Is Social Media Just a Channel?

I have been in some interesting debates recently on Twitter in chats such as #mmchat and #techchat on whether or not Social Media is just another channel. While I disagree with almost every word these particular people type, I wanted to make sure this topic was approached objectively… well, somewhat objectively.

Why not just share my intensely subjective perspective on this subject? Well, here are a couple reasons…

  • Its a burning question for many marketers (and now senior executives) that once answered provides perspective on strategy, integration, approach, internal/external policy, and execution of your social program.
  • I take my responsibility as a blogger and consultant very seriously when it comes to presenting and arguing issues. The last thing you want is a lop-sided diatribe for or against… unless that’s your bag.


The Answer to the Question Depends on Where You Sit in the Enterprise

The key to answering this question is perspective and perspective depends on your role and your ability to see past that role to the big picture of how a channel affects the enterprise ecosystem; defined as the company, its employees, partners and customers.

In fact, each of these communities within the ecosystem most likely view the social channel quite differently ranging between passionate adopters and fiercely indifferent. But before we get deep into perspectives, let’s look at some of the past winners and see their impact.

Television - Definite impact on marketing and customers for mass market reach, but didn’t really change the business model. TV became a deeply embedded part of the customer’s lifestyle and a focal point for many decades.

The Web – Huge impact on the enterprise ecosystem affecting every party (for good and bad). I have always viewed web/automation systems as the slow death of service and customer relationships as well as enabling global competition amongst other revolutions. The Web is also the birth mother of Social and the enlightened customer. Again, another channel that grew beyond its intent to become part of the customer’s lifestyle.

Retail – A channel and a business model really, but worth noting as it plays double duty. Keeps evolving and impacting the enterprise as the number one way to transact with a customer. Probably the channel that has had the broadest impact on any business forcing huge changes in supply chain, operations, etc.. but doesn’t apply to everyone.

So What is the Social Channel and How Does it Compare?

Well, for starters, its very early in its evolution and adoption by companies is slow, so its impact is still based on educated guessing. For many B2C companies however, the social channel is increasingly gaining in strategic value as it redefines the customer relationship – driven largely by the customer.

  • Social Channel for customer acquisition: The most obvious and plentiful application of social media as companies look to establish foot prints in the big social networks. What’s the impact on customer acquisition? Well, for companies who are not inherently social, low. For those that are socially aligned, its impact is broad. Just look at how Ford has evolved itself to apply Social to build market share.
  • Social Channel for existing customers: Sadly, the most overlooked and highest potential application of social media is for existing customer communities. Why is it that we treat those most loyal to us the worst? The current impact is minimal in my mind, but the future potential of enabled customer communities is immense becoming a key source of driving product and service innovation for smart companies. This is a game changer.
  • Social Channel for partners: Is this even on the radar yet? My feeling is the impact will not be felt for quite a while. Feel free to enlighten me if you know more or have examples.
  • Social Channel for employees: Interestingly, many companies, especially B2B enterprise are just scratching the surface on this. The mother to internal social is the intranet of course; a channel with questionable impact. But, in the same way that social can rapidly evolve the business’ relationship with the customer, it can also do so with employees; the lifeblood of the enterprise. Again, the impact is minimal now, but as companies become more comfortable with social, my bet is game changer.

Some Big Wins:

  • Revolutionizing customer service and support. Think of how Best Buy is using it.
  • Reach is immense, cheap and fast with the right targeting. Yes, I said targeting, but that’s another post altogether.
  • It has dramatically improved our ability to get up-to- the-minute research on our brands/customers
  • It woke us up to real customer need. Sometimes quite rudely. Such is the case when we ignore those most important to us.

Some Big Challenges:

  • “Always on Air” is a huge risk for companies especially for publicly traded ones.
  • Paradigm shift from one way communications to two way communications.
  • Attitudinal shift from selfish corporate agenda to being perceived as not having one.
  • Figuring it all out before it changes yet again!

Potential Enterprise Impact:

It has the capability to truly integrate customers, employees and yet-to-be customers into one harmonious ecosystem. Companies that master this new channel will quite literally dominate in their categories. An unfair competitive advantage to be sure, but we are far from that Nirvana.

So the question still stands, is Social Media just a channel? To answer this, let’s ask some other questions that may help bring clarity and perspective!

If someone asked you to sculpt a statue would you make a David or a pile of unrecognizable rubble?

If you were asked to make a fine wine would you make a Domaine Romanée-Conti or a bottle of low grade hooch?

How about something simple like a meal. Would you make an award winning creation or pot of good ol’ reliable Kraft Dinner?

Could it be that much like the examples above, Social Media is what you make of it? So what makes a master work versus a pile of rubble?

The Difference Between a Channel and an Experience is Mastery

Channels deliver experiences and the quality of the experience relates directly to the effort, passion and innovative thinking you put into it. Much like great restaurants are a blend of sophisticated cooking, imaginative ideas and respect for ingredients, Social Media is a blend of sophisticated service, imaginative ideas and respect for people.

Mastery is a long process of course, but the point is that if you have the vision and the tenacity to see it through, Social Media can be much, much more. Great social experiences remind us why some companies deserve to be revered and others deserve to be ignored – effectively separating the wheat from the chaff.

So is Social Media just a channel? It can be. After all, the people that use it are just customers…

Jeff The Sensei

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