Social Media Change the Rules: Say Farewell to Top-Down and Hello to Consumer-Led Communication

Article excerpt

While most companies are still getting the hang of online media, along comes something called social media to muddy the waters. The term social media is a catchall phrase for everything that the old media is not, and it is where consumer-generated content rules. The audience, whether or not it is made up of "consumers," takes charge of the content and defines the rules of engagement. It may sound a lot like allowing the inmates to run the asylum, but it also offers phenomenal opportunities to marketers--with a few caveats.

In August 2006, a crude, albeit funny, animated video of former U.S. Vice President Al Gore started getting a lot of play on YouTube, the social media portal and clearinghouse for amateur and professional video dips. It was a short caricature of Gore lecturing penguins about global warming. Indeed, such fare is commonplace on YouTube, where some 70 million videos are watched every day. But this two-minute clip was of a different pedigree. It poked fun at Gore's documentary film An Inconvenient Truth, and was supposedly the work of a 29-year-old from California. It soon came to light that it was the work of a public relations agency, one of whose clients happened to be ExxonMobil--the kind of company that the movie blamed for global warming. The PR agency got a public shaming, illustrating that this new consumer medium is not for the faint of heart.

Then there is podcasting, another social medium that has truly matured within the past six months. It has shed its early model (ranting in an MP3 format) to become a business communication strategy that's conversational, collaborative and highly credible--the 3C format, if you will. It involves opinion makers, journalists, seasoned practitioners and, of course, audiences that interact with one another on a regular basis. That's right--the audience is very much a part of this new media conversation.

In podcasting, the word conversation isn't used lightly. Unlike blogs, where authors and readers "converse" via comments and TrackBacks (a protocol for communicating between blogs), podcasting gives the audience a true voice. Shel Holtz, ABC, and Neville Hobson, ABC, co-host a twice-weekly conversational PR podcast called "For Immediate Release: The Hobson and Holtz Report" (www.forimmediaterelease.biz) that is so popular that it pulls in listeners from several continents, through a slew of technologies. Holtz and Hobson have a voice line in Europe and the U.S. for listeners to leave comments and suggestions, and another number for voice mail via Skype, the free PC-to-PC phone service. The hosts also encourage listeners to use an audio comment service that allows someone to send them voice mail directly from the podcast web site or record and e-mail a 5-megabyte audio file from his or her PC. The podcast is recorded by Hobson in the U.K. and Holtz in the U.S.--a feat in itself. It engages listeners in a way that National Public Radio or the BBC has still not come close to.

To say that the audience has a tremendous influence on the content is almost an understatement. On another popular marketing podcast called Jaffe Juice (www.jaffejuice.com) hosted by Joseph Jaffe, the audience tells him exactly what they like and dislike about his show. A former ad agency person who scorns the 30-second TV spot for being disrespectful of its audience, Jaffe is often known to tell his guests that they aren't as important as his listeners. He takes his show on the road when he travels, podcasting from anywhere, whether it's a shopping mall food court or a plane at 30,000 feet.

Communities communicate!

While all this social media space is being carved out by individuals, corporations have been taking notes. You can tell social networks are going to be the next frontier of marketing by a few bits of recent news. …