I hear that phrase all the time. From clients with decades of marketing experience and peers who are struggling with where these tools fit in the advertising mix and the marketing budget. I've said before how social media is not the answer to a marketers problems, but a tool to assist them. But that doesn't really help those who don't get it, does it? So let's think of this social media thing in a different way.
Put yourself in these shoes...
You have a consumer base who is increasingly skeptical. They don't really trust corporations, although they consume their products. You're trying to reach this consumer base and cut through the clutter of the thousands of ad impressions that these folks are bombarded with daily. You've read all the books about being genuine and 'making connections'. You've even tried this Social Media stuff - your new product has a Group on Facebook, and you've hired an agency to keep a pulse on your Social Media impact. Exciting stuff.
But you feel nothing. You're Facebook page looks cool and it's comforting to know that 1200 people would consider themselves 'a fan' (but maybe that has something to do with the iPod's your giving away as an incentive?). In contrast when you spend six figures on a television ad, you feel something. Your sales increase. The phone rings. Your CEO is happy.
Why Social Media?
I'd like to change that question to why word of mouth? Social Media - or any new media - works best when it is thought of as a tool to help word of mouth. In this context, the question is less abstract, less technical, and familiar. You may not know why your Facebook group was bottomless, or why your customer blog wasted away in only a few months. But you do know that word of mouth is the single greatest influencer in product purchases (here's some pre-social media era research). It's the reason you employ people to interact with your customer base, and the reason you started that gift certificate program six years ago. So stop using social media as a support for your television and radio ads. Start using them as a support for your word of mouth marketing.
You continue to build a better product, provide better service and hire better employees so that you have better customers. Customers who love you and spread the gospel of your brand. So, now you have more tools to assist this word of mouth. And the best part: You don't have to know anything about the online world. The less you know the better. In contrast - the more you know about how to influence your customers to be your fans, the better this new set of 'social media' tools will work.
There. It's that easy. Don't be a social media specialist - be a consumer specialist.
You know that your customers talk about you when there is something interesting or rewarding to talk about. You now know that there are tools that can reach these customers and assist them in spreading this message. Now you can take another look at this social media stuff and see where it fits in your marketing strategies.
Update: Saw this quote over at John Bells blog “Online social network users were three times more likely to trust their peers’ opinions over advertising when making purchase decisions.” (“Social Networking Sites: Defining Advertising Opportunities in a Competitive Landscape,” JupiterResearch, March 2007)