The Final Destination for Social Media

It’s amazing how much of the conversation around social media focuses on…social media itself. That is, the tools. Blog posts with “social media” in the title tend to get higher readership than posts about SEO, white papers or just about any other marketing topic. Tweets about Twitter statistics generate far more retweets than if the topic is email statistics.

None of this is bad of course, just interesting. It shows we’re still collectively in the shiny-sparkly stage when it comes to social media. That’s natural, part of the way we (particularly early adopters) are made: we are fascinated by new technologies until they become part of the fabric of everyday life, at which point we collectively shift our focus to the utility of the tool rather than the technology itself. And social media tools are complex, so it will likely take a while to reach this stage.

What will social media look like when it’s mature?

But let’s take a mental leap through time; what will social media look like in x years, when it’s mature and just another tool we reflexively reach for when needed, like picking up the phone today?

  1. First, social media will be ubiquitous. It’s telling that, although growing in number, relatively few companies today include links to their social media points of presence on their websites. Yet virtually every company’s “contact us” page includes their fax number. When was the last time you faxed someone at a company to ask a question? One sign of social media maturity is that social media information will be right there on every contact page along with phone number, address and key email addresses. And maybe the fax number too.
  2. Second, social media will have to be less fragmented. Social media is fundamentally a powerful new communications tool, so think of it like the telephone. Can you imagine having multiple phones sitting on your desktop: one for talking to coworkers, one for customers, one for prospects and business contacts outside your organization, and one for personal phone calls. One provides video capabilities. One only lets you speak 28 words before disconnecting you (140 characters equals roughly 28 words, on average). All of them let you talk to just one individual or a group, but the function works completely differently on each phone. You get the picture. No one would put up with this. For social media, that means either that one platform will end up being dominant, or management tools will evolve to the point of giving users a single monitoring, management and response platform across all of their social media accounts.
  3. Third, social media will have to provide a single login. People are overwhelmed with the number of different systems, applications, websites, platforms and other accounts they need to log into on a daily basis. The ultimate social media management tool will provide a single login to all an individuals points of social media presence, for participation, monitoring and analysis.
  4. Fourth, that ultimate tool / dashboard / system will enable management of multiple accounts. An individual should be able to manage several personal and/or business-related accounts from a single login, and tweet or provide status updates from one or any number of those accounts simultaneously.
  5. Fifth, social media management should ultimately be based on contacts, not platforms; for example, today one can send an email to another individual, a predefined group (e.g. “Accounting Department”) or to an ad hoc group. There’s no need to think: “hmm, Joe is using Outlook, Sally is on Gmail, Fred uses a webmail system…” No, you send an email to a group of recipients, and they get it, no matter what email system they’re using. You set up a conference call, and any invited participant can dial in, no matter what phone company they use. Social media needs to evolve similarly.
  6. Finally, it goes without saying—all social media needs to be multi-platform. A user should have a productive experience on any device from a smart phone to a desktop PC with a large HD monitor (or even a Minority Report style screen).

Given the extraordinary growth of Twitter and LinkedIn, Facebook and some of the later entrants like Google Plus and of course the ubiquity of Youtube, it is unlikely that any one social network will dominate now or in the future. So that leaves the emergence of tools to help companies manage their communications across social channels. So what does the vendor landscape look like?

No definitive categorization of these tools has yet to emerge, although the broader segment is often referred to as social media management systems (SMMS). As always with nascent markets, the vendors of this new category use similar terminology and can appear to be offering similar capabilities. However when we look closely at the the vendors, the reality is they come at social media marketing from very different angles.Whilst there is some overlap and convergence in capabilities, broadly we can define five key classes of vendors.

5 types of social media management vendors

The sharers – these are the email and marketing automation vendors attempting to make their platforms relevant for social media marketing. Typically their strategy revolves around making email content assets shareable within social networks, with analytics to support the tracking of the conversion process from this distribution. This class is the least sophisticated in social media marketing capability. Examples include Eloqua and Marketo.

The listeners – the buzz monitoring vendors, whose heritage involves providing the listening and feedback loop to track brand reputation and sentiment. This class of vendors is typically weak when it comes to the fulfillment of marketing campaigns, but provide solid intelligence to support campaign decisions, rather than sophisticated functionality to execute the campaigns themselves. Examples include Radian6 and Brandwatch.

The social inbox managers – these tools are often designed for the social media manager, rather than the broader marketing department. They can be very useful for the aggregating of interactions and publishing of messages on multiple social media channels, but are more centered on managing the day-to-day conversation rather than the implementation, automation and measurement of marketing campaigns across social media. Examples include Hootsuite and Spredfast.

The page builders – this class of tools is focused on page building capability for Facebook Pages and often the curation and management of the wall posts. The single channel nature of this class limits their use for wider social media marketing efforts. Buddy Media and Involver would fall into this class of vendor.

The campaigners – the group of social media vendors that are most focused on managing marketing campaigns through multiple social media channels. Often having templates for various types of campaigns to automate some of the processes and sophisticated tracking of goal metrics, this class of tools allows marketers to easily launch campaigns and measure value from their social media marketing efforts, tracking how campaigns are performing and who the social advocates are that help spread marketing initiatives.

You could say that social media management systems need to be all these things. And you would be right. However social media is fast becoming as ubiquitous as the telephone. It has overtaken email as the dominant internet communication protocol both in terms of number of global users and minutes used. Every department in a company uses email and every department uses the telephone. That is a lot of different types of interactions that will have to happen over social media. Don’t be surprised if the vendor landscape gets more complicated in the short term before consolidation starts to happen.

When will social media become a mature technology? That’s hard to say chronologically, but when we spend as little time concerned with social media as a tool as we do today contemplating how a fax machine works, when social media use becomes as routine as dialing a phone number or sending an email—then we’ll be there. And we’ll turn our attention to new shiny-sparkly things. Or is social media already mature?

This post was co-authored by: Richard Jones
Richard Jones
Richard Jones is the Founder and CEO of  EngageSciences, a social media marketing platform provider, headquartered in Oxford, United Kingdom, with clients across Europe and the US.