share opinion. A lot of the time this leads to them meeting and interacting in person. All much more cost effective than the old methods of mail, phone calls and printed newsletters. I have trouble these days finding people who remember these old ways of keeping organizations connected in any detail, or who have any idea of the amount of labor and effort that was involved, not to mention the cost. All in the past now for all but the biggest and most commercial organizations. Now you can get space on the web (often for free) and by following simple tried and true methods disseminate your ideas to hundreds perhaps even thousands of (hopefully) like-minded people. To me that is an amazing thing and an enormous trans-formative potential.

What does all this mean for businesses and organizations? It means that in order to use social media effectively on the web you need to consider the human social aspect first and foremost in the formulation of your strategy. We are lucky that today we don't have to invent or build a platform on the web to spread our messages. We can find a platform that fits our agenda and mold our strategy to work with that platform. It is not all automatic. It requires planning, work and thought. And your strategy should begin with your content. More about social media strategy in my next post.

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