The danger of calling it “Social Media” 

How the proliferation of social communication channels presents the next brand challenge.


When I tell people I spend my job studying social communication channels like Facebook, often it is met with derision —

“Ugh… What’s wrong with just talking to people any more?”

Last week I experienced such a reaction talking to a new acquaintance. Whilst discussing “social media” he mentioned Facebook’s acquisition of Whatsapp:

“I mean, why don’t you just text? Why bother with Whatsapp?”

In this sort of situation I normally just go quiet. I’ve learnt the hard way that, more often than not, such people aren’t open to (or capable of) recognizing a new form of communication till they themselves have used it for several years almost unwittingly. This time I joined in with the guffawing by exclaiming — “I know! Idiots! Why not just send them a postcard?” (Childish, I know.) The conversation moved swiftly on to the growing state of despair around property prices in London.

It got me thinking though… He was transplanting his understanding of an incumbent medium (SMS) onto a new medium (Whatsapp) without truly understanding what it offers now or can offer in the future (WeChat).

In an effort to understand the array of communication media I use, I mapped them out against some simple axes. For simplicity, I’ve focussed on one-to-one communications media. I haven’t included soapbox channels which is why you will see Facebook Messenger, but not see Facebook as a broadcast medium. I’ve also tried to keep a little focus by only including forms I actually use consistently, even if rarely, which is why you won’t see Relay. And this is my personal experience. (And yes, I’m probably more involved than the average person.)


Firstly I noticed the sheer number of face-to-face communication media available. 16 in my case. Some weren’t originally designed for this at all (Instagram, Twitter). But they enable it now — sometimes around very specific topics (Spotify).

Rewind to the 90’s and we really only had snail mail and telephones, and much of that decade it was landline telephones, not mobile phones. (Again, this is personal experience — I never really got exposed to faxes or pagers and I only received my first email on October 10th 1998). In the blink of an eye we’ve gone from a small handful of personal communication media to a ridiculous amount. Personally I love them. I impose them on my poor wife and most of the time they fall away. But some stick, like Couple.


Luckily for the guy who was so deadset against Whatsapp he isn’t a brand manager, because the difficulty he faces in recognising new communication channels isn’t one he needs to worry about. He sticks to SMS with his friends. But brands do need to worry about it because their ‘friends’ are using this new proliferation of media. Whether it’s to escape their parents, or peers, or whether it’s functional — to be able to tell each other where they are, or send images instead of text, or even GIFs — or whether it’s simply because that’s where their friends are now.

Whatever the reason, brands do need to account for these media when their audiences do. But each new means of communication brings with it a new form of communication. Like the unfortunate soul who equated Whatsapp with SMS, brands also transplant communication formats onto communication media. (A regular example is when brands post their TV adverts on social platforms.) This is a major problem.

Gary Vaynerchuk’s key message right now is

respecting the psychology of why people are where they are right now

— context. Because if companies fail to understand the context, if they fail to understand that people on Pinterest are thinking differently to those on Twitter to those on Facebook to those on Tumblr et cetera.

And then they’re spending a lot of time and money on getting a story right, but telling it wrong.

Most of us don’t tell a dirty joke to our mum. But you do to your friends. Getting the same distinction right between these channels is a new artform. Being able to understand that communicating on Whatsapp will be different from Twitter which is different from email which is different from Facebook et cetera, is now as important as the initial understanding that this is where you need to communicate.

Does this all sound familiar? Of course it does.

Advent of cable TV.

Fragmentation of media channels.

Digital disruption.

Mobile!

Yes, we’ve dealt with this problem before. On TV you used to be able to reach half the UK population during an episode of Coronation Street because there were only two channels. The glory days of “social” are over too. Each month we are uncovering new channels where more and more people are spending their time. The problem is, as brands move evermore into these spaces where consumers talk to each other, these communications channels are still being bundled into one term — “social media”.

Just as “digital” has become a catchall for anything that isn’t a TV, print or radio ad, and lives on a brand’s properties, “social” has become a catchall for anything that lives on consumers’ properties.

And this was okay for a while... for that brief history in time where major brands only operated on a few key platforms.

But if the regular folk are capable of turning their hands to communicating via 16 different media, so does a brand need to be able to. This is Obama’s social communications footprint. And it isn’t even that recent in marketing terms — this was during his 2012 campaign.

So yes, brands can use more than a few social communication media. And if they want to reach that ever-fragmenting audience, they need to. But where is only half the challenge. The other half is what to communicate. Within the digital age, brands brands have adapted from communicating with advertising to content.

But that’s where most brands stop.

And they need to continue into the third half. And a third half is what it feels like right now because we are bundling “social media” into one homogenous communication format. And that makes it harder. Not easier.

So let’s stop calling it social media. Let’s start using the right terms. Let’s call platforms by their names. Let’s begin to separate them into what they are giving them the space to be considered individually so we can answer the how too. Oh… and let’s start with a single brief instead of a digital or social brief. That would make me cry.


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