Sustainable Social Media: A Manifesto

<< Crossposted from my post on the official Wildfire PR blog. Because I like it. >>

If one thing has become clear in the last few weeks, it’s that everyone loves the Old Spice guy.  He sprung out of nowhere, posted some clever YouTube videos and we all had a good time.

But social media was supposed to be about more than this.  It was supposed to make companies more transparent and usher in a new age of true public relations – it was supposed to save the world!

“I’m on a horse”

Instead, the old approach of pushing a brand into consumers’ faces, however entertaining, seems to prevail. Examples like the Old Spice man are typical ‘flash in the pan’ campaigns, disposable advertising that builds as much of a relationship with most viewers as ads ever have. Once it has run its course, P&G will be back to the drawing board for another idea.

This marketing will always have its place, it’s part of the mix and when done well, indispensable. But it’s a prime example of social channels being used the old fashioned way. Most importantly, it’s the advertising agency speaking to the viewer, not the business itself.

Talk to the animals

But we all know how brands can use social media to communicate externally, right? Get the customer service department stuck in!

All you need is a clever Boolean search for your brand name and you can wage war on negative sentiment, responding to your audience and making them feel loved.  What’s great about this is that it sets the right tone and the right priorities, namely independence and authenticity.

Interestingly, it’s also fundamentally quite old-fashioned with businesses communicating directly with customers based on intimate job expertise, not marketing credentials. It’s what people want, it’s how things used to be, and it’s as it can be again.

Think bigger

But why would you bring this change to only one department in your business? At best, this displays a lack of ambition and, at worst, unappealing cynicism.

Those working with brands and social media in any capacity should do everything possible to help clients become socially aware, involved and ultimately, independent.

This is our best hope to escape the current “flash in the pan” case studies and move toward the more mature pedigree of what we’ve started to call sustainable social media.

A better future for our children

Just as the concept of sustainability elsewhere draws on ideas of self-sufficiency and a long game perspective, in social media, we need to be laying the groundwork for businesses to do the same.

Campaigns like Old Spice Man will always have their place and indeed, this is where I might expect specialists to come in and bring their creativity to the table.  But once we’re through this teething phase and clients are more social savvy than not, the potential of such campaigns will be truly phenomenal.

And our childrens’ children

Once brands are thoroughly social and working with intelligent and equally competent specialists in PR, digital etc, that’s when we’re going to start seeing the most consistently brilliant work. And that’s when the aspirations of social media will finally become more than collective ambition and over-exposed shallow case studies.

- Max Tatton-Brown

August 6th, 2010