The Future of Social Media: Hope Or Hype?

by Jason Falls |
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.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]


About the Author

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).