Stop trying to limit the Internet to a metaphor


Today, I spent several hours in a conference with 300 marketers who fit into one of two categories:

1. They work at companies that are trying hard to figure out how to use something currently called “social media” to help their companies succeed (i.e., sell more stuff).

2. They work at companies that are trying to sell services to help group #1 succeed (i.e., sell more stuff). (Disclosure: I and content marketing and custom media company, Hammock Inc., fall into this second category).

First off, I have to get something clear about where I stand on the term “social media.” First, I think it’s a quickly-falling-from-relevance-term when applied to media and marketing — right up there with the term Web 2.0, which meant about the same thing as “social media” until people got tired of that term and started calling it “social media.”

In my opinion, at best, “social” is a feature, it’s not a medium. When all media is social, there is no such thing as social media. It’s like HD TV. When only some shows are in High Definition, then maybe there’s something unique and special about saying, “this program is broadcast in High Definition.” But when everything is in High Definition, it’s sorta silly to announce “we’re the High Definition channel” — just like all the other channels.

In other words, when every page on the Internet has five different ways to forward, share, comment and embed, isn’t that enough to say, “everything is social.” When every anchorman and musician and corner cafe is on Twitter, is it really a unique “thing” called “social media.”

That, aside. I’ll agree, the technology and the capabilities and the way people use the Internet in our daily lives are way, way ahead of where marketers and media people are. Marketing people were way, way late to the table and it shows. I like that they’re trying to catch up, but I have some squeamishness when I hear them discuss with one another what social media marketing is all about.

Frankly, I think it’s the metaphors that alarm me. Marketers, for the most part, view “the web” as a tool set. Even those who, like me, want to focus on the way the Internet can solve specific business objectives, often fall into the pattern of seeing Twitter, et al, as a hammer and every problem as a nail.

For the past ten years, I have tried my best to explain to media and marketing people what many still don’t seem to understand. The web is best understood (metaphorically speaking) as “a place,” not as “a medium.” To my friends in the business-to-business media and marketing world, I have said that the best metaphor for the web is not a publication (you can thank whoever came up with the term “web page” for that metaphor) but a trade show. I’ve tried to explain (metaphorically speaking) that social media is like the conversation that takes place in the hallways and aisles of a trade show — not in the keynotes or panel sessions. It’s in those hallways that commerce takes place, where the marketplace of industries exist.

But still, marketers and media people seem to want the new stuff to fit into metaphors of the old stuff — like advertising and promotions and direct mail.

Today, I heard a speaker spend 30 minutes suggesting that some imaginary group of “tree huggers” and “hippies” exist who don’t want anything about social media to be commercialized or used in marketing. I’ve been to blogger events, South by Southwests and countless social media and geek events for over a decade, and I have no idea what he’s talking about. People have been trying to monetize and marketize social media since the day the first cavemen drew a picture on a wall.

Frankly, one of the seminal events of the movement that led to what we think of today as “social media” — at least in comprehending what a networked community of customers means to the marketplace — was the publication of the book, The Cluetrain Manifesto. And yes, there was some hippie influence in book (love you, Doc), it was not, however, anti-business or anti-marketing or anti-anything — except anti-cluelessness.

People were then, and are still now, tired of being beat over the head and spammed with crappy advertising and sub-par customer service. That’s not hippie-talk. That’s common sense. And, more importantly, customers know more about products than marketers do. So get over it.

People who pioneered this place we now call “social media” have sought to create a better way of marketing than sending out coupons, but I don’t know of any “tree huggers” who preach against it — unless, someone thinks doing something better than couponing via Twitter is preaching against coupons.

Here’s the deal: This Internet thing is way bigger than social media. It’s way bigger than marketing. It’s a place. It’s a world. It’s where we are spending a larger and larger portion of our lives. And a portion of that time we spend is focused on, yes, buying and selling stuff. But that’s just a part of that world.

Marketers can learn to live in that world, or they can spend time trying to figure out ways to spam that world. And if I’m a hippie when I say it, so be it: there are better ways to help companies succeed than teaching them new ways to distribute spam.

If you spend all of your time thinking the Internet is a tool set to replicate what you’ve done in the past — except faster — you’re not necessarily wrong, you’re just less than right.

Bottomline: Don’t be fooled by thinking the Internet can be contained in a metaphor, even mine.