Social media is the rage these days. As well it should. A new channel to access customers -- that's great stuff.
Clearly, it's having a big impact on marketing. Arguably, it has changed the face of marketing forever. Or has it? Yes ... and no.
Social Media has Changed our Environment
People who have a beef with a company can make their opinions public quite easily, and reach a large audience. One famous example of this was a video of a Comcast technician sleeping on a customer's couch that was put up on YouTube. The video has been viewed more than 1.5 million times.
Individual consumers can easily access a large audience with their views. This gives the consumer a lot more power in the relationship with the companies they buy from.
On the other side of the coin, companies can use social media to improve their interactions with customers. Using Comcast as an example again, Comcast's Frank Eliason has begun an active support channel on Twitter. This open channel allows consumers to air complaints, and get responses directly from Frank, or others in the customer service department.
Comcast is using this to provide another channel for dealing with customer complaints. Comcast scored a lot of points in the social media community for this initiative.
Bottom line: thanks to social media, the pressure is on companies to be more transparent and accessible.
Why Social Media is Basically PR
That's right. Social media is basically a PR/customer service function.
In the old days, you issued press releases, hoped a media person would pick them up, write a story, and then you would get your message out to consumers. The nature of the benefit you would receive from a press release wasn't well defined, but one of the key goals you had was to create some real buzz in the market about your product or service. You sent it out, followed up with some direct outreach to key media people, and then hoped for the best. Sure, there was more to it than this, but you were basically dealing with a broadcast channel.
Social media is quite similar in that respect. The social sites are channels for communicating with media people and customers. Yes, you can have direct interactions with individual customers, but overall you're looking to reach a mass of people and create buzz about your product or service. As with PR, you should also reach out to key influencers to get their endorsement of whatever you're trying to promote.
That doesn't mean you can't affect the outcome by being smart about what you do. You absolutely can. It's critical to put together a campaign that fits the medium you use, and will be well received by your audience. You need your idea to stand out and be distinctive, but you also need to do that with conventional PR.
These are all examples of broadcasting a message to an audience. Yes, you can interact with users, test ideas, tune what you are doing, but the scopee of the end benefit isn't well defined. Will it go viral and spread? Will a major influencer pick it up and write about it? You can use a number of tactics to help increase the likelihood of these things, but that was true in the pre-social media days too.
The medium has changed. It's easier to create viral events, and you can more easily interact one on one with some of your customers.
These are big changes, but the marketing goals and underlying structure of the activities to accomplish those goals haven't changed at all. Because of those similarities, I believe that in the end social media will in fact be handled by PR departments.