Social Media Could Have Transformed Marketing — Instead, It Amplified Its Flaws

This article originally appeared in MediaPost.

In 1999, Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, and David Weinberger said the Internet would turn markets into conversations, audiences were actual human beings, and companies would come down from their ivory towers to create meaningful relationships. Eight years later, I read their book, “The Cluetrain Manifesto.” Social media was going to change the world, and I wanted to be at the tip of the spear.

I joined a rapidly growing cadre of change agents using social media to radically transform everything from fixing potholes and broken stoplights to managing city budgets. 

Social media wasn’t the realm of any one person, department or organization. It was owned by everyone and no one. The only thing early adopters of social media had in common was the desire to create change.

These conditions applied:

  • People were people, not fictionalized digital personas.
  • No one talked about social “content.” These platforms were for conversations with constituents in real time.
  • The organizational hierarchy flattened dramatically. Corporate silos crumbled as people throughout the org chart could easily collaborate with other departments.
  • Customers talked to one another about brands all over the Internet, and marketers were invited to join.
  • Social media accounts were run by actual people, with real names and personalities.

We enforced these changes because this was an opportunity to do things differently, to do things better.  We could say, “No, senior director, you don’t get to approve every tweet we write. Do you follow me around and pre-approve my conversations, too?”

But social media became too popular, too fast. It didn’t take long for marketers to start measuring the ROI of every tweet, post, and photo. Eventually, they were able to overwhelm the change agents with processes and best practices.

Instead of recognizing social as an opportunity to fundamentally change how companies interact with employees and customers, companies did what they always do: blanketed people with ads, driving as many impressions as possible, as cheaply as possible, until they derived every last piece of revenue. “Social media” became less social. It became another place for brands to push out advertising.

Other things happened:

  • Conversations gave way to content.
  • Social media got integrated into IT, with complex usage permissions.
  • Thriving unofficial fan sites were shut down in favor of sanitized (read: boring) official sites.
  • Humans with personalities and names were replaced by corporate personas and branded voices.
  • Success was measured in clicks and likes rather than relationships and loyalty.

Rather than fundamentally changing how marketing works, marketing fundamentally changed what social media was.

Today I see a world where social media has been weaponized to manipulate the public, and where everyone — brands, influencers, politicians, friends, and family members — is no longer interested in conversations, but in capturing the most likes, clicks, and views as efficiently as possible.

Still, there are signs the pendulum is starting to swing. Unilever recently said it will no longer work with influencers who buy followers or use bots. Mozilla and Sonos pulled Facebook ads after the Cambridge Analytica scandal. And many direct-to-consumer brands like AllBirds, Warby Parker, and Glossier have grown without losing their soul: their personality and relationships with their consumers. Maybe they’ll be the change agents that reverse the trend.

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