I admit to having ridden the social media bandwagon from the start — mainly because I had to see how things would play out — but I've always been skeptical about its impact. Is anyone reading what you have to say? Do they even care? With so much information flowing, how can anything be absorbed? The same goes for social features accompanying products. Does friending and following add value to your product or is it a distraction? Value to me is measured in dollar signs — not pageviews and certainly not friend requests or follow count.
Don't Hire Social Media People
I'm going to offend a lot of people with this statement, but I don't think there's a place for a "social media" person (what some people refer to as a "community manager") in your company. Tweeting, Tumblring, Facebooking, blogging, etc., are all routine tasks that can be performed by any person out there with basic English skills and a friendly personality. The person doing this can also be the founder, a developer, a marketing person or the person that answers email. It's just not a full-time job.
The benefits of having someone dedicated to these tasks, whatever they may be, don't add up to a wise use of resources. As Leo Laporte wrote last week after he discovered that nobody was listening despite his tens of thousands of followers: "I was shouting into a vast echo chamber where no one could hear me because they were too busy shouting themselves. All this time I've been pumping content into the void like some chatterbox Onan."
At Carbonmade, we just announced our fifth full-time person, Mike Minnick, who has been handling emails and what nowadays constitutes social media stuff for us during the past few months part-time. Mike is great at his job. The impact Mike has had since he started working with us has been amazing, but it primarily comes in the form of quick and thorough email responses — something measurable — rather than in numbers of new followers.
Mike is atypical. He didn't go to college. Instead he toured the world as the lead singer of a Hardcore band called Curl Up and Die — it had a large cult following — and worked most of the past few years at a comic book store. He's covered in tattoos, but one of the nicest guys I know with a personality so charming that everyone (man or woman) who meets him falls in love.
But Mike wasn't hired to tweet for us. We hired him around a measurable need (responding to customers' emails) rather than a fantasy. That's what the concept that drives "social media" is. It's a fantasy that having 100 or 1,000 more friends or followers will bring you more business even though social networks are nothing more than echo chambers in which nobody is listening.
Not Every Product Needs to Be Social!
There's an obvious difference between social media and having social features on your website. The former is a marketing technique and the latter is a product feature. Social features certainly make sense on some sites, but, as with gaming mechanics, they are way overused, often incorrectly.
Carbonmade is evidence that every website doesn't need to launch with social features to be popular and successful. We're the largest online portfolio website with over 250,000 portfolios and counting — all without a single social feature. Madness?
We're not Facebook. We're not a social network and probably your company isn't either. We don't necessarily need or want our users talking and friending each other. Instead of spending valuable development hours on hooking in social networking features, we'd rather spend them on our unique product. You can only force-feed people the same features on every site before they'll all revolt: "Boring! I've seen that before."
Now with some products it makes sense: Foursquare, for example, because it is a social platform, with game mechanics their bread and butter. It makes sense for them because they are building toward exactly what they want to be: a social platform. They're not just tacking social features onto a product that doesn't require them. Please stop doing that.
On the flip side, I'm scared for Foursquare because their product really is only social, and with the launch of Facebook Places, there's little to differentiate them. However, they're very smart folks at Foursquare, and I'm confident they'll survive by figuring out how to reinvent themselves.
I'm happy to see more and more companies being built around the idea of analytics. Analytics have been around for a while — mainly analytics that measure web traffic, like Google Analytics — but now we're seeing another group of companies looking at measuring in a different way. Those companies include KISSmetrics, Chartbeat, StatsMix, Chart.io and others. I think these forms of quantifying are important.
Social media marketing can't be measured, at least not effectively. Spending money on social media marketing reminds me of the early 2000s, when you couldn't measure the effectiveness of banner ads. Everyone was spending on it without knowing what the outcome was. This trend ended up dying out when a more measurable and effective advertisement system came in: Google's AdWords. Companies began to be focused on click-through ratio and conversions rather than pageviews (the modern day equivalent of pageviews being followers/friends).
If I weren't working on Carbonmade, I'd be working on better ways to analyze and measure data effectively. Numbers don't lie, and there's a lot of incoming data that needs making sense of. I anticipate huge fallout for companies over the next 12 to 24 months because they were built around too many assumptions about the vitality of the social space and not enough concrete, measurable facts. Social media marketing, social features and game mechanics will prove to have been the culprits.