Monthly Archives: May 2011

The Real Problem with the Social Media Bubble

Like thousands of other people, I read Peter Shankman’s “Why I Will Never, Ever Hire a Social Media Expert” rant and I was amused.  He makes some good points.  And, considering my own lack of respect for most social marketers, you might think I’d agree with him wholeheartedly.

But, surprise: I think he’s ultimately wrong.  (And not just because he insists that social media naturally = social marketing, which I’ve already explained is a fallacy.)

Trust me, I share his loathing for social media hacks.  I’m pretty sure there’s no “industry” in the world right now that’s filled with more bullshit artists than any “social” field is.

For me, my disagreement with his stance boils down to this passage:

Being an expert in social media is like being an expert at taking the bread out of the refrigerator. You might be the best bread-taker-outer in the world, but you know what? The goal is to make an amazing sandwich, and you can’t do that if all you’ve done in your life is taken the bread out of the fridge.

Social media is just another facet of marketing and customer service. Say it with me. Repeat it until you know it by heart. Bind it as a sign upon your hands and upon thy gates. Social media, by itself, will not help you.

I’m sure this quote had people from PR, marketing and sales high-fiving each other up and down LinkedIn’s frat row yesterday, because it validates their eternal belief that social marketing is “just” an extension of what they already do.  And, ultimately, it is.

But, by comparison, if you said something like…

I will never hire a urologist because it’s a complete waste of money.  Repeat after me: Urology is just another facet of total body health.  You might be the best urologist in the world, but the goal is to have total body health, and you can’t do that if all you’ve ever done is study urethras.

… you’d be laughed off whatever soapbox you were standing on.

Let’s be clear: social marketing isn’t urology, just like “increasing sales” isn’t “achieving total body health.”  But to dismiss any aspect of the big picture is, to me, an excuse to half-ass the whole job.

Here’s what I think is really happening.

Social Media Isn’t a Bubble; It’s a Boutique

Five or ten years ago, the elements that comprise social marketing — blogs, social networks, web video, etc. — were new and poorly understood by the very people best positioned to take advantage of them, as is often the case with new media and new technologies.  So, the role of mastering these new techniques fell to the amateurs.

Fast forward to now, and you see a saturation point of “experts” in the “social media” field, who are primarily wide-eyed desperadoes with no functional experience in sales, marketing, management or any other justifiable business practice.  But because the barrier to entry for social media practitioners is zero, this allows 99 people to claim to be “experts” simply because they all read the blog of the one person who actually is an expert in this admittedly narrow and specialized field.

For those 99 hacks, yes, “social media” is bubble.

But for that one person who actually knows what s/he’s doing, social marketing is a boutique service that can be offered to clients who will actually make use of it within the context of a comprehensive sales and marketing strategy.

The problem I already see with this assessment is that 100% of social media experts believe they’re the boutique, and it’s that kind of 99% flawed thinking that’s going to pop this rancid bubble sooner or later.  (And the sooner the better, because the 1% who do know what they’re doing would probably like to offer their services without feeling like used car salesmen.)

So while I think Shankman’s “kill ‘em all” rant is on the right track, it’s also a tossing-out-the-baby-with-the-bathwater solution.  The real problem is that 99% of the so-called gurus in the social marketing field have given the field, as a whole, a bad name.  It’s so bad, in fact, that those of us who are sick of it would almost rather never practice social marketing than have to do so as members of a guild so utterly depraved and worthless that we’re now ashamed to admit we belong to it.

I doubt urologists feel the same way.

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5 Values Social Media Should Borrow from Art School

As I mentioned yesterday, I don’t have a marketing background.  I went to art school.  (Although, given the bad rap EDMC — which bought and gutted everything I loved about The Art Institute of Pittsburgh over the years — has been getting regarding their own business practices, whether or not AIP still qualifies as an art school is debatable.)

Having an artistic background instead of a marketing background means I see social media (and social marketing) differently than some others might.  But it also means I need different things from my social media experiences in order to feel fulfilled by them.

Let me explain.

Why Social Media Could Use More Life Drawing Classes

The day I called AIP to ask about their programs, my Admissions rep sold me on their new (in 1997, anyway) education track of Computer Animation and Multimedia.  Since I grew up drawing, playing video games and reading comics, a track that aimed me at the gaming and 3-D film industry seemed ideal.

I went to AIP before they even offered Bachelor Degrees (which they implemented as I was graduating), so I pursued my Associate’s Degree over the course of two straight years with no semesters (or, in AIP parlance, “quarters”) off.  The combination of “hot new education track” and “not taking summers off” placed me in one of the most competitive groups of students in the school, all of whom were eager to graduate so we could explode onto the burgeoning computer animation scene.

My workflow for those two years included:

  • Attending 5 different classes once a week for 4 straight hours each
  • Spending all waking hours strapped to a sketchbook
  • Later, spending every minute from 9 AM to 10 PM in the computer labs
  • Holding down a part-time job for 20 hours a week
  • Volunteering as a Student Ambassador for incoming students
  • Editing the school’s quarterly news magazine, The Informer
  • Helping found the school’s student government
  • Regularly attaining honor roll status (mostly As and Bs)
  • Occasionally achieving perfect attendance

… and more.  (And that doesn’t count my epic failed relationships, my perpetual schmoozing in the school’s administrative offices, and some of the most surreal Friday nights I’ve ever had the pleasure of enjoying.)

Looking back on it, I’m not just amazed that I could juggle those many balls at once; I’m actually envious of the 1997-1999 version of me.

Why?

Because I was never bored, I was excited about the future, and I was forever surrounded by peers whose own work pushed me to get even better at my own.

And Then Reality Bit

These days, I often feel trapped in a social marketing field that’s driven purely by profit and a constant need for self-validation.

Whenever I get frustrated by the high bullshit content coming through my social media channels, I step back and try to remember what it was about art school that kept me so supercharged for two straight years, and what feels like it’s missing from my experience now.

I think these are the five elements that fueled me then, and which I’m having trouble replicating today.

1. An Endless Incoming Stream of Inspiration. This is obviously the biggest difference between “school” and “reality,” because school is structured to forever unveil new and interesting information.  That learning is directed.  After graduation, all learning becomes free range and optional, which means generating meaningful streams of inspiration which can then be converted into something actionable is now a challenge, rather than a given.

I don’t mean to say that Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, etc., aren’t bottomless sources of new information; they are.  That’s part of the problem.  The other problem is that so much of the incoming information is either redundant, shallow or useless that actually finding something worth taking action on and then being able to do so can be a full-time (unpaid) job unto itself.

Or, in other words, “Who has time to be inspired when we’re optimizing our SEO?”

2. Coopetition. In art school, I was blessed to be surrounded by some of the most innovative, aggressive, self-motivated (and sometimes confounding) people I’ve ever met.  And I think something rare (though possibly common to art school) happened: we all pushed each other to succeed together.  When one of us was clearly producing great work, it made the rest of us work harder to get better, which created a perpetual cycle in which each of us helped the others improve while simultaneously trying to be the best in the room.

These days, I don’t get that sense of coopetition at all from social media, except in terms of competing for eyeballs.  Instead, I see a sycophantic human centipede of regurgitated “insights” that masquerade as meaningful interaction, all wrapped around a page view deathmatch.  At best, we’re each trying to find a new way to game the traffic aggregation system, which we can then share with our peers via a reasonably-priced eBook.  At worst, we’re two-facedly using one another as “resources” while obsessively comparing our blog traffic on Quantcast.

It’s spiritually crippling, really.

3. Physical Proximity. Say what you will about digital relationships, but speed of exchange cannot replace depth of meaning, and depth only happens in person and over time.  One of the benefits of seeing what my peers were creating in college was the literal act of witnessing the progression of their ideas from sketch to finished product over time.  This was possible because we were in the same rooms, using the same materials.

Online, we rarely get to see the work that goes into a finished product because A) to reveal one’s process is to give away what little procedural advantage you may have over the next guru, and B) few of us even have processes.  This is a field where the “sketches” (half-assed blog posts, reactionary tweets, webcasts from a laptop in your attic) are the finished product.  Which means, when we all do get together in person, there’s nothing to say because we’re either guarding our trade secrets or we have no secrets to guard.

(But yes, let’s exchange business cards.  Because it’s important that our networks collide on LinkedIn.)

4. Underdog Mentality. As an art student, my goal was to convince my instructors that my individual vision had been successfully executed so as to earn the A.  In that regard, everyone was an underdog or an outsider until their style became an accepted style.  And if it never got accepted?  Fuck you; I’ll do it myself, and the people who love it will follow me because I did.

The “fuck you” mentality that led people to create social media in the first place has been so fundamentally destroyed by our adherence to metrics and monetization that simply mentioning it already sounds archaic, so I’ll move on.

5. Individual Vision. Although it’s impossible to be completely original, there’s nothing worse in art school than being obviously derivative — especially of your own classmates.  This forced each of us to tinker, experiment, steal from one another, and accept or reject new techniques throughout our ongoing process of finding our own voices.  Seeing what one of us was creating made the rest of us step up our own game and push our own internal envelopes so our work would stand out, too.  Not everything we tried worked, but even our spectacular failures taught us valuable lessons while simultaneously helping us strengthen our own particular visions.

Social media, on the other hand, could be defined as the ultimate death of originality because, by nature, social media rewards conformity.  Here, “success” is gauged by which portion of a universally agreed-upon SEO-metric pie we can each obtain the largest slice of.  Instead of pushing one another to invent something new, we’re forever mining the same old channels, and painting someone else’s pearl of wisdom our own slightly different shade (so that it matches our personal brand).

And Now Back to Our Regularly Scheduled Pabulum

If it seems like I’m simply being a curmudgeon here, I’m not.  I understand how social media works.  I’m just not always satisfied with the experience.  And by “not always,” I mean “hardly ever.”

So…

How’s the conversion rate on your Facebook fan page?

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The Difference Between Social Media and Social Marketing

One of the reasons I’m usually skeptical of social marketing (even though I currently make a living at it) is because, in my heart, I’m not a marketer.  I’m a creator.  And there’s a big difference between the social media practitioners who entered this field from the content creation side first, as opposed to those who came to it from the business and marketing side.

That difference begins with semantics.

“Social media” is a catch-all phrase for all of the media that’s created and transmitted digitally.  Blogs, tweets, photos, videos, graphics, webcomics, music and anything else people make and share online is social media.

But social media is not automatically social marketing.

“Social marketing” is the use of that media, as well as the channels through which that media is distributed — blogs, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Flick, LinkedIn, MySpace, Tumblr, etc. — to attract attention for a brand / product / service, and (ideally) convert that attention to brand loyalty, which then leads (whether directly or indirectly) to increased sales.

Making a YouTube video is social media.

Using that YouTube video as part of a campaign intended to raise awareness of a cause or a product?  That’s social marketing.

People who use these terms interchangeably are doing a disservice to both fields, and to themselves.  (And I do it sometimes too, so I’m not perfect.)  This kind of semantic confusion leads to all kinds of problems, like:

  • A marginalization of any use of social media that doesn’t directly create profit.
  • Expecting marketers to know how to create content.
  • Expecting content creators to know how to become self-promoted moguls.
  • Using the same metrics to judge all kinds of content.
  • Ghettoizing an entire medium (or, really, multiple media formats).

In the Beginning…

The only reason I got into this field at all was because I was creating a web sitcom, which forced me to learn (in 2003) how to use the Internet to promote the content I was creating.  I attended the first PodCamp in Boston (September 2006), and then I co-founded PodCamp Pittsburgh two months later.  In those days, profits were a pipe dream for artists and geek experimenters who saw the future of shared media and wondered when the people with the checkbooks would finally notice us.

For us, the hook was in the media, not the marketing.

It wasn’t until 2007 that I actually started getting paid for doing more than just creating videos.  And that was because I’d been an early adopter of Twitter, where — due to my existing connections with other social media content creators like Chris Brogan, C.C. Chapman and Chris Penn, who’d leveraged their content creation skills into new roles as marketers — I’d been able to form a decent-sized following of fellow social media explorers.  Brands see numbers and they want to understand how they can replicate those numbers for themselves.

Voila: a job is born.

So, yes, I understand social marketing, and I know how to apply social marketing principles and tactics to help your business grow.  But I also understand social media, and I love the thrill that comes with creating media which others engage with and react to.  One of those activities is what currently pays my bills, but the other is what I’m actually excited about.

And that’s why I’m so skeptical (to put it mildly) of the people who forsake the entire creative side of social media in favor of drilling strictly for numbers and profits.  You’re certainly welcome (and perhaps even shrewd) to drag every pixel you touch into the realm of marketing.

But please don’t call what you’re doing “social media.”  It makes us all look bad.

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How to (Mis-)Use the Bre.ad Service for Maximum Profit

God bless Ben Parr, whose Mashable article about the new Bre.ad service (still in invite-only beta as I type this) positions it as an altruistic force for good.  And that may even be what the founders of Bre.ad believe too, or at least what they hope will happen.

But let’s be realistic: when has altruism ever kept a company in business?

See, Bre.ad is a link-shortening service that empowers you to force people to look at something else before you let them see what they thought they were clicking on.  Basically, it lets you to create an advertising paywall around the content you’re sharing.

Raise your hand if you can already see a dozen insidious ways to use this service.

Granted, there are a few limitations in place to curb the potential damage — sorry, I mean, “lead generation and conversion opportunities” — that Bre.ad-powered links could cause.  For example, viewers can opt to skip the “Toast” page (that’s what a Bre.ad “ad” is called), though that’s barely worth doing if you use a tabbed browser because by the time a tab fully loads a new page (and you remember to click over to it), the Toast may have already expired.  (That’s been my experience thus far.)

Nonetheless, once those kinks are worked out, the possible ways to exploit the service seem limitless, including…

1.  Political campaigns attaching donation-driven Toasts in front of all linked-to campaign news articles.

2. Social media gurus strapping ads for their services in front of every Mashable article they parrot.

3. Multi-Level Marketers (MLM) using linkbait to drive attention to their pyramid schemes.

4. Spyware and other malware scripts riding in front of massively popular news articles.

5. Porn.

And so forth.

Since a service like this is tailor-made for tech-obsessed early adopters, it’s a safe bet that most of Bre.ad’s target audience already have “personal brands” and won’t miss this opportunity to shill their services in that 5-second Toast span.  So, if nothing else, expect to see a lot more bullshit coming between you and the links you think you’re clicking on, which may cause you to reconsider which of your contacts you choose to get your information from.

Unless, of course, we’re all doing it.  In which case, it really becomes a matter of choosing the least objectionable oversharers to listen to.

This is why I roll my eyes when I read purposely provocative statements like “The age of social sharing has reached its end” — because if there’s one thing people aren’t ready to give up on, it’s the endless dream of suddenly being relevant to complete strangers.  But the advent of a potential credibility-abuser like Bre.ad could go a long way toward validating that otherwise asinine prediction.

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10 Ways to Look Like You’re a Social Media Expert

As many of you know, while I make my living in social media / social marketing, I also have a love-hate relationship with the field.  And since the barrier to entry is so low, literally anyone can join our hallowed ranks of gurus, ninjas, pirates and scam artists who pollute the conversation with meaningless bullshit and oversold pitches about their own awesomeness.

(This seems like a great time to remind you to sign up for my new newsletter, doesn’t it? But I digress…)

Since anyone in the world can go from zero to guru simply by joining Facebook, I thought I’d offer some heartfelt advice to help them look like they’re even smarter than they already are.  So, if you want to make a fortune by convincing companies to invest in your dubious knowledge, here are 10 easy ways to sound like you know what you’re talking about:

1. Quote Mashable a lot. It makes you look like you have your finger on the pulse of this brand new industry you’ve just discovered.

2. Write linkbait blog posts about linkbait blog posts. Admitting that you know what linkbait is, and then using it as a way to call attention to itself, makes you look like a genius. Or a hipster. Or meta. I forget. But something.

3. Write list-based posts about the futility of list-based posts. People love irony.

4. Make sure you have a photograph of yourself in a sport coat. Not a suit, not a tie or a dress, but not a t-shirt either.  A blazer.  Edgy social media pros know that blazers straddle the line between “company man” and “maverick.”

5. Follow all the social media thought leaders you can find. As you absorb their wisdom, you technically become them.

6. Retweet the people you most want to impress. The more often Chris Brogan sees you retweet him, the more likely he is to come to your house for a sleepover.

7. Retweet anyone who tweets about you.  Because your own followers will follow you even harder when they see that other people think you’re important enough to quote.

8. Learn the buzzwords and use them liberally. You may never have had a paying client, but if you say you can “help clients understand the proactive benefits of real-time metric tracking and deep-drill data analysis,” someone will probably think you’re worth hiring.

9. Link to your own blog posts constantly with your own blog posts. This reminds people that you’re actually a leading authority on everything.

10. Offer a webinar. It doesn’t matter what the subject is, but it should have the word “Guide” in it.  Bonus points if you don’t even know what a webinar is yet when you first start offering yours on LinkedIn.  (Because LinkedIn is the world’s #1 source for high-value webinars.)

There you go.  That’s all free advice.  Take it and run with it.

I look forward to attending your impending webinar, “A List-Based Guide to Linkbait.”  Please alert me to it on LinkedIn.

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