One of the few times I ever lost some sleep over something came in the spring of 2000. That’s when the technology bubble burst and U.S. 1’s profit sharing plan burst along with it. With 20-20 hindsight in the middle of the night, I realized we had been had by a bubble of demand for stocks promising Internet-based wealth.
Beware of bubbles, I told myself.
Now, 10 years later, I sense a similar bubble surrounding the so-called social media. This time the investment isn’t financial, because the social media platforms aren’t selling stocks and most of them aren’t even charging users for their services. It’s a bubble of time and expectations. Call it an enthusiasm bubble.
For the past three weeks in this space, I have been charting the course: Companies are setting up Facebook accounts encouraging potential customers to become their fans. Reporters are picking out 140-character slices of the news and dispatching them over Twitter. As stories are written they are posted to the website, where they may share space with comments and even videos posted by readers, now seen as potential creators of content as well as consumers.
Big thinkers such as former journalist Jeff Jarvis, author of “What Would Google Do?” are predicting the death of print media. The Trentonian and its parent company have become poster children for the new “digital first, print last” world.
As the proud owner of a new smart phone (a Droid that enabled me to keep my Verizon number), I appreciate the awesome potential of social media. I think I get it: a new media where the readers/viewers do as much work as the writers/editors; a media that can be distributed at virtually no cost 24/7/365 without a worry about rain, sleet, snow, or traffic jams.
And I am enthusiastic, leading our little company into the social media swirl, orchestrating Twitter and Facebook sites for U.S. 1 and our sister publication, the West Windsor-Plainsboro News, and pushing our editors to post stories early on our websites, princetoninfo.com and wwpinfo.com. I even walk around with that smartphone, showing off the social media connections whenever I can.
And there’s the beginning of the rub. Among our office of 10 or so media-minded professionals, I am the most enthusiastic social media advocate. After that it falls off precipitously. Our youngest staffer may be the least interested. My two teenage kids care less than that. Facebook, for them, is a fad that has come and gone. They text, but they don’t Tweet.
I realize that audiences build slowly in any medium, but I suspect even more so in the highly fragmented online world. An ad on our website might get “viewed’ 250,000 times in a two-week period. The number of clicks through to the advertiser’s website: Maybe 50. Yet one advertiser doing a lot of online advertising told us our numbers were pretty impressive. A similar ratio emerges from Twitter. More than 300 “followers” of our new page but on most days only a handful ever click through to the material being referenced in our Tweets.
Just this week in the New York Times “Media Equation” columnist David Carr described the financial struggles of a promising online news organization, MinnPost.com. The problem? “The tyranny of small numbers,” wrote Carr, citing the website’s low advertising revenues. In a one-person survey of online vs. print, I have to point out that for the past five months or so I have been following Carr on Twitter (@carr2n). I recently stopped monitoring his prolific Twitter feeds and instead paid $2 for the Monday paper containing his column and other media-related stories. It was $2 well spent.
So faced with some sober reality, rather than social media exuberance, what’s a reasonable action plan for people in the communications business? Here are some things to put on your short list:
Don’t pay for anything online. Statistics for clicks, views, unique visitors, and all the rest are plentiful. But I haven’t heard anyone yet state how any of those numbers relate to sales. And the cost of the social media platform to capture that audience is next to nothing. For now free reigns supreme.
Don’t forget the rules of engaging and holding an audience. As I wrote in the first installment of this series, building an audience does not happen overnight. And to hold the audience you have to make sure you are presenting a reasonable message in a reasonable way. It makes sense to use Twitter to keep the world apprised of a street riot or an unfolding natural disaster. Twitter does not make sense to cover a serious subject that requires thoughtful reflection.
Allow others access to your site, but don’t give up control. Last week in this space I noted how the Trentonian, in the national spotlight for its cutting edge online approach to journalism, had failed on some occasions to filter the trash from the Tweets.
The conventional media’s role, in part, is to bring some order to the crowd. The new social media wants to bring the crowd into the newsroom. But when no one in a crowd has a microphone (or a platform) then the loudest person is the one who is heard. If everyone has a microphone, however, then it’s still the loudest person. But how long will the crowd hang around?
Understand the difference between being personable and being personal. Lots has been written about the need to bring some personal dimension to your social media presence, to create an empathetic connection between you and your audience. But that doesn’t mean you share every feeling that crosses your mind. (Nor do you always give an honest answer when greeted with “good morning, how are you?”)
Columnists eventually figure this out, in part because they get feedback from readers and in larger part because they have editors who rein them in.
For all the naysaying here, I offer another point: Do not ignore this new social media. I think back to the year 2000. Yes, the stock prices were unreal, but the underlying technology was real. The Internet bubble burst, but the Internet remained.
Finally, if you are moonlighting in social media, don’t give up your day job. If you are publishing a paper and dipping your toe into social media, don’t give up your print publication. Sleep tight.