November 14, 2012

Rachel Strella

The Great Debate: Does Social Media Really Level the Playing Field?

by Rachel

There has been discussion between Gini Dietrich and Mark Schaefer, which I have been calling, The Great Debate. Essentially, the argument is whether or not social media really levels the playing field. According to Gini, it does because as a business, “no longer do you need millions of dollars to spend on PR firms and ad agencies in order to build your brand and reputation among the masses…All of the tools are free so it’s a really low barrier to entry. And it works.” According to Mark, social media no longer levels the playing field because “there is an enormous amount of data to get through these days…and to succeed on the social web today you better bring your A Game and a bucket of money.”

With two social media authorities at opposite ends of the spectrum – and both whom I admire and use as my social media compass – what’s the real truth?

Let me back up for a minute and break this down…

What makes social media great is that nearly everyone – including the small business owner – has access to relatively free tools to market themselves to a mass audience. That’s significant and that’s something that has never really happened before.  At the same time, social media is becoming so saturated that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to stand out from the crowd.

I recently asked folks on my fan page what makes them ‘unlike’ a page. Most of the responses included, “too much content.” I agree. This saturation problem has permeated the web – too many channels, too much content – and not enough value.

My colleague, friend and Internet Marketing Strategist, John Webster, had this to say about "The Great Debate:”

In my experience, most business owners will not put the effort into making these ‘free’ resources pay off for them. For some reason, business owners and overweight couch potatoes are very similar - each wants a bit of magic that will allow them to do the same amount of activity and see different results.

To win at the content game and make social pay off, you have to play the game consistently over a long period of time. The problem is the results, although steady, are slow to come. In addition, many business owners are starting out behind competition that has been doing it for much longer. And, to further exacerbate the problem, companies like Google are working feverishly to remove the ability to ‘game’ the system and keep the playing field ‘level.’

Value-added content – over time – is what generates results. In a world of instant everything, succeeding at social media still takes time. The way I see it, in order to create the quality content that attracts attention, a business has three choices: spend money to hire the people to make it happen, dedicate time to developing a creative marketing plan, or shift resources and prioritize.

But I don’t believe that means one has to spend a ton of money or dedicate a ton of time. I’m a big believer that less is more. That ‘less’ has to be great, but it doesn’t have to be on every channel and be everything to everybody.

Two years ago, I would have developed a marketing strategy for a business with a handful of online media. Now, I suggest only two. I believe in this over-saturated environment, it’s more important to make your content powerful and consistent, but only on the channels and to the people that matter most. Is it easy? No. Does it generate instant results? Usually not. But does it work? In many instances it will if you’re in it for the long haul. Just like the ‘couch potato’ who sets small goals and starts exercising regularly will begin to lose pounds, the small business that targets their audience with value-added content will begin to see the true power of social media.

Where do you stand on The Great Debate? 

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17 comments on “The Great Debate: Does Social Media Really Level the Playing Field?”

  1. Yikes - I think they're both right. Hope I'm not straddling a great divide! Plenty to think about here....

  2. I think we're both right, too. I still stand by my statement, but I see Mark's point that we need to be even more creative and valuable in what we put on the social networks in order to garner attention.

  3. The challenge in social media is no different than the days of traditional public/media relations. An analogy I might suggest is pre-cable TV. We went from 7-12 channels to 10 zillion channels (and Bruce Springsteen can easily adapt his earlier lyrics to tell us nothing is on, or too much is on). I can't speak for advertising, but in public relations the disintermediation of traditional news media disrupted the business for the better. The old game of pitching and waiting and hoping has been *extended* (not replaced) with the ability to reach directly (sans gatekeepers) to communities and customers that were, after all, the real targets of companies and institutions. Sustained, ongoing content and community building via posts on social channels or blogs vs. that one big hit in the Wall Street Journal? I would bet on a sustained social media presence with a sprinkling of traditional media inclusion (when you have a story or input that fits). Best of both worlds.

  4. Great article. Thanks for sharing. I agree with both. Yes social media is free and easier for businesses to access and use but in the wrong hands/control it can really do more damage than good. So I guess the question is, can you effectively handle the management of your social media for your business or do you hire an expert who is well versed on the topic.

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, Connie. I think the business has to decide how much time they are willing to dedicate to social media. If they see the value in it, they will apply the resources - whether that be time or money. If they cannot or do not want to dedicate the time, but still see the value, then I recommend hiring help. You bring up a good point, however, which is expertise. Most businesses do not have the knowledge of social media - or marketing/communications in general - to effectively execute in a plan. Some even delegate to 'the youngest person on staff' or the IT guy just to get it off their plate. But this could be a disaster in the making. If a business can afford to hire a consultant or coach to get them started, I recommend it. (One reason why I created the Small Business Owner's Guide to Social Media). Then they have a plan for going forward, rather than randomness. After that, they need to decide to dedicate time or money to making it work for them.

      1. This is really important: "Some even delegate to ‘the youngest person on staff’ or the IT guy just to get it off their plate. But this could be a disaster in the making." I've seen this done often (and was even guilty of it myself, once). The spokesperson for the organization needs to set the tone, just as there are style guides for how companies use graphics and lettering, there needs to be a "social media styleguide," making sure that the voice(s) of the company ring true.

        1. Yes. It happens way too often - we 'delegate' what could be arguably be the most fundamental link to our customers.

  5. Both points of view have validity. If you are willing to commit to the effort I believe that you will see certain successes, maybe not as fast or as vast as you might hope in the short term, but surely in the longer term. The secret is knowing where you need help and then securing the best. As I am just venturing into this "brave new world" of social media, I am indeed fortunate to have the very capable assistance of Strella Social Media. Stay tuned for my blog "Privacy over Power."

    1. Susan,

      Right on! It takes time and effort, but it works if you work it. I'm working on your social media strategy 'as we speak!'


  6. […] Now, a small company can achieve global reach within days of launching their business when the cards fall right. Perhaps it’s via an ingenious video, by sharing opinions that resonate and haven’t been stated in the past, or creating new knowledge that spreads like wildfire. Maybe it’s by simply sharing the business concept and bigger voices latching onto it. In any case, social media has provided a means to have a voice on par with the big dogs for everyone, including the smallest startups or “Mom & Pop” businesses. […]

  7. […] is where social media kicks in. Now, any small company can do the same within days of launching their business. There are many social websites out there […]

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