A Grifter speaks… taking social media seriously

 Sorry for the lapse of a week or so – I will be attempting a back fill of sorts. When I don't have access to a computer and O2 is not working (they would blame it on a low population at the edge of Wales – so don't bother to provide coverage?). Plus the iphone is hopeless for more than text blogging.

But before the backfill I wanted to do a Grifter posting. You may remember the fim of that name. Grifters are basically con artists. So what makes me a grifter? Well since the blogging wave broke there has been a sustained backlash against each new kind of social media as it emerged. Blogs – who reads them? My Space – they aren't proper friends anyway. Facebook ditto. Let's ban it because people are just wasting time at work. And now we have twitter – classic meme – for people to announce that they are walking down the road. And "The rest of the country hasn't a clue what twittering is".So as someone who has experimented with all of these I have become used to the accusation of grifting. Messing about on the internet when I ought to be working.

It is interesting how blogging has become normalised now – its OK to blog. And there is pragmatic facebooking now – "I wouldn't bother but everyone else is on so I'm getting left out of invitations". So the wave is travelling through the population.

Let me try and explain why these channels are so important – more significant than CB radio was as a hobbyists paradise. We don't help our cause by enthusing. Trainspotting is interesting if you get deep enough into it(so I am told!). The point of social media channels is that each has added a qualitatively different way of engaging with people. Letter writing is an established medium of communication – even a literary genre. Diana Ceasu said memorably (for me at any rate) that blogs are for reflecting,  twitters are for connecting.  It would have been great if we had had a generation to get used to blogging – just as Victorians were able to get used to the telegraph. But we don't. Each technology follows the next and there are more in the pipeline waiting to hit us. When each is as significant an advance as letter writing was with the introduction of the penny post.

This week I found myself collaborating with someone who was sampling the culture via tweets and blogs. Which added a dimension I just hadn't been aware of till I met him – even though I have been tweeting for the best part of 6 months and blogging for getting on for 4 years. I never know when I am about to turn the corner on a new discovery with media which I thought I knew and understood.

The 2 areas which are most relevant to me professionally are those of research and companies engaging with customers. And here the backlash is at its noisiest – using social media channels is not 'proper' research, you can't build a brand just by trying to recruit customers as brand friends.   But these are early days we are still learning to use them. What we know categorically is that we can't use the internet to get a balanced sample even if everybody is on it. But that doesn't mean that you can't do research on the internet but that the current paradigm of market and social research is now changing in ways that current practitioners can only grasp at. And what companies are having to unlearn is mass marketing – which came about because of a particular combination of historical circumstances – was challenged but managed to incorporate the invention of commecial television. But isn't sustainable. Sometimes its better to talk to your customers one at a time or in small groups. Annoying for product managers. But necessary. It probably means that marketing as we understand it is over – and that the call centre and its digital equivalent become dominant – crowds not hierarchies own and mediate the brand conversation.

I noticed at the TFM &A exhibition yesterday the CRMers had made a comeback trying to persuade brand managers to have a one to one with their customers. I don't buy that. Personalisation is still dependent on data infrastructures which are far too inflexible and too costly. And if we choose to use different email addresses or personas to talk to companies then they're going to have to deal with that even if it messes up the lifetime value calculation.

What intrigues me is the way in which the fragmentation of the internet is having a cohesive effect on how we understand each other. The only way to manage my various selves at work and at home, in the family and with friends was to segment them by lifestyle – most B2B market research only looks at people at work. Most consumer research doesn't consider consumption in the workplace.  But now that my children can tag embarassing photos of me on facebook – I either have to resort to extraordinary control freakery – I know people with at least 2 facebook IDs trying to do just that. Or sling the lot together and let people make of it what they will.  Twitters and blogs will be used to promote single issues as well as brands.  But what makes them so rich is how they flow in the twitter/blog stream. Its not being the single authoritative source of information – its jostling for position in the peleton where the readers' main impression is not of your voice but where the pack is headed and the ebbs and flow across the swarm. Don't try to raise your voice. Find a new harmonic and make the chord more interesting.

Which is why I am getting increasingly impatient with the naysayers. Because I don't have a Powerpoint deck to show them why social media is a good idea and when it will monetise and how long exactly a day you should give it without it taking over.  Social media is learning by doing. I am overwhelmed that I have to learn RSS keyword feeds this year. And I have yet to master Delicious. But if I don't keep playing and growing then I will lose the ability to connect.  Companies who switch each of the channels  off so their staff can't waste time at work are heading straight back to the 18th century Bradford Mill where we all clocked in and clocked off on time.

The most compelling reason I can give you for starting to play with it and to risk being called a grifter yourself is that the next killer app doesn't yet exist but is going to start somewhere in the Far East and roar across the US and Europe. You probably know that most of the world's bloggers are in China. The social channels we have experienced already are quite familiar – analogous with diaries, albums, and telegrams. But the next wave could be quite unlike what we already have. If I were you I'd get started now. Take it from a grifter.      



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