As with a number of other elements of the online world, what is understood by the term social media is still open to debate. I have previously defined social media as 'a collective term for the various social network and community sites including such online applications as blogs, podcasts, reviews and wikis' (Charlesworth 2007) and in more tangible terms as 'sites where users can add their own content but do not have control over the site in the same way as they would their own website' (Charlesworth 2014). Both of these betray my conviction that social media existed long before the Internet made it so popular. Indeed, if you delete any reference to the Internet within any definition you might find for 'social media', that definition will still make sense simply by inserting any of the traditional media. For example, newspapers have always included 'readers' letters' sections, and radio has phone-in shows. Similarly, communities of like-minded people have always gathered to discuss, debate and disseminate their interests, be that changes in political regimes, how to grow the best onions or anything in-between. Before the digital revolution, however, those meetings were physical and so restricted by geography. For the digital-generation, such limitations are gone. Like all things associated with it, however, the Internet does things quicker and makes it easier for the user to participate. In their publication; The Definitive Guide to B2B Social Media, marketing management company Marketo (2010) define social media as; 'the production, consumption and exchange of information through online social interactions and platforms', whilst Kaplan and Haenlein (2010) also combine the concept [of social media] with digital media in describing social media as 'a group of Internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of web 2.0 and that allow the creation and exchange of user generated content'. Whilst this directly associates social media with the Internet - it also adds to the debate by introducing another much over-used and misunderstood term; Web 2.0. The link between social media and Web 2.0 is highlighted by Tapscott and Williams (2007), who suggest that the old web was about websites, clicks and 'eyeballs', but the new web [Web 2.0] is about the communities, participation and peering.
So it is that for researchers, writers and practitioners of social media marketing the first problem is actually identifying what social media is - or at least what others perceive it to be. Ironically, however, it is the flexible, dynamic and innovative nature of the medium which means that other than listing tactics in a SMM strategy or trying to write books on the subject what it is doesn't really matter. In many ways, social media is whatever it is perceived to be by an individual participating in it. Indeed, it is perhaps an attempt to address this definition issue (or is it just a trend?) that social media marketing is now commonly referred to by digital marketers simply as 'social' - as in, 'our budget for social has increased by 50 per cent'.
In the subsequent sections of this chapter I have divided social media into different elements in order to address the differing ways in which the web user can add their own content to a web presence. The first, consumer generated content, concentrates on reviews and ratings. Second is social networks and online communities followed by consideration of blogging, the phenomenon of viral marketing, online public relations and reputation management. However, you should bear in mind that the distinctions between some categories are blurred - better that you try to consider the whole chapter as one big subject - which is why I finish with a section that looks at strategic social media marketing.
Also worth noting at this point is that in this chapter I have concentrated on the social aspect of social media. That is to say, content that is not written in a commercial context - ie hobby or pastime rather than work. This is not to say that social media has no commercial application - or else why would I have included the subject in this book? As the following sections will show, what the public writes is of interest to organizations. However, commercial communities do exist, where industry-related subjects - rather than the social issues like your favourite rock band - are discussed. I have made the decision to include these in chapter 5.5 on e-marketplaces - though I do appreciate there can be a blurring of the lines between where some social and commercial networking sites meet.
In studying the subject, it is also worth considering the theory on which social media marketing hangs. With roots in psychology, sociology and economics (in which it is known as the theory of economic behaviour) social exchange theory suggests that social behaviour is the result of an exchange process where each party seeks to maximise benefits and minimize costs. In a commercial environment - where benefits and costs can be evaluated in financial terms - this is a relatively straight-forward proposal to assess. In a social environment, however, the costs and benefits are far more intangible and will differ from person to person. Nevertheless, whatever the interpretation of costs and benefits, individuals weigh one against the other before deciding if what they will get out of any resulting relationship is offset by what they must put into it. If the risks outweigh the rewards, the relationship will be terminated or abandoned. It is the very nature of the online environment that make both the benefits and costs more easily gained or discarded than in the real world - a click of the mouse being all that is required. Perhaps it is this apparent ease in accepting or rejection that makes social media so appealing to its predominantly young users and such a marketing minefield for those wishing to make commercial gain from it.
Also from offline sociology is reasoning for the success of viral marketing through social websites, in particular, Mark Granovetter's seminal paper on social networking, the Strength of Weak Ties (1973). In it he argues that while our acquaintances (weak ties) are less likely to be socially involved with one another than our close friends (strong ties), our acquaintances will have their own close friends - and our only link with those people is through our weak ties - hence they are important to us. In social networking terms this means that if I have an idea that I pass on to my acquaintances (weak ties) I am reliant on their close friends (strong ties) to continue the spread of the idea. Pre Internet it was (a) difficult for me to make contact with weak ties, (b) easy for them to block any contact from me, and (c) have no motivation to pass on the idea, even if they received it. In the online world of social networking the click of a mouse on a 'friends' link means that my message (idea) goes out to all my friends and acquaintances (in an instant) - and not only do subsequent clicks from those people sending the message to all of their friends and acquaintances, and so on and so on, but the flexibility of computer-mediated-communication (CMC) easily overcomes the offline communications hurdles of geography and time-zones.
In terms of Granovetter's model, those people who are well down on my 'friends' or mailing list (weak ties) all get my message, as do their weak ties - which means that in terms of networking of messages, as much (if not more) communication is conducted via weak ties than strong ones - hence their strength.
When examining how the marketer can use social media in either strategic or operational planning, there are a couple of further issues to be addressed.
1 Digital marketing - and particularly social media - is a reflection of the time in which it developed. In the relationship between marketers and consumers, things were changing, and 'Internet marketing was simply the catalyst for a sea change that had been long coming' (Meadows-Klue 2008).
2 Social media participants do not like to be lied to, or even fooled. They don't even like to be marketed at - which makes the issue of how to use the social media in a marketing even more problematic.
These points lead us to what is the critical impact of social media on contemporary marketing - potentially the most significant change in marketing since the practice was recognised as a discipline in its own right. That impact is that the marketer no longer has control over the brand - a frightening thought for many who practice in the field.
Prior to the emergence of the commercial Internet, the marketer had control over any marketing message that reached the public. As US TV executive Don S. Hewitt once famously commented; 'The businessman only wants two things said about his company - what he pays his public relations people to say and what he pays his advertising people to say'. That age has now passed. Certainly in the past a dissatisfied customer could tell friends and acquaintances of their experiences, they might even submit a letter to a newspaper or magazine (though the chances of any publication including a letter criticising any potential advertiser was questionable), but their sphere of influence was limited. Now, the Internet - by way of social media - allows the single disgruntled customer to reach hundreds, thousands or even millions of people at the click of a mouse. And those recipients can then replicate that message to untold other masses of people.
Whether the marketer - or more accurately, the organization - sees this loss of control as an opportunity or threat may well determine how well that organization will prosper in the new marketing environment. Social media marketing is, essentially, all about using the medium to encourage the dissemination of a positive brand, product or organization message. Marketing students - and practitioners - may also recognise that some elements of SMM could be considered to be part of a relationship approach to marketing, with the web being used as another conduit through which the organization can build and develop a relationship with its customers or public. One thing is certain, consumers are interacting with brands and participating in marketing on a scale that wasn't conceived by most marketers right up to the end of the last century.
It is worth adding a footnote to this introduction that pervades subjects throughout the chapter - and it is this. Although marketers can use elements of social media in their marketing efforts, if the organization provides a quality product, at an appropriate price, delivered by enthusiastic staff in places where customers expect to find it - then there is nothing for that organization to fear from what might be considered as negatives aspects of social media. This notion is supported by research from Baird and Parasnis (2011) which found that more than 60 percent of consumers believe passion for a business or brand is a prerequisite for social media engagement.