What Happens When Social Media Goes Mainstream?

(B. Palmer) The moment technology goes mainstream is the moment you no longer notice it. In some ways, it’s the opposite of what happens in pop culture: when someone is famous, you notice them everywhere, but when technology becomes established, it’s so “everywhere” it sort of becomes invisible. Think about how you used to sit down and log on to the Internet: You made sure you had a free phone line, would dial in, then hear the beep beep beep as it connected. Now you only notice “the Internet” as a construct when something is messed up and you can’t connect. It’s so mainstream it has basically disappeared — it’s a basic utility that we take for granted.

Ditto for blogging. When it hit the Internet, it seemed like such a new idea — everyone could have a blog! What was new was not that everyone could have his own Web page — that was possible since day one — but that blog software made it dead easy to start publishing. Now, blogs are invisible. That is, nobody thinks about whether or not they’re on “a blog,” they just care about the content.

Social media is on a similar arc of ubiquity. When checking Facebook or Twitter is second nature — and users are hooked on the ease of sharing their status, location, etc. — what you end up noticing is content and interaction. Services are becoming interconnected to the point where you barely think about the fact that you’re logging on to a social network; it’s just another thing you do with your connected devices. This is great for Internet culture because, like blogging, once you get past the “new thing” stage, not only does the best content and experiences stand out, but also the bad and boring content is easy to ignore.

What does this mean for brands in the social media space? It means social media can’t be thought of as a destination anymore. It’s not media space, it’s behavior. It means, for example, that you shouldn’t throw money directly at Twitter. (Well, there are some celeb Tweeters that you can pay to plug your product to their fans, but that’s the least creative use of the medium.)

As social media becomes part of the ether, brands, to participate, need to adapt in a much more fundamental way. They need to make it a lifestyle change for their audiences, not a communications strategy. To play, brands have to be more connected, faster, more engaged, more engaging. To keep up, they’ll have to interconnect marketing and communications. Carefully sculpting a message and running it through legal and making sure every bit sticks to a social media strategy is going to mean a brand is days or months late.

Ideally, a brand would be in a situation where it could not only make some Internet-focused changes in its marketing strategy, but could make some operational changes as well. You’ll get good results from the social media realm if people really care about what you’re doing — and this does not always mean they like a brand’s ads. This means coordination between marketing, PR and product development, and thinking of Internet activity more like a product a brand is selling than how social media is selling a brand’s products. Organize business around it, make it a primary goal (“people should like us on the Internet”) instead of a thing to do after you’ve decided on your next product.

I don’t believe most brands are ready for this yet. Social media is another evolutionary step for the online social world; it mimics and enhances real-world social interactions. But it’s a pretty radical step for brands, most of which still haven’t gotten the hang of the Internet in general, much less the fast-moving world of social media.

And that’s OK. The best strategy might be to focus on what a brand is really about, whatever that is, and make sure you’re doing a great job making great products and services. It’s doing things you really mean and knowing that, on the Internet, if you do a good job, everyone is going to know about it, and fast.

Benjamin Palmer is co-founder and CEO of The Barbarian Group.

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