Editorial: The Age of Social Media

By Len Monheit

Social Media – Wikipedia - Participatory online media where news, photos, videos, and podcasts are made public via social media websites through submission. Normally accompanied with a voting process to make media items become "popular".

Social Media Expanded Definition: Social Media is the democratization of information, transforming people from content readers into content publishers. It is the shift from a broadcast mechanism to a many-to-many model, rooted in conversations between authors, people, and peers.

Over the past eight years, we at NPIcenter have spent over 50 percent of our lives online. Other than making us dizzy from time to time and learning some pretty unique keyboarding skills, the experience has allowed us to understand emerging technologies and behaviors, and to a certain extent, predict those that might offer practical value for the long term.

Many capability developments have offered little practical value to business and have become either passing fads or simple social behaviors, which, if anything, became distractions from the normal course of business. Just ‘because we can’ doesn’t obviously mean ‘we will’, and so just because a tool is built doesn’t mean it will automatically be adopted by a business or industry community. What is needed is a practical, tangible value – the same fundamental principle that led (at the right time) to the adoption of the Internet as a key communication vehicle.

Ideally, the tool or capability is scaleable and has the ability to transcend sectors. One of the realities of our industry is that while not technologically averse per se, it certainly lags behind some of the more forward industries when it comes to adopting emerging technologies. Part of the reason for this is simply the number of small businesses and operations which make up the backbone of the industry. Another contributing factor is the community structure with its heavy reliance on personal relationships, and focused interactions at tradeshows and other events. Whatever the reason, this industry watches the more tech-friendly and picks and chooses what to adopt, after the value is proven.

Into this environment, we now must drop some demographic and behavioral shifts, as well as some fundamental business realities.

In their search for information, individuals are taking the responsibility themselves rather than rely exclusively on healthcare provider guidance. Secondly, the need for information is an instantaneous desire, with the expectation of being fulfilled within minutes. Both of these factors are fueling an emerging need that smart companies in all sectors are taking advantage of – education. Next, we have the reality of acceleration in the business world, leading to ramped up product development (and obsolescence) cycles, and both the need and opportunity to gain feedback at multiple stages along the development, commercialization continuum.

So what does this mean for business and for business in our industry in particular? And what does this have to do with ‘social media’?

Just as the holy grail of clinical research is the double-blind, placebo-controlled randomized clinical trial, the gold standard in concept evaluation is end-user or client research or focus groups providing feedback at various stages. This feedback can be in numerous formats, but essentially involves soliciting preferences and other responses in ‘real-time’ based on products or concepts. This business need now has a new deliverable using social media. Also, a frequent differentiator between successes and second-bests is the ability to generate culture or community around a product or idea. Once again, social media is up to the task as a community generator.

Let’s take a look at the enhanced definition above, specifically a couple phrases :

1) “transforming people from content readers into content publishers”

2) “from a broadcast mechanism to a many-to-many model”

Building on statement 1) above, further reading on the subject talks about the ‘wisdom of crowds’ where expression of opinion stimulates ongoing dialogue which in turn can lead to new conceptualization, or an active and dynamic review of a current environment in order to fulfill an intelligence gathering function. Statement 1) also above describes the process where reader becomes publisher. Obviously, those involved in web development traffic building projects see the potential in this activity with user generated content, and an active online community.

Statement 2) above essentially involves stimulating the focus group environment where peers potentially engage in a sharing or collaborative environment. Obviously this environment has benefits for product development, outreach, viral marketing and more.

Most of us are familiar with emerging forms of social media. Wikipedia, as a reference tool, has been developed by and is the product of, this process. Discussions, forums and list-serves have been around forever it seems and were formerly the domains of tech enthusiasts, hobbyists and other select groups. The emergence of MySpace, Facebook and YouTube has created a more interactive and fun environment, but essentially represents another form of community interaction and ‘weighting’ of interests, intents, relationships and activities. And blogs, podcasts and vlogs have emerged as effective communication vehicles both to reach communities as well as among community members.

Another aspect of social media demands a moment’s consideration, and that is the judgment aspect often present, leading to a rating or ranking, or at least a determination of interest or relevance – in real time. If your community is managed appropriately, you can get votes expressed that can help you determine everything from flavors to labels to business priorities.

The purpose of this column is not to say “be social or perish”. If we take a step back and examine the driving forces behind the development and proliferation of social media venues, we’ll find many of the same forces at work in our industry. Taking appropriate advantage of these tools can be a huge asset for feedback, product development, marketing, customer relationship management, and a lot of other core business practices and principles.

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