Insights on Marketing & Technology

Why you're doing social all wrong

Social media marketing has come full circle – from a free-for-all, viral Klondike to a staid monetized, data-driven advertising activity in line with the rest of the increasingly complicated media plan. The time has come to take a step back and consider the fundamentals. The true lesson of social media is not, and never was, that there is a new “free” marketing channel. Nor that we now have even more data with which to target our ads. It is that marketing is about being human – and interacting with humans.

  • By: Sebastian Franck
  • Published: 14-03-2014

When was the first time you heard of “social media”? 7 years ago, when Twitter launched? Fall 2006, when Facebook began opening up for users outside US college circles? In 2005 when News Corp acquired MySpace? Or perhaps Second Life introduced you to the term in 2003? Or where Danish kids and teens flocked in the early 2000’s? If you are old enough, maybe your first glimpse of the concept was through the Finnish avatar-based Habbo Hotel, which was founded in 2000?

Social media may feel like something new. Yet, at the same time it seems to have been with us for quite a while.

In fact, the Internet was always a social medium. A lot of the original Internet services were conceived as methods of meeting, interacting and conversing with other people on a global scale. Since 1978 we have had BBS’s – Bulletin Board Systems – allowing people to create posts, conduct public discussions, transfer files and chat privately. Usenet which was a widely distributed discussion and file exchange system with no central administration and IRC, Internet Relay Chat, which allowed for both public group discussions and private communication in real-time. And of course there has always been e-mail (always, in Internet terms being since the days of the ARPANET in the early 70’s). E-mail is – and remains – the original social medium: People exchanging information one-to-one, one-to-many, or many-to-one in an organized, threaded manner. In private.


Brands had no business on IRC or Usenet. Very few of them knew the value of e-mail outside the corporation. The Internet was strictly the people’s (read: geeks’) domain. 
That all began to change around 1996 a few years after Tim Berners-Lee launched the World Wide Web. The World Wide Web was the Internet for the rest of us. Without the World Wide Web there probably would never have been a “Digital Age”. It was HTML, the browser, hyperlinks and the page metaphor that made the magic of a global network of computers available for ordinary people. And for brands.

Just as Joe Ordinary could see something he could relate to – an advanced kind of newspaper or magazine, perhaps, brands saw a medium they could understand. A mass medium that happened to be digital and thus highly cost-efficient. And they approached it in the same way. As a cheap catalogue. A corporate brochure. An easily editable flyer. A place to post ads (aka “banners”). Some even advanced to eCommerce, enabling direct sales online.

That’s how the advent of The World Wide Web ushered in the Great Commercialization of the Internet. Business took over the World Wide Web – and made it into a World Wide One-Way Speech. Very few realized the inherent potential of the Internet to upend business models, create new marketing paradigms and foster new relationships between brands and consumers. 
If only they had read – and understood – The Cluetrain Manifesto. We might have been spared a decade of drab informational sites and corporations refusing to listen.


“The Internet is enabling conversations among human beings that were simply not possible in the era of mass media.” 
The above quote wasn’t penned as a comment on how the revolution in Egypt – or the insurgency in Syria – was catalyzed by Twitter and Facebook. The above passage is, as you read these words, nearing its 15th birthday. It is item 6 in the (in-)famous Cluetrain Manifesto published (online first, of course) April 1999. The subheading to this paragraph is item 1: “Markets are conversations”. And really, it tells it all. For all purposes we could leave it at that and close the browser. No, really – do read the Cluetrain Manifesto, but keep reading this piece too ...

The Age of Mass – mass production, mass media and mass marketing - has brought great riches to human society, financial as well as cultural. A car in every driveway, a PC on every desk (mainly running Windows as the original Bill Gates vision aimed for), a vacation a year and millions of hours of TV, film and music are just some of the most visible results. Yet, the Age of Mass was also an aberration – a bump in the progress of humanity that created the world we know, but which is also for all purposes over. Because with social media, or rather “the re-socialized Internet”, ordinary consumers all over the world are finding community, creating transnational bonds, sharing opinions and prejudices, likes and dislikes, making new friends and acquaintances, and finding new insurgent brands to express themselves with. 
What we’re witnessing is a return to the basics – at a global scale. And at an unprecedented pace.


Humans are social beings. Everything we are, and everything we do, is premised upon its social context. We can’t learn to speak, develop our capacities or function at all in total isolation. In fact, one leading theory of why our brains developed to the stage that they are at, is that all this cognitive capacity was necessary to navigate the treacherous waters of social intercourse (double entendre intended ...)

It would lead too far to venture into all the ways in which being human is being social and the intricate workings of social psychology and culture. In fact, it is not even clear we sufficiently understand them anyways. Suffice it to say that consumption is always social. Some cases are straightforward. Diamond rings. Branded clothes. Fancy cars. Some are very much less so, the unassuming toilet paper being one. But even here, we at least rely on social proof, on the marks of trust that brands are and on retailer reputation – all very much social.

But mass production was based on the illusion that consumers act as isolated rational decision-makers. Social media has withdrawn that veil. No longer can we consider consumers – or professional purchasers – as islands in the stream. Now all brands need to treat their customers as human beings engaged in a constant conversation, not so much about brands, but a lot about life, death and the sound of flushing toilets.


We thought we understood. There was a while in the illustrious history of digital marketing – about 2004-2007 - when social marketing was equivocated with viral marketing. Create something outrageous. Place it on a few select websites. And watch it spread across the universe.

It sounded like free money. Too good to be true – but it wasn’t, at least for a little while. But viral marketing, when it worked, was a quirk in the system. Much like black hat SEO, it was a defect that smart people could take advantage of, but which was going to be remedied in due time. For a while consumers were content to be willing dupes to sneaky marketers. Not anymore. Viral doesn’t scale, can’t be planned and, in many cases, borders on deceptive marketing. 
This development was nicely wrapped up last year when AOL, who bought the original viral network, Go Viral, in 2011, announced that they were dropping the brand name, and making it part of its “new global branded content business, called Be On”, in the words of the Guardian. No more viral. In its stead: “branded content” and “video everywhere”.


Everybody’s talking about “Content Marketing” these days. It is by far the most trending marketing- related term in the world today – with five times as many Google searches in January 2014 as in January 2011. Red Bull is the poster child of this development, the one that everybody seeks to emulate. Not only with the biggest stunt of all time – the space jump of Felix Baumgartner – but with BASE jumping videos, sports photography contests, Formula 1 racing, air racing, BMX, DJ-ing etc. Red Bull has managed to create a global audience of truly interested consumers who follow their stunts and events around the year. All tagged #givesyouwings.

But content is not only for the extreme sports people. Content is the bread and butter of all marketing in the social media age. Content that is meaningful, engaging, valuable, shareable, allowing it to become a treasured part of your customers’ daily media diet. Partly because it allows them to signal their values, identity and personal characteristics, partly because it adds value to your relationship with them. Forging text, images, videos and interactive content that users want to receive or seek out themselves is what it all boils down to.


As the saying goes: There is nothing new under the WWW. Only, the old has been vastly accelerated by the proliferation of new services and new technologies. The minute you think you recognize a stable pattern, it crumbles and disintegrates, leaving you scrambling and screaming for guidance. And in this bombardment of new stuff it is easy to forget that marketing existed long before the Ford T and the Supermarket. That what is really new is that you can longer hide behind the wall of corporate silence. So if you want to be a marketer of the social media age: Stop looking for the next “glitch” - Open up your business – Find your meaning – Become a publisher!

Sebastian Franck Sebastian Franck is Creative Director & Partner at Magnetix, an integrated dialogue and digital agency. Magnetix has 95 employees in Copenhagen, Hanoi and Santo Domingo and creates digital solutions for some of the largest companies in Denmark such as Tivoli, Falck, Ecco, Gyldendal and Nordisk Film.

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