Social web looking backwards and forwards

I was asked about where I thought social media was going a number of times over recent months. So with that in mind I thought I would throw a distillation of the questions that I have been asked out there and solicit answers from the community. I have put my own responses in italics.

What do you think that the biggest challenges have been in social media up to now?

Agencies that don’t get the ‘new’ non-linear multi-channel nature of storytelling, in which storytelling has moved to a multi-way engagement process. Storytelling is becoming less and less of a linear process which you can complete the boxes and then roll-out. From TV dramas like CSI in which non-mainstream plot devices move a story rattling through time and space to digital communications which allow a narrative to be atomised, entered-and-left at any point and remixed by the audience.

Joseph Campbell’s mono-myth concept doesn’t cope with the digital world that well. In PR terms, storytelling has moved from the traditional Hansel & Gretel bread crumbs analogue exemplified by traditional PR thinking leading the journalist by the nose to a desired end-point; to a lego construction brick analogue where the audience can take the story elements and build their own model without your context. Provide them with the elements, be human, be nice, be useful and if possible remarkable. Provide kudos where it is due and be prepared for a kicking if you deserve it.

Agencies that cling to the old way of thinking, even as they maybe doing digital work: are setting themselves up for a fall. They are in denial of the changes happening around them. These changes won’t happen overnight, but they are happening; just as in the same way that the car replaced the horse and the airplane replaced the passenger liner. It is doing a disservice to their clients, themselves and their employees.

The second thing that I find frustrating is more of a tactical item, but shows a lack of thought around how people consume media in a personal way and respecting the audience’s attention. I remain unconvinced by many peoples fixation on digital video production, when they grossly under-estimate the power, popularity and utility of images.

Thinking about video and audio from a technical point-of-view it can be far from straightforward for a blogger to embed on their site, this is dependant on the platform that they are using and whether they have the right plug-in installed on their blogging software. Posting images is much straightforward.

content vs attention

Then there is the covenant made with an audience when you present them with content. Video requires our absolute attention, whereas audio allows us to multi-task (drivetime radio). With text or images we can easily scan to see if the content is of interest and listen to other content or nip back and re-visit content easily at any time. 

What have you found provided the most excitement and hope in social media up to now?

The first thing that I have found most exciting and has given me the most hope about social media is the innovative ways that people have used social media for good and the way positive communities form. From customers helping each other out in the absence of proper customer support to charitable giving and the formation of communities of likeminded people. In a world that is increasingly cynical, social media has allowed people to connect in a way that demonstrates the best in people.

The second item that I have found most exciting is the way that it has become not only easier to publish content but also to integrate that content with great services like Google Earth, Flickr and Yahoo! APIs. Its only a matter of time before PR practitioners master these fully.

Looking forward at marketing communications and PR: what are the greatest areas of concern?

Practitioners be it marketers, advertising agencies or PR agencies aren’t learning lessons of etiquette and respect fast enough. I have been really concerned about the ins and outs of the recent #Moonfruit campaign. This moral ambiguity is likely to create a vacuum that regulation could quite easily attempt to fill that void.

If marketers and PR people continue to abuse the trust of audiences then this will ruin the potential of social media for everybody.

Looking forward again: what offers the most hope and excitement for the future?

I want to put the development of the web and social media into some context before I answer this question:

Changes on the web

Broadly you can think of the development of the web and social media as we know it as having had three acts:

  • Act one is what most people would call web 1.0 where the web was largely a direct analogue of traditional publishing. Media plaforms cost 100,000s to tens of millions of pounds. From a marketing perspective this was the ‘web as brochure’ and if you were lucky an order form as well
  • Act two is the nebulous web 2.0 or web as a platform. And whilst the best examples of web 2.0 are no longer new, the understanding of them from a marketing and communications point-of-view is still incomplete. Partly because of the shift in mindset required between ‘act one’ and ‘act two’
  • The third act that I think we are entering is the web of data or the web of things. Information is contained in small chunks whether its a twitter update, a QR code or microformat like a hCard. And we can see this atomisation taking place even in press releases if we look at the Todd Defren and the SHIFT team have been modifying their social media template over the past few years

You can see how the attitude of communicators needed to change with these technical phases:

Changes in online comms


The parts that I feel most excited about moving forward for the next few years are:

  • Continuing to think about how social media campaigns can still be useful
  • Thinking about how campaigns can be atomised, still be effective and be refined through improved measurement
  • There are some answers that I don’t get yet, which I think will be interesting to explore in more depth. In particular how atomised data and conversations happening across a plethora of channels are going to affect the context of content, and how that will affect the communications function

What’s the three biggest lessons that you’ve learned up to now?

  • Goals: always strive be nice, be human, be useful and try to be remarkable in your campaigns
  • Consideration: the cost of content is not only about the monetary cost, but also non-monetary economics: attention and ‘whuffie’. You shouldn’t make a video because you can, but because you are providing the target audience with something which they will find useful or remarkable. The richer the media, the greater the burden of responsibility the communicator has. If you want consumers to respect your brand, respect their time and attention
  • Attitude: stay curious, stay hungry 

I will tag Stephen Waddington, John Kerr, Doug Winfield, Jonny Rosemont and Adam Parker.

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