Monday, June 22, 2009

Why Social Media is like 1973 again, minus the bellbottoms

Most people in marketing and PR can think back to a time when the family living room was a place families gathered as a group to watch television and listen to music.

Back then, just about anyone in America regardless of age could sing the lyrics to any number of Jackson 5 tunes. In the same way, just about anyone could sing the theme song to Gilligan's Island. These were touch stones, the foundations of the American experience like baseball, apple pie and Chevrolet. Since the 1970s, none of those institutions is the same.

Beginning in 1973, baseball's apple was tarnished with free agency, strikes and steroids; the apples we eat are either organic, genetically modified or driven here from South America; and despite a brief though unsustainable respite fueled by the sale of SUVs, the U.S. auto industry has never recovered from the 1970s oil crisis.

Following a general loosening of restrictions on cable television, HBO (then known as Home Box Office) launched in 1972, delivering uncut movies into homes across America and television has never been the same.

In 1972, All in the Family delivered a 34.0 rating, meaning one third of all the people in America watched the show and 54 percent of the television sets that were on tuned into that show. If you didn't watch it, you couldn't TiVo it and watch the show later, but you heard about it in school, by the water cooler or on the bus to work.

By comparison, the most highly rated show in 2009, American Idol, captured only ten percent of the U.S. population.

Simply put, network television doesn't deliver audiences like it used to. And now that more people DVR or TiVo their favorite shows, watching those shows without commercial interruption, the audiences are falling faster.

It's been mentioned before, but it bears repeating here, while newspapers have grimly reported their own demise, television taken a more "if we don't talk about the pink elephant in the room, maybe nobody will notice" approach.

But all is not lost for advertisers. Even though audiences have shrunk, niche cable programming has delivered more targeted audience. Advertisers can feel comfortable knowing the eyeballs they are buying on Lifetime's movie channel will certainly be interested in perfume or hair products. Every cable channel delivers its own audience. Social media is a lot like that.

Each medium brings its own audience, but more importantly, it is a self-selecting audience that wants to be there. People join fan pages on Facebook and MySpace because they want to be part of something and find out more about the company. They follow companies on Twitter because they want to be in touch at all times.

It's important to remember that social media is new, just like the Internet was before the Netscape browser that made it easy for the masses to navigate through the wild World Wide Web. It seems some companies were with us from the outset, Amazon and eBay come to mind. Others came on strong later, knocking off more established competitors--hello Google, where have you gone AltaVista?

When I hear people talk about effective social media it's always in terms of case studies, things that have worked in the past. That's because the landscape is changing and we are still writing the rules for social media.

A year ago, it would have been impossible to predict the rise of Twitter. Two months ago, everyone had to have a presence in the Twittersphere. Today, its growth has stopped. Tomorrow remains a mystery. Will everyone ride the Google Wave?

The point is that for communications professionals, we have hit a bend in the river. What is will happen in three or four years is largely an unknown. As we try to negotiate what is a fast moving river, where everything changes at Internet speed, some of the stuff that worked when we through it against a wall yesterday will not work today. An example of this can be seen in how the rules of email marketing evolved due to the rise in spam. How will Twitter react to its own spam slam?

A better question for communications folks is, what is the new Twitter and how will we use it?

If you like to learn on the run and rewrite all the rules, it's never been more fun to be in this game.

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