Social Media 2012 – The Year in Review Part II – The Good

Yesterday, I discussed my top five negative trends in social networking, but that’s no way to end a year. Today, for my final post of 2012, I want to share with you my top five positive on-line and social trends – and how the lessons learned can be applied to one’s business.

In part one of this post, I went back to the 80s and quoted Ferris Bueller’s Day Off; today, I’ll dust off The Dead Poets Society: “No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world.”

This year brought a lot of that mindset to the fore, both home and abroad. And here are my top five success stories for the year 2012!

1) CONTENT, TRULY, IS KING: This is the year that the Internet grew up. Oh, sure, there will always be those puerile corners of the Web that dally in toilet humour, puns, and pictures of kitties dressed up (and, if we’re truly honest, we all enjoy visiting those areas once in a while. After all, life can’t be all Battleship Potemkin and The Bicycle Thief – sometimes you need a little Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure or Beverly Hills Cop in your life.)

But this year – especially for the business community – people stopped playing with social media and started getting serious about it. They stopped trying to game the search engines and started focusing on what counts: content. (Well, most did... there are still those dark corners of SEO where gurus, wizards, and other assorted hyperbolic titles reside...)

Full disclosure: my title is Content Strategist, so I’m going to throw it out there that I might have a potential bias, even though I don’t believe that's what's motivating my belief. Instead, what I’m seeing is an increased willingness on the part of companies to create content that matters to its customers. Both on Web sites and on social networks, companies have understood that relevant, readable, interesting content has a value in and of itself. It’s not about artificially stacking pages with keyword-rich-but-robotic-sounding text. Of course, Google’s Panda and Penguin updates had a hand in helping that along.

And many companies have learned that going viral isn’t the be all and end all. Certain brands do it well, but it’s not done through focus groups, measuring the prevailing trends, and trying to recreate others’ successes. Instead, the most successful campaigns are those that remain true to the brand – or where the brand wants to go.

A perfect example is Old Spice, which has revolutionized its brand with on-line commercials (an interaction with the original Old Spice guy and my not-so-secret crush Alyssa Milano was a highlight a couple of years back). They continued this year with (New?) Old Spice Guy Terry Crews’ muscle-music-maker. Fun, irreverent, and certainly effective in putting one’s brand front and centre.

2) THE WORLD IN THE PALM OF YOUR HAND: In 2012, we were able to be spectators to two of the largest events in the world: the Olympics and the U.S. Election.

The London Olympics were effectively billed as the Twitter Games, the opening ceremonies featured a segment celebrating the rise of social networking and interpersonal interaction, and no longer were fans content with tape-delayed broadcasts and networks withholding information. Instead, results, discussions, and information were shared in real time. Observers from all around the world came together on-line to celebrate athletics. And the athletes themselves sometimes found themselves in trouble for Tweets and on-line comments, whether they were against another race or against the IOC’s ban on promoting non-affiliated (read: paying sponsors) companies.

A Tweeted photo by re-elected President Barack Obama hugging his wife Michelle, with the accompanying “Four more years” quote, became the most “liked” and re-Tweeted post ever. But that was just the dénoument to an election in which social media was prominently featured. In 2008, Obama introduced social networking to the presidential campaign in a way never before seen. In 2012, the incumbent won the social media battle and that helped propel him to a second term.

Tweets, re-tweets, Twitter sentiments, Facebook posts,  shares, likes, and on-line discussions all became part of the political zeitgeist. Viral video of the candidates (in particular, a less-than-flattering reference to the 48 per cent by challenger Mitt Romney) helped to sway popular opinion one way or the other. And social coverage became de rigueur in mainstream media – the FiveThiryEight blog became a must-read for politicos (and introduced many to the concept of predictive analysis).

As social becomes more and more ubiquitous (and the rise of tablet and hand-held access assures that), interactive news sharing will continue to change and develop.

Which serves as a perfect segue to…

3) THE ERECTING OF PAY WALLS: Some of you may not see this as a good thing. Stay with me, though...

The New York Times may have put the first cracks in the levee back in 2011, but this was the year  we saw a deluge of publications come on board.  The Globe and Mail and the SunMedia network both implemented metered pay walls, allowing users to access a specified amount of content for free before being prompted to subscribe (or be subsequently locked out until the next cycle).

For businesses, this should serve as proof of a key point: content has value in and of itself.

Yes, there are millions of blogs out there; yes, there are tonnes of so-called citizen journalists reporting and commenting. But the fact remains that there will always be a need for an independent – and paid – fourth estate to dig for the tough stories, to provide access to information, and to do the job that others don’t have the time, resources, independence, or inclination to do.

Business, while not needing to erect pay walls, should learn from this and understand that their content can have value – but that value is in direct proportion to the amount of effort and commitment that they put into it. The value is in customer engagement, sharing, and advocacy. That value is reflected in SEO efforts that put a premium on relevant content over keyword stacking and gaming the system.

But just like a newspaper that puts out poorly written or devoid-of-content articles, businesses that share content of no value to its customers will find the subscriber base will move elsewhere.

4) ON-LINE ACTIVISM: In Canada, we’ve seen the rise of the #idlenomore movement in response to Bill C-45 and the efforts of OpenMedia to combat Internet restrictions and, specifically, Bill C-30. Globally, we’ve seen how Google, Wikipedia, and other on-line players have fought SOPA implementation on the grounds of discouraging censorship.

On-line advocacy is growing up. It's become more than just empty on-line petitions, requiring litttle more individual response than a click or two (Build a Death Star and Deport Piers Morgan 'petitions' notwithstanding), these movements are using the Internet to connect people, in the hopes of motivating and mobilizing them in real-life. From a business perspective, companies would be wise to monitor on-line discussion of their policies and practices.

After all, we saw how people responded to Chick-Fil-A’s president’s public statements about his support of what he deemed the Biblical view of marriage. There were those who boycotted the restaurant and protested his views; and that was countered by a rise of those who supported his statements.

Consider it a social awakening of the Internet, which can lead to real-life mobilization of your customer base. That mobilization can be negative, or, as in the next case, positive…

5. THE RESPONSE TO THE AMANDA TODD TRAGEDY: It took a heart-wrenching tragedy to shine a light on the issue. Todd's YouTube video is a poignant expression of the face of the bullied, and that spotlight was magnified by her tragic passing. People from around the world spoke out -- and openly -- about bullying, suicide, and depression. People came together, both on-line and off, to try to make a difference.

What the response to Todd’s tragic death has shown is that the Internet is growing up. For years, we’ve been growing more and more interconnected, yet paradoxically have felt more and more isolated. Screen-to-screen interaction isn’t the same as face-to-face.

But now the Internet seems to be growing a heart.

For years, the Internet has been akin to the Wild West. But those days are changing – that Wild West is becoming more civilized. Of course, it's not always done in a good way (see Reddit outings to publication of the addresses of those accused of crimes). While it's great that people are demanding greater accountability from the Internet, this lynch-mob mentality has caused many to leap (and act) before they look. Hopefully this cyber-vigilanteism is just the pendulum swing back from the previous "anonymous troll" mentality. Somewhere, a happy medium will be found.

What motivates this behaviour is what companies should be aware of. Focus on open, honest, and transparent communications because your customers – and the public at large – will hold you accountable for your actions. It can be a scary thought for the business world -- one that's long been comfortable with ivory towers and need-to-know communication. The days of businesses thinking they can control their branding is over (see yesterday's Twitter hijacking discussion). But for those building a business and engaging customers in a positive and honest manner, it’s a time of incredible opportunity.

It’s serious stuff – but as I mentioned in the intro, life isn’t all about being serious. Because 2012 wasn’t just the year the Internet grew a heart – it was the year that we learned about Gangnam Style!

Over one billion views can’t be wrong! And it never would have happened without social media!

And the number-one lesson we learned from social this year? No matter how well-dressed he may be, never let your monkey roam free at IKEA!

Now let’s hear from you! What are your highlights from the 2012 year in social? Comments are open.

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