Gartner Research's Hype Cycle diagramImage via Wikipedia

A recent conversation has me thinking about the future of social media as an industry and a business application. It’s those types of random interactions that plant the seeds for blog posts. I mull over the topic for a few days, do some research or reading, chew on it a bit more, then something inspires the central thought of what I write.

Last night I read Shel Israel’s post, “The Future of Social Media.” It’s a short tome, essentially saying, “Here are three ideas I hope come true.” It was less about the future of social media and more about some cool things we can look forward to. Disappointed that it wasn’t one of Shel’s lengthy essays that are so invigorating to read, I remembered my conversation and thought perhaps Israel was being all optimist and not enough realist. That and the title of the post didn’t deliver on the message for me.

I think the future of social media is bright, but I think we have a hard road a head. My conversation, with former interactive marketing manager turned IT recruiter Keith Rouda, included a reference he made to the Gartner Hype Cycle, a predictive chart that illustrates the practical business adoption projections for new technologies. It’s most notable prediction was Alex Drobik’s 1999 Hype Cycle analysis that predicted the dot com burst in 2000.

The essential logic is that new technologies have an explosion of hype that soon turns to a massive free fall as early-adopting businesses fail to see the promised profits or productivity improvement. Then a period of recuperation occurs where businesses begin to see realistic and long-term benefits from the technology. At that point it begins to find its way to the mainstream and blends to become part of the accepted business approach.

While the 2008 technologies report from Gartner shows several social media applications being through the tough times and headed for mainstream adoption, including corporate blogging and wikis (Wikis? Are you effin’ kidding me? Most businesses react to a wiki the same way as an audit.) I think social media as a whole is an industry still on the way up to the peak of inflated expectations. What is the future of social media? Good in the long term. Not so in the short.

The reason is so many business are still rushing to “do social media” that few of them will “do” it right. There will be disappointment as the results fail to meet expectations. The natural reaction will be to abandon social media and claim falling victim to the hype. Businesses, especially big brands, are used to immediate payoffs, not long-haul, foundation building from a strategic standpoint. It’s sad, but they’ll bail and run because they don’t know any better and their CMO is aware his or her average lifespan is 23 months.

But those of us advocating the responsible use of the social web will continue to have successes that serve as examples. We will not only teach, but help guide clients, businesses and organizations who are both resolute and patient to success in the social realm. These successes will shed light on social media’s proper place in the array of communications strategies and even those who walked away will come back as the plateau of enlightenment takes hold and social media settles into being part of the norm.

Is social media hype? It is if you think it’s a quick solution to drive sales or quarterly earnings. It is if you’re trying to “do social media” because it’s hot and hip and you gotta have a blog or gotta have an online community and haven’t paused to think about your audience and what they might want or need from your brand.

Is there social media hope? Absolutely. Social media can change the way your customers think about your brand. It can change how often they think about it. I can change how loyal they are to it. But only if done strategically, with forethought and care, with more concern for long-term growth and less for bottom line profits.

Sure, someone will probably jump in the comments and say, “Yes, but if it’s not a provable profit center, then it doesn’t make sense for a business.” Providing your employees with good benefits isn’t a provable profit center but without them, your personnel will be less than desirable. If you don’t provide your customers with a human connection to your brand, your customers will be less than desirable, too.

My hope for social media is that the peak of inflated expectations will soon be behind us and the trough of disillusionment won’t be deep or long-lasting. That, and there will be enough businesses, brands and organizations willing to look past this quarter’s earnings sheet to the plateau of productivity I know social media holds for us.

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About Jason Falls

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for Elasticity, one of the world's most innovative digital marketing and public relations firms. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).

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Comments Policy

Comments on Social Media Explorer are open to anyone. However, I will remove any comment that is disrespectful and not in the spirit of intelligent discourse. You are welcome to leave links to content relevant to the conversation, but I reserve the right to remove it if I don't see the relevancy. Be nice, have fun. Fair?

  • http://globalneighbourhoods.net shel Israel

    Thanks for the mention. You are right, it does seem to be more about cool stuff coming down the line. But I had intended the key point to be that social media will continue to make our online interactions more and more like our real world interaction and here are three possible outcomes.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Thanks for the comment, Shel, and for the fantastic blog and wisdom. Sorry if I didn't adequately communicate your finer point but thanks for the clarification.

  • http://picomatrix.net Jay Rollins

    I lived through the cycle for CRM and I believe you are correct. But during the peak of inflated expectations for CRM, the benefits were valid. Those benefits were just not as huge as the hype predicted. Is that the same for social media? Perhaps. I would say with CRM we were able to achieve only 20% of the hype benefits once fully implemented. Is this a typical rate for a technology once it makes it to the Plateau of Productivity? I agree that if a company is diving into social media with a big budget and blinders on, they will be in for a rude awakening.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Agreed, Jay. Thanks for commenting. I'd love to know more about your CRM experiences. We've got a pretty strong one for one of our clients here at Doe-Anderson and love talking shop.

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  • http://www.RichardKannegieser.com richardk138

    Great post Jason! I definitely believe that social media is now on its bubble and will pop soon in the near future. I have your same optimistic attitude about it though, I'm ready for it to peak so people will focus on less networks and the conversations won't be so diluted. I just did a post this morning on my blog about how there are way too many micro blogs and there death is coming soon! There is definitely alot of value in social media you just have to look past the hype!

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      True, Richard. Thanks for chiming in. I think there might be a correlation between saturation and the upward expectations of the hype cycle. Fortunately, the downturn and bubble bursting, as it were, normally weeds out the imitators and leaves those who should be doing it there to be productive with it.

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  • http://blog.clearcastdigitalmedia.com Matthew Chamberlin

    Jason-
    Good post, as always.
    Frankly, I cannot help but think that what we today call social media will soon not be called anything at all. In other words, interacting in a more meaningful way with your customers won't be something that “maybe we should try,” but, rather, as essential to business as computers, phones and, well, people.
    Behaviors trend and then, ultimately, settle down into a groove. As a blogger for PBS' MediaShift once pointed out, her move towards a more digital life was through “a series of mundane circumstances.” One day you're not doing something, the next day you are and you can't remember how you ever did things the old way.
    Without a doubt, there is a level of “we better get on this social media thing because it's cool,” but so what? It is our job to educate those who are at least showing an interest, and explain to them that a SM strategy is more than just having a Facebook page.
    My oldest kid is 6 and he loves “The Tortoise and the Hare.” Slow and steady wins the race, indeed.

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      Excellent perspective Matthew. I agree that the slow and steady approach is best and gradually our everyday approach will include it. I just hope we can avoid a huge bottom drop out in the process. Thanks for chiming in!

  • http://www.jeffreysass.com sass

    Hi Jason. Great post. I think the reason this Hype question even exists is that “Social Media” is really NOT a standalone industry or sector, even though many folks are trying to position it as such. IMHO Social Media is not an industry. Social Media really refers to a set of technology driven tools and services that simply allow us to do what we have always been doing — interacting and engaging with friends, family, associates and customers — but with Social Media we can do it in a much more efficient, easy, cost-effective and far reaching way. Faxes were better than snail mail, and email is better than faxes, but they all enable us to communicate and exchange messages with others. Social media is like that on steroids, making it almost ridiculously simple to engage with an almost unlimited number of folks, removing all barriers of time, cost and place. Social Media provides the ability to listen and engage faster and better than ever before, and EVERY industry can use the tools and services… not to be a part of Social Media, but to leverage Social Media as a part of what they are already doing, to do it better!

    • http://socialmediaexplorer.com JasonFalls

      My man Sass! Glad to see you pop in from time to time, my friend.

      Excellent points all. As you probably know from my previous posts, I agree with you that social media isn't something to be treated separately. I believe it to be a communications method using the available technology. For now, social media will be treated as it's own animal because so many technologists don't have the requisite polished communications skills and the professional communicators are lost on the technology. But you're right, down the road, it's just going to be a set of tools we use to communicate and we'll all be comfortable with it.

      In the meantime, I'll be happy to make some money teaching people how to get there, though. Heh.

      Thanks for stopping by. Smack J.D. for me.

      • http://www.jeffreysass.com sass

        LOL. I will gladly hit JC in the head for you when he returns from Dragon Con where he is off promoting 7th Son. There are certainly opportunities to train folks to use Social Media and the related tools and services with the goal of showing them how to enhance the skills and objectives they already have. I like your thought above, and perhaps Social Media bridges the gap between “communicators” and “technologists” as you suggest. I re-blogged my comments to you at http://sassholes.blogspot.com/2008/08/social-me

        Hope to see you again soon (or at least at SXSW!)

  • http://www.charlesheflin.com seo2020

    Hi Jason,

    I just recently discovered your blog. I am a hard core social media research analyst, consultant and teacher and it is always a pleasure to find someone that actually knows this space and is not part of the “hype bubble”… I agree with Richard that there is a technology bubble happening (new social platforms popping up daily) that is about to burst… For some reason many people feel that they need to manage as many networks as possible by joining every new platform that they see a minute benefit in. Eventually reality will set in and people will see that managing multiple networks is not time or cost effective.

    Suddenly as more an more people maintain their profile on the more popular (broader reaching) networks, the smaller start-ups and other technologies that don't get sufficient mind share will die off leaving the cream of the crop. I welcome this day because communications won't be so scattered and the effectiveness of social media as a business building platform will rise.

    I predict this bubble bursting in early 2009 … what's your take?

    Thank you,

    Charles Heflin
    Twitter @CharlesHeflin

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  • http://www.control4.com/solutions/smart-lighting/ homecontrol

    Great news! I hope the return to corporate means continued inside perspectives for loyal listeners.

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  • http://blog.insideview.com/2010/05/02/investing-too-much-time-on-social-media-how-to-boost-your-roi/ Santosh Shukla

    Hi Jason, interesting question…. You have very neatly pin pointed the pain point with Social Media. It may tend to become the biggest time-waster.
    However we all know that it is essential also for us in Sales/Marketing field and also for everyone else. I like to relate the social media to the toruk (Avatar fame) which needs to be tamed to get the best results.

    I identified the same problem and have found some answers that work for me. I would recommend you to try them. Using these tips you can save your time and achieve the best of social media.

    Read the tips here. http://blog.insideview.com/2010/05/02/investing…>

  • Buzz

    This is a very clever industry viral campaign by Sweedish newpaper “Dagens Industri”. With the entire advertising industry caught up in where social media is heading, it’s probably pretty tough going for newspapers to continue getting the ad revenue they’ve always had, so they enlisted Storakers McCann to create a viral campaign designed to poke fun at the social media hype and get the industry to have a laugh while reminding them that they still sell newspaper ads!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EdABitKdJ7o

  • gauravjha

    Social Media is exploding with information. It's not too far off to expect where this will lead businesses to. Some of us have already started seeing the turnaround in our businesses, whereas others are getting there quickly.

    I mention some points on how exactly businesses are using Social Media in my post: http://blog.insideview.com/2010/04/27/connectin

  • gauravjha

    Social Media is exploding with information. It's not too far off to expect where this will lead businesses to. Some of us have already started seeing the turnaround in our businesses, whereas others are getting there quickly.

    I mention some points on how exactly businesses are using Social Media in my post: http://blog.insideview.com/2010/04/27/connectin

  • http://www.yelladog.org Yelladog

    So, two years on, what are you all thinking? Where is social media in the hype cycle now? You're a lot closer to it than I am, but from my distant perch what I see is a lot more sensible, more integrated use of social media, but I don't know that we've really been through a “trough of disillusionment.” It doesn't seem to me that every single person on unemployment is a “social media consultant” anymore, but any time a market looks qualitatively different from any market to come before it I ask myself what I'm missing.

  • http://automatedsocialnetworking.com Robert Portman

    These successes will shed light on social media’s proper place in the array of communications strategies and even those who walked away will come back as the plateau of enlightenment takes hold and social media settles into being part of the norm.

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