There seems to be a school of thought among marketers and businesses that social media is just about the tools like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, other social networks and that's it. It's like saying nail, hammer, wood, and ruler.

If we look at the definition of social media from Wikipedia:

"Social media are primarily Internet- and mobile-based tools for sharing and discussing information among human beings. The term most often refers to activities that integrate technology, telecommunications and social interaction, and the construction of words, pictures, videos and audio. This interaction, and the manner in which information is presented, depends on the varied perspectives and "building" of shared meaning among communities, as people share their stories and experiences..."

See that word that's highlighted, discussing? That's an important word in the definition of social media because it gives social media a new context. It's one thing to just share information in a one-way traditional marketing sense and something quite different to do it via social media. Why? Because with social media there's an inherent notion that what is shared will be, well, potentially discussed. And usually discussions take more than one person to happen.

Now, here's the catch...the definition also goes on to say "the manner in which information is presented, depends on the varied perspectives and "building" of shared meaning among communities." So what the does that mean?

If we go back to the tools analogy, it could mean that co-workers on a job site are going to make sure that the nail, hammer, wood and ruler are used in a way that works best for everyone. Let's call it tool consensus. So, the manner in which the tool is used, it could be used in silence or while discussing the project going on at the job site and that ultimately depends upon the tool consensus.

There is a point to the analogy, really. Marketers and businesses need to understand not only the tools, but how the communities want the tools to be used. Some communities might appreciate the silence and some might really want to discuss the project. And no one community will be like any other. In fact, a community could be mixed in consensus. Perhaps it's not just about the tools after all...and wouldn't it be best to offer a little of both until consensus is reached?

January 20, 2009

Beth Harte is a marketing, communications & social media consultant, speaker and professor that started her career when companies barely had e-mail—let alone websites. Experiencing Web 1.0 first hand, she also enjoyed the mad dash towards implementing integrated marketing communications and SEO/SEM. Beth is deeply engaged with marketing, PR & social media and helps companies do the same. Being a firm believer in ‘walking the walk to talk the talk,’ Beth blogs at The Harte of Marketing where she shares tips, opinions & observations that she’s experienced firsthand or picked up from some of the best marketers, communicators and social media leaders in the world.


The tools are a way to help facilitate conversation. The tools will change but the proper methods and relationships that you can create will last through. Many people don't understand that. The ones who do get it and will survive once these set of tools are replaced.

You're right:-)

There are many exciting tools to use and even more conversations to join. However, what are the ones supporting your brand and your business?

Social media requires commitment. Companies should make sure they have the necessary resources (time, plan, money and people) before entering social media. It is not a dialogue if a company replies to comments once a month.



You have to have the right tools, and you have to have a consensus on how those tools are to be used, but you can't just leave it at that.

The tools you use also need to be simple in that anybody could pick them up and quickly learn how to use them. But, the tools can't be too simple or else some of the users will ignore them as they file them away under "boring", "stupid", or "waste of time".

You want that hammer so that anybody can pick it up and start working right away, but you also need that Bostitch F33PT nail gun for your advanced users. You obviously don't want to start the new guy out on the nail gun (you don't want anyone getting shot in the foot, do you?), but a knowledgeable user can really get a lot done in a short amount of time when it's available.

But just having the tools doesn't really get you very far in any project if you don't have the plans. So the next thing you need is a plan, or a goal. Why are we using this thing, and why should I devote any of my time into making it work. If nobody know what they are working towards, then the tools are either going to be misused, or left lying on the floor to rust.

You don't want people using a sledge hammer to drive nails into your walls, and you don't want people using that F33PT nail gun to glue your tiles onto the wall either.

Know what tools you have available, know how to use them, and know why they are being used, and to what purpose.

I think you are right to focus on discussion. Social Media is more about the people and the things they communicate. I wrote about this recently in Social Media is People (but more enriching than Soylent Green*). The tools faciliate the conversation but it is up to us to pick the right tool for the job. Sometimes it's Twitter, sometimes Facebook, etc.

I view specific social domains - Hi5, CyWorld, Twitter, LinkedIn, Xiaonei, Facebook, Orkut, *gulp* MySpace... and less specifically, Ning sites, IM aggregators, et al. - as environments. Geographical destinations with varying practical, cultural and demographic inclinations and usages. Macro-cultures replete with diverse market proclivities and subcultures.

Within those subcultures, the way I conduct myself is akin to a dialect or preference. If there is a tool or instrument analogy, for me, it's the words and media I employ within a subculture.

The tools I select reveal me as a finished carpenter, "Laugh aloud," or a rough framer, "lol." The way I type, the links I post, the words I use, the language I speak, the topics (or lack of topics) I speak about, the videos I point to, the pictures and links I post, who I speak to, who responds - all combine to classify and define me within a given subculture.

If marketers and businesses fail to invest time in understanding the accepted tools and nuances of a specific culture they hope to reach they won't be welcome on the 'job site.'

As it goes with traditional marketing, "Know thy audience." But as you pointed out, Beth, unlike traditional sharing, discussion implies that you 'know' your audience. That you live and work among them on the job site in a culturally appropriate manner, using culturally accepted tools.

And that will certainly vary, domain to domain, culture to culture.

I spent a summer working on a job site, lugging shingles up a ladder in the mid-day summer heat, so forgive me for not joining in with the ongoing construction analogy... I'm still scarred. ;-)

What I've found is that tools are often the entry point into discussions about social media and community. Clients are drawn to the opportunity to leverage social media because they're heard about the effectiveness of someones blog or have used wikipedia and immediately think a wiki is going to solve a problem they face. With that in mind, I'm willing to let tools take center stage earlier in discussions because it helps clients see what can be and gets them excited about the prospects.

But as you suggest it's not about the tools as much as it's about what you do with them... and that's where it gets interesting. Social tools don't always behave the way you expect them to. You may put together a collections of social tools (community) with a specific goal in mind, but the people who start to use them decide they're more useful if used in a different way. I've had many clients build community to serve specific goals (to build brand for example), but the members of that community quickly decided that they'd prefer to use it for something else (customer support is a common outcome).

The same thing is currently happening on Twitter (which is interestingly both a social tool AND community all at once). There's an influx of brands on Twitter seeking to engage and support their customers (and future customers) and there's vigorous debate as to whether this is what the community wants to happen with Twitter.

That's what "shared meaning" means to me. The tool builder or community organizer can present an opportunity for people to use their tool/community, but ultimately it's up to the members to determine what it means to them. And this meaning can swing wildly over the course of time, depending on who's using it and what's important to them.

Thanks for getting me thinking about this.

Jim | @jstorerj

You can have all of the tools that Home Depot stocks, if you do not know how to use them - or work with someone who can read you the directions, then they will be all for not.

Thanks everyone for the great comments and insights (um, Jim, sorry to bring back memories!)

Jim, what you said about social tools not behaving the way we, as a brand, initially expect them too is totally compelling to me. Because in this case, it's people who control how the tools are used... and marketers aren't used to that and I think that's what they will struggle with... then the "tool" talks back and morphs. Yikes! What to do with something that cannot be controlled.

Ed, it's amazing how often marketers know their audience by demographic/psychographics alone, but never by actually engaging them. Thanks for keeping with my job site analogy... "[marketers] work among [customers] on the job site in a culturally appropriate manner, using culturally accepted tools. And that will certainly vary, domain to domain, culture to culture. BINGO!

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