social media strategies for business through the works of published commentators on the phenomenon (Mendelson, Haydon) and through two case studies, one a New York publishing house (Saint Martin's Press) and the other a South Carolina-based jewelry design firm (Reece Blaire). The paper argues that social media strategy for business is dependent to some extent on building a social media presence independent of the business (or at least independent of an instant monetizing strategy) as a way of building the face of the brand, and also with an awareness that the different social media platforms reach different audiences, so therefore a unified strategy will not ultimately work.
Social media is, in terms of the business world, an extremely new phenomenon. Of the big six social media platforms that exist in 2014 -- Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, YouTube, Instagram and LinkedIn -- only one (LinkedIn) actually existed as a public Internet platform ten years ago, and another (Facebook) technically existed but was still a service exclusively for Harvard University undergraduates. Yet in the past decade, the rise of these Internet platforms has essentially created an entirely new business climate: in order to justify their own market valuation, these services have had to demonstrate a utility in advertising, while mainstream businesses have had to demonstrate their own skill at navigating an America increasingly networked by this new technology by using these services to promote brand recognition, brand awareness, and otherwise engage in advertising tactics. The difficulty here comes from the novelty of the technology. I hope in this report to examine the uses and limitations of social media technology in building a business, with a close focus on two case studies: the small South Carolina-based fashion business of Reece Blaire, and the New York publishing industry (through the example of St. Martin's Press and their 2013 bestselling book Humans of New York).
The basic premise of social media within business marketing is fairly easily stated. Social media exist for people to maintain social connections through online means. The platforms may differ in terms of what precisely they showcase on behalf of their users -- YouTube uses video, Instagram uses photographs, LinkedIn is straightforward business networking -- but the essential premise is the same. Individual users create an account, and then are able to network that account with those of their friends, or can use the site itself to connect (via shared interests) with friends made via the technology. In terms of how this phenomenon is of interest to business, it is as a variety of word of mouth recommendation. This is how Haydon emphasizes it:
Word of mouth is the most powerful way to market any business. In fact, many studies have shown that consumers are more likely to make purchase decisions based on recommendations from people they know than from a brand's marketing materials. Each time a user likes, comments on, or shares content on Facebook, that action spreads to his network of friends. This is how 'word of mouth' happens on Facebook. (Haydon 13)
The basic dynamic here is fairly straightforward. Consumers are accustomed to the actual claims being made on behalf of a product to be exaggerated or inflated -- to use an obvious example from one of America's most heavily advertising-dependent industries, how many times have we seen a Michael Bay film advertised as the best or most exciting new movie of the season? Yet Hollywood films are equally susceptible to word of mouth: we can mark actual steep box office declines of highly anticipated films based on negative word of mouth after the actual release (as happened with Warner Brothers' release of The Matrix Reloaded in 2003) or positive word of mouth boosting profits for films well in excess of their actual advertising budget (as with the 2002 film My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which remains the highest grossing romantic comedy of all time).
It is worth noting, however, that these examples date from the Internet era but before the advent of social media technology. If a young man would report that the Matrix sequel was much worse than the original, or a young woman would tell her friends that My Big Fat Greek Wedding is definitely worth seeing, they might have done it by email or telephone, but they would not have done so in a Facebook post or a 140-character Tweet. The chief difficulty with aiming marketing strategies directly at social media platforms, however, is the difference between each individual platform, and the potential inability for larger companies with an advertising budget to learn how to approach the social media world effectively. This is the sharp critique leveled by Mendelson (2012) in an analysis that claims the vast majority of social media advertising dollars spent by companies are actually wasted:
..marketers have put six very different platforms under one umbrella, and pretended to give advice that would seemingly work across all of them. But…Twitter is not Facebook…YouTube is not LinkedIn. They have very different audiences and uses….Since 2007, the sales pitch from marketers has centered around "social media." Not coincidentally, this took off around the same time the economy collapsed. When you think about it "social media" has all the hallmarks of a get-rich-quick scheme, which fits perfectly with the Great Depression-like conditions many Americans have faced since 2007: You don't need to have any specific kind of skill set to use any of these platforms, and there's little risk involved. (31).
In order to prevent more than just the companies behind social media platforms making the profit, therefore, the focus must be placed on how precisely the particular social media platform can actually help the specific business model in question.
One interesting success story, whose lesson is fairly easily understood, comes from the world of publishing. Although publishing is often derided as "old media" in comparison with the "new media" of the Internet age, it remains a big business. But as an actual business model, it is worth observing how publishing is building a co-operative relationship with social media platforms. An excellent example of this comes from the surprise bestseller Humans of New York, released in late 2013. From the standpoint of publishing industry wisdom, a book of photographs is not usually a candidate for being a best-seller: thus the fact that Humans of New York was able to knock Bill O'Reilly out of the number one nonfiction bestseller slot was legitimate industry news. As Publishers Weekly reported at the time, "Yaniv Soha, associate editor at St. Martin's, won the rights to Brandon Stanton's 'photographic census' of New York faces last fall, at auction. Now, in its first week out, Stanton's Humans of New York is that rare book of photography that is a smash." (Coffey 2013) However it is worth noting that the central fact of this unusual publishing success was, in fact, based on social media. Photographer Brandon Stanton essentially built his brand, photographing strangers on the streets of New York, asking them interview questions, and then posting photos with a quotation to his various blogging platforms -- Humans of New York existed on Instagram, Tumblr, and Facebook before it existed as an actual marketable book. In a business section report on the surprise success of this book, the New York Times noted that it was in fact the Facebook following that led to the publishing deal (and not vice versa): "When his Facebook page had collected more than 200,000 followers, Mr. Stanton decided it was time to collect the pictures into a book. St. Martin's Press, part of Macmillan, was the only publisher willing to print the book in hardcover." (Bosman 2013). The fact that the publisher who acquired the property was the only publisher that though this social media presence would translate into a more expensive (i.e., hardcover book) property indicates one crucial fact about social media -- the relation between free content online and between marketable sellable content in the real world is unpredictable. In this case, Soha and St. Martin's Press made the wise decision: but essentially they were gambling on the goodwill that the brand had built through its free online existence. It is not every business model that could tolerate this method of building brand awareness without necessarily turning a profit.
A more conventional approach is taken by a much smaller independent firm, the South Carolina jewelry design business of Reece Blaire. It is worth noting that, in an authorial interview with one of the firm's founders, she confirmed that the same essential pattern was followed as in the publishing industry: "before starting our business, we had a Reece & Blaire blog on Wordpress. We used Instagram and Facebook to promote our blog and gain readers and followers. Once we began our jewelry business, we continued using Wordpress, Instagram, and Facebook, but also started using Pinterest and Twitter" (Blaire 2014). It is interesting that Blaire also remarked in the interview upon the central fact that Mendelson highlights in his 2012 study: "The audiences are very…