Social media millstone

The term social media is like a millstone around the neck of modern digital marketing. Digital professionals and geeks who are sm savvy pour scorn on it. Other sm professionals go out of their way to explain how little it has to do with the obvious online channels of Twitter, Facebook and the rest.

And while all of this sniping and positioning goes on, the brands and businesses who really could benefit from a little advice here, don’t have a clue what you’re talking about. Mention social media to 90% of people and they’ll either stare at you blankly or ask “so, you post stuff on Facebook then?”

It’s such a hard sell, and we don’t make it any easier for ourselves by constantly talking about it.  I try hard not to, outside of my blog. Imagine you only spoke about cardboard boxes all day? Obviously some people would be into it but it’s really not that inclusive.

So I’d like to propose 2 things:

1/ Can we stop referring to social media please? I’m going to call what I do “helping businesses make the most of positive brand associations and customer produced content and twitter and Facebook and sites like that…” or “Just online marketing really, only with a focus on the conversations that people are having on social networks and stuff…” If all of my contemporaries do the same then we can make this whole thing a bit more transparent.

2/ Can we also stop talking about it? Let’s talk about what was on TV last night or what streets are going to be closed when the pope comes to town. That way we can communicate like real humans and not talking textbooks.

Now. Obviously these are rules, and as this is social media “helping businesses make the most of positive brand associations and customer produced content and twitter and Facebook and sites like that…” then they exists simply to be broken. And, yes, I know that by the very act of publishing this I am still talking about it. But small steps…


25 thoughts on “Social media millstone

  1. “helping businesses make the most of positive brand associations and customer produced content and twitter and Facebook and sites like that…” Catchy! 😉

    Whilst I agree with the sentiments, crap terminology has forever been part of the internet marketeers’ tool box and I can’t see it changing in a hurry (some particular favourites: linkbait, Tweeps, Web 3.0)

    Should we not talk about it? IMHO we should. Frankly it’s what I’m interested in and what I want to talk about. That doesn’t mean that I know others aren’t necessarily interested.

    If I sold cardboard boxes I would talk about them and work hard to try to make them interesting to my customers. I’d also discuss them with other cardboard box folk. Happily, until the cows come home. And my business would do better as a result.

  2. I think that for all subjects EXCEPT “helping businesses make the most of positive brand associations and customer produced content and twitter and Facebook and sites like that…,” talking about it is absolutely what you SHOULD be doing.

    It’s just that we’re only really talking to each other, which is fine too, but if we want to reach out then it’s inaccessible.

    In all honesty I know I can’t stop talking about “helping businesses make the most of positive brand associations and customer produced content and twitter and Facebook and sites like that…” either but a reduction would be good. Most people I interact with talk very little about it in the grand scheme of things. Ones who talk about it too much get unfollowed quickly.

    Good luck with the cardboard boxes 😉

  3. “we’re only really talking to each other”

    That’s the key point isn’t it. One that I know I’m guilt of but find it a very difficult habit to break.

    P.S. You can make great indoor wendy houses for kids with cardboard boxes

  4. People I talk to Social Media who ‘get it’ in any small way appreciate that it’s an extension of their way of doing business.

    Call it “social business” or “multi-channel business” it’s just another way of reaching out, talking, listening that happens to be online and more immediate.

    Sometimes it’s not social – or sociable – at all. Many businesses then disregard it because they’re not interested in social, but they are are interested in talking to their customers.

  5. “It’s just that we’re only really talking to each other, which is fine too, but if we want to reach out then it’s inaccessible.”

    As Tim has said, here’s the key point. Do I talk to other social media types about social media? Sure I do. A lot in fact. (I invariably do it from morning to night 7 days a week – which is an issue in itself.)

    Having these ‘geek on geek’ conversations helps me challenge my own perceived wisdom on the subject and ultimately helps me develop.

    In saying all that, I easily spend more of my working day talking social media to ‘non-social media folk’ such as clients and targets.

    Most of them don’t know the first thing about social media, all there interested in is how ‘this stuff’ can help their organisation.

    I see a big part of my job is around explaining why social media matters and what it can do. The term is almost irrelevant if I’m being honest.


    1. Engage people where you have common ground. In many cases, in our peer group, that’s social media. But as I mentioned before when you have 1000 followers, most will not not be in that category.

      Agree, the term is irrelevant.

  6. “The term Social Media is holding us back, discuss”:

    Nah – its done a hell of a lot to bring internet marketing into the mainstream (and out of IT departments)

  7. it’s nothing new is it, but we all like to put a label in something.

    Don’t know that it’s holding us back but it certainly can lead us into the temptation to start breaking up bits of our marketing strategy into what really boils down to just tools and platforms. They help, but their aren’t enough.

    What does hold us back is thinking it’s more important than it really is – of course it’s an important pillar of communication, but all the unsexy old-fashioned stuff like knowing your audience, (gasp) market research and brand communications are still at the heart of it. Social media just helps. It’s a signpost, not a destination.

  8. To be honest using words like “listening, engaging and driving advocacy” can be just as meaningless as “social media” it really depends on who’s speaking.

    As Tim stats terminology follows most industries around. I consider it a good things because it gives the media and the un-educated public a simple concept to understand.

    Any consultant worth their weight will use their consultation time and their initial proposal to find out what misconceptions the client may have about all aspects of digital media and make sure explanations are delivered in plain English or better yet using jargon that the client is familiar with in their industry.

    Andrew Davison – Digital Strategist – Ziggurat Brands (
    Follow me on Twitter:

  9. Wonderful point. Please make it over and over and over again. I never talk about social media (yes, yes, I know I just did). I rarely even talk about my business. When I use Twitter, I converse exactly as I would down the pub with my mates… I talk about boys, dates, misbehaving, the pearls of wisdom I receive from my 20yo daughter, law, politics and general other random nonsense. A lot of people on Twitter don’t even really know what I do, save that it is legally based. However, simply by being me, I have made amazing business connections. My business, just like law as a whole, is referral based. By being me, people know what they are getting when they refer to me, and by my Twitter pals being themselves, I know exactly who to refer which particular clients to. We absolutely support each other in a business sense, without ever making reference to either social media or our own brand of cardboard boxes. And in the meantime, we have a lot of giggles with it.

  10. This is a fascinating discussion. As some of you know, I’m not a media guy, simply a user of these channels for my business & for me personally. Sometimes it’s hard to know which is which, but in doing so people get an essence of who I am, what I stand for, and what I might be like as a clinet / advisor.

    We only ever use the term “Social Media” when we’re talking to the companies that help us with our online presence. We certainly never would with our clients or in our marketing.

    What I love is that what was prophesized over a decade ago in The Cluetrain Manifesto has come to pass. Markets ARE conversations again. You can’t control your brand image with marketing “spin”. Thanks to these mediums people can, and will, say exactly what they think about you / your brand / your service. And in real-time to.

    How you respond to that is what separates the great (Zappos) from the good and the frankly piss-poor (Rouleur magazine in my own experience).

    That’s not “Social Media”, it’s engaging with the marketplace!

  11. I think part of the problem is that people always ask ‘what do you do?’. I don’t mean the usual making conversation with someone, but people in the industry. I feel i’ve always got to put names to what I do, but that’s not really how I look at it so I really struggle.

    In terms of my title I do internet marketing, people always want more specific labels than that though! I’d always considered myself to do SEO mainly, but then I discovered a lot of what I do can be called social media, or online pr, or online strategy, or online copywriting, or usability, etc etc (you get the idea).

    Personally I don’t see boundaries between a lot of these, only the names. Yes sometimes they’re used for different goals, but the ideas are usually the same. Many people don’t even realise what they’re doing falls into other categories. I’ve spoke to a couple of people recently who considered themselves to do social media, but claimed to know nothing about SEO. Within a very short space of time i’d realised this to be untrue as subconsciously they did do SEO, but hadn’t labeled it as such.

    So to sum up my ramblings, I’m with Barry, focus on the aims of what we’re trying to do, not the wanky names of how we’re going to do it. As for the second point (ie talking about it) i’ve already failed…


  12. @wisdomlondon is spot on…

    Putting tools and platforms before people is never the right approach for any type of business communications (offline, online, social media or this newfangled “helping businesses make the most of positive brand associations and customer produced content and twitter and Facebook and sites like that…,” :)).

    Unfortunately I think the first thing anyone thinks of when SM is mentioned is twitter or Facebook. It creates silos and a focus on the wrong part of the equation. But how can you get someone to listen to your ideas without using a word they recognise.

    Is it holding us back, probably not at the moment, but perhaps it will store up problems up for the future when we have to then (re)explain that is isn’t just about the most popular platforms.

  13. Good luck with your campaign Barry.

    But personally, I don’t get too bent out of shape by the term ‘social media’.

    As a widely recognized catch-all expression, as a generic term for the profession I work in, sm is fine for me. Its no big deal.

    In my world it’s not what you call what you do that matters, rather it’s what you actually do.

    Perhaps more importantly, we don’t really have much say in what we actually ‘call’ what we do, it’s already been decided.

    In the name-game, the war’s over:

    Searching Google for the term “social media” returned a trifling; 45,800,000 results.

    Who’d argue with that, not me.

    1. I’m not sure that the war’s over Mike. A quick glance at the google results tells me that it’s people involved in “social media” talking about what they do. It doesn’t capture the business needs of companies and brands who need a new way to manage consumer interaction (amongst other things).

      If I were to make a prediction then I’d say that people won’t be talking about social media in 5 years time (maybe even in 2 years time). It’ll be a part of the digital marketing mix along with Search Engine Optimisation and webjitsu.

  14. I cannot see this happening, it would perhaps be nice but at the same time still think it is important to differentiate. SM is part of the full marketing mix, no doubt about it, but we still use terms like Direct mail, digital marketing, email marketing,experential marketing, ambient marketing etc etc When looking at an overall strategy it is important to be able to name and consider the functions that are to be used and for that reason, I believe the term ‘Social Media’ or indeed ‘Social Media Marketing’ will not drop from our vocabs. What I would like to see is people stopping referring to the whole field as ‘Social Networking’ That’s Guru chat.

  15. Thanks for the invitation to add my tuppence Barry – I’m with Coulter – live with the term Social Media; it’s a catchall that doesn’t say what it is on the tin but the wider world, i.e. those of us outside our wee world are just getting to grips with the term and the potential it has for their businesses. To propose an alternative Handle at this stage, brave move.

    As for stopping talking about it, maybe eventually, possibly when I retire? There will always be someone somewhere that wants to know more and how to implement… for me it’s a valuable income stream, I’m not sure I can afford to stop talking about it. For some reason I’m hung up on CSI New York & Las Vegas, I think it’s the twin story lines in each episode along with the appaling acting. As for cardboard boxes, my wife’s cat has thing for them but that’s another story.

  16. Funny; as a web video veteran who’s already had to rail against one poorly-coined term (“podcasting”), I recall the days when we on the creative side were wondering, “When can we stop calling what we do ‘social media’ and just call it ‘media?'”

    These days, the media element is subservient to the marketing element, which has caused me to argue for a distinction between “social media” and “social marketing.” Not that anyone’s listening. Social media still sounds sexier, and nobody ever wants to admit they do marketing for a living.

    I’d suggest worrying less about what we call it and more about doing it well. If people look at you quizzically, it’s not because they haven’t heard the term “social media” before. It’s because no one’s convinced them that it’s worth caring about.

  17. Thanks Justin,

    I don’t think social media sounds sexy. It sounds like trying too hard to make it seem important.

    Agree with you and most of the other respondants though that we should concentrate on what we deliver rather than what people choose to call it.

  18. Barry et al,

    Business is jargon laden, no way around it.

    Except for maybe

    In all seriousness I rarely speak about social media, I talk about collaborative technologies, but then again I don’t work in marketing I work in government (more specifically public policy). I help people use collaborative technologies to meet their objectives (policy making).

    I share a lot in common with external consultants including the fact that a lot of people still boil down social media to “facebook”.

    In the end my only concern is effectively communicating the potential of an ever expanding tool set for clients, in furtherance of better policy and more efficient government (read: lower taxes).

    Great conversation Barry, well done.

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