Social media goes mainstream: 5 things you need to know

Social networks, blogs and virtual worlds are no longer on the fringe–they are very real factors that can influence the perception of companies large and small. It’s no small wonder that everyone wants to know what the next big social media PR thing will be. So what’s most likely to have an impact in the next 12 months?

Here’s what we believe might make the top 5.

1. Marketing is participation

2011 will see the proliferation of the community managers – those people that keep our shared-interest networks together. One lesson from 2010 – as learned the hard way by companies such as Nestlé and BP – is that managing an online community is not a simple task. While many companies have created social media presences on Twitter and Facebook with a view to sharing their happy news with keen fans or followers, these channels need editorial direction, management and investment. A study by Beyond told us that the top two reasons for following a brand on Facebook were firstly, to find offers and discounts and secondly, to demonstrate love for products.

But love alone isn’t enough to keep people from clicking away. Just like a television channel, Twitter and Facebook need programming, new content, and interaction – fundamentally a unique reason to keep someone coming back. Whether the community is for employees, customers, prospective hires or journalists, you can’t underestimate the skill required to run this environment. Nor can you ignore the fact that these properties are increasingly the first point of contact for your brand.

Ensuring your best people oversee your businesses’ most critical online relationships will only become more important as the year goes by.

2. Evolution from executives to experts

Companies have historically relied on a few trusted voices to get their messages out. Logic said get the right person in front of the right media outlet and the masses will become educated. As we know, this logic – in isolation – no longer applies. Today’s consumers are the most media savvy generation in history and their ability to stomach corporate gobbledegook is at an all time low.

In 2011, I predict more B2B companies in particular will elevate their subject matter experts to key roles in their communications programs. This will see experts blogging on corporate websites, owning communities in company discussion forums, and acting as company ambassadors in external earned media communities. In time we’ll see people from all business functions playing similar expanded roles in support of their own objectives. This naturally will require changes to job descriptions, coaching and administration – and this is a long term play.

My advice is to start with one business function, division or product and build a program around someone with a greater aptitude for social media conversations. Measure their success – learn from the things that didn’t go well – and evolve the campaign around them. It’s PR, Jim, but not as we knew it…

3. Would the last reporter to leave please turn out the lights?

The decline of journalism as we knew it is well documented. But while old models decline, it creates new opportunities for people who can tell compelling stories (such as journalists). We live in an age in which everyone can publish – but just because they have the tools, doesn’t mean companies can create good, compelling content. I see 2011 as the year of the brand or corporate journalist. These folks will become the new objective voices of our organizations, creating interesting content on behalf of their companies and sharing it with the world.

Their web content – be it blog post, photo, video, or whitepaper – must be objective and inherently good enough to warrant sharing. Those companies that get this right should expect their audiences to consume, interact with and, most critically, share their stories.

4. There’s no time like the present

2011 will be the year that companies finally accept the fact that the world moves in real time. With search engines incorporating real time data in their results and, thanks to Twitter, customers demanding real time responses to their enquiries, many businesses need to change how they prioritise online comments. Unfortunately for some, the catalyst for real time communications is often a rude shock caused by a negative comment or story flaring up online.

At a base level, real time social media monitoring (combined with a good understanding of behaviour and online influencers) can help avoid embarrassment and control negative discussions. On the other side of the coin, the opportunity created by the simultaneous publication and notification of content is much more interesting. Real time encourages more dynamic conversations, and makes it easier for to act on information, create new content and work with your customers.

Real time communications programs that track social media channels for relevant keywords can create opportunities to delight your customers and identify sales leads.

5. The ‘big four’ social media brands become business as usual

While 2010 was for many businesses a year of social media experimentation, 2011 must be the year of action. Specifically, consolidation on the so-called ‘Big Four’ social media properties of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and LinkedIn. Not so long ago, these were cloaked in mystery, the playthings of the tech elite. I’d suggest that by the end of 2011 brands will be distinguished if they don’t have a presence in these ‘Big Four’ social media sites – much as brands 10 years ago would be called out if they didn’t have websites.

The ‘Big Four’ have become mainstream and your customers expect to find you there. If, by the end of 2011, you’re not in these places, I’d suggest you will struggle against competitors who understand the game has changed forever. Tough thing is, you also need to experiment with things like location or game mechanics or expert programs or application development. Creating and maintaining compelling ‘Big Four’ social media presences is quite simply the non-negotiable point of entry in 2011.

Here’s to the big 5!



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