RFPs may suck, as Tom Searcy’s new book proclaims, but Story Worldwide was recently asked in an RFP to write down Story’s “vision for the future of social media” and I thought it was a really good question. Where exactly is all this going? What does it mean? Here’s our take:
Story’s vision is that “social media” soon will be called just plain “media” and the world will accept that the power to publish or broadcast to large audiences has passed irrevocably from a select few to virtually everyone. It is common wisdom these days that marketers no longer own their brands; the audience does. It’s critical to understand that this is true because marketers are no longer the masters of communicating about their brands; social networks have given that power to everyone. This profoundly game-changing democratization of mass communications is going to accelerate. One day soon, social media will trump the power of traditional media, meaning that national newspapers, network TV and brand advertisers will become, in effect, just another voice in the crowd. On that day, brands without a credible presence on social networks will cease to be competitive.
This will be devastating for brands that don’t embrace the opportunity to publish on social networks. But for brands that do it right, there is a lot of great news in social media: the power of a good brand story will be multiplied many times over by the voices of the brand’s fans and advocates; the cost of media will plummet for most brands; the ability to understand consumers’ desires and needs will skyrocket because brands that listen can literally read people’s thoughts on these new channels; brands can respond instantly to consumer concerns and complaints, preserving relationships instead of losing a customer; and brands can grow much closer to their only source of success — the customer. All this has enormous potential to create huge efficiencies, lower marketing and research costs, improve products and services, increase speed to market and make more money.
All that’s required is the commitment and ability to create and share credible, valuable content that tells the brand story in engaging, compelling and endlessly various ways — stories that add value to people’s lives with information and entertainment.
That’s Story’s social media vision, in a nutshell.
Visions, of course, aren’t much use unless grounded in reality. Here are three statistical realities on which Story’s vision is based:
- “The Internet is Finally, Primarily a Content Platform.” This is the headline of a statistical chart in The Silicon Alley Insider detailing the fact that consuming content recently surpassed all other online activities, including email.
- “Feb. 2009: First month that social network (member communities) usage exceeds that of email.” An explanation of a chart from Nielsen Netview showing that people now spend more time social networking than using email to connect online.
- “Consumers Trust Real Friends and Virtual Strangers the Most.” The headline from a Nielsen survey of 25,000 people that found the “most trusted form of advertising” is recommendations from friends (90%), followed by recommendations from strangers (70%). The most trusted form of “advertiser-led advertising,” Nielsen says, is brand websites (also 70%).
Undergirding these statistics is the fact that all content is migrating to digital platforms. That’s ALL content in ALL forms: audio, video and text in the form of movies, music, newspapers, newsletters, magazines, books. Since social networking is people publishing content, social media is a major driver in the growing dominance of content consumption online. Clay Shirky, in his book Here Comes Everybody, called social networking “the mass amateurization of publishing.” He was right, but didn’t go far enough.
The roughly 50,000-year history of written communication, from cave art to Gutenberg to TV to the web, is a story about the (until now) very slow democratization of the power to publish and command an audience. Initially, only high priests, shamans and rulers held the power. Then it spread to organizations, public and private, with the wealth needed to publish content widely. Now, for the first time in human history, the story reaches its climax: The power to publish (or broadcast or convey or….pick a verb) to a global audience is now available to anyone with a computer or smartphone and an Internet connection. That does, in fact, change everything.
An unknown Halifax musician who’s mad at a brand can sing his angry story to a few million people on YouTube. A single blogger can force the mainstream media to cover a story they would otherwise have ignored. On the other hand, a brand marketer who has cultivated credibility with the brand’s audiences can respond instantly and turn a terrible story into a positive one for a brand. Just as important, while The New York Times may give a brand’s products a bad review, the brand itself now can command a bigger, more important (in terms of influence, relevance and sheer size) audience than The Times with greater credibility, so long as the brand shares the right content and manages its social media interactions smartly. These are just a few examples of the ways in which traditional power relationships in media have been disrupted permanently. While there is potential downside in being just another voice in the crowd, there’s upside as well. In a world where anyone can captivate a global audience virtually for free, a brand marketer can, too. On the right day with the right preparation and the right story, a brand can enjoy a more powerful voice than any media organization on earth.
In the daily torrent of content rushing through people’s lives, social networking is rapidly assuming the role of web editor, giving advice and counsel (based on links) about what’s worth seeing, hearing, reading and buying and what should be avoided, scorned, reviled and rejected.
Social networking in its infancy is already a channel that no brand can afford to ignore. All signs predict that the future of brands — in fact, the fortunes of all content and ideas — will be determined to a great extent by social media.