The First Law of Social Media

November 28, 2008

HBO's hit True BloodIn the new HBO hit series True Blood, we're introduced into the fantasy world of vampires in Louisiana. It's a fun series, because the books upon which it is based give us a world where vampires have just won civil rights. Conflict is everywhere, and author Charlaine Harris's vampires are not like those of Transylvania and the literature of yesterday. They're much more socially acceptable, and the world of their supernatural rules is what I find most fascinating.

In the series, John Compton, a vampire, is in love with Sookie Stackhouse, a human, and it is through their relationship that we learn most of these rules. One of them is that John must be invited or "welcomed" into Sookie's home, and if that welcome is ever rescinded, he is "expelled."

True Blood is, of course, true fiction, but this rule is most definitely not, especially in the invitation-only world of social media. It is so significant that I call it the First Law, because the entire paradigm of social media is based on it. I am in charge of my personal walled garden, and I decide who's welcome and who isn't. And the thing about rescinding my welcome is that it's very unlikely I'll ever invite you back.

This has profound significance for media companies — and others — who see advertising gold in the hills of social media. A recent report from IDC found strong growth in social networking services (SNS), but that salivating advertisers have yet to realize its potential for advertising.

IDC expects that lower-than-average ad effectiveness on SNS will continue to contribute to slow ad sales unless publishers get users to do something beyond just communicating with others. If the major services succeed in doing so, they will become more like portals, such as Yahoo! or MSN, and they will come closer to the audience reach of the top services. If that happened, publishers would be better able to monetize their SNS.

Notice the phrase "get users to do something." This is the essential problem that Madison Avenue has with social media, and that's because it refuses to acknowledge that these are personal pages and that advertiser (or media company) presence comes by invitation.

This problem was noted in an AdAge article (P&G Digital Guru Not Sure Marketers Belong on Facebook) that quoted Ted McConnell, Manager of Digital Marketing Innovation at P&G in Cincinnati, as saying, "What in heavenís name made you think you could monetize the real estate in which somebody is breaking up with their girlfriend?" Social media guru John Battelle took on AdAge:

"Social networks may never find the ad dollars theyíre hunting for because they donít really have a right to them, said Ted McConnell," the article begins. It then goes on to lay out the reasoning behind such an assumptive lead: McConnell doesnít like random banner ads, and Facebookís targeting, which purportedly solves the issue of randomness, leaves him cold. Given those two things, Ad Age drew what I must say is an extremely lazy conclusion: Advertising on social networks doesnít work — look, a senior guy from Procter says so!

Well, Iím here to call bull on this myth. And Iím pretty sure McConnell would agree with me.

Letís break it down. To begin with, the article makes this easy assumption: Social networks are "hunting for ad dollars." That presumes a very traditional approach to media — that social networks have traditional packaged goods media assets (like, say, a television show or a magazine), and are out "big game hunting" — IE, trying to sell proximity to those assets to "big game" like P&G.

But as Iíve argued (over and over and over) social media "assets" donít look like packaged goods assets, and neither should social media marketing. As McConnell rightly pointed out, you canít barge into the middle of an intimate social situation, yell "buy my stuff!" and then leave. A brand that does that will certainly be remembered — as a clod.

Being a clod is certainly the way to get kicked out of the social media party, but the decline of every form of media begins with the rescinding of a welcome. Media companies don't see this, so we don't believe it. We believe our own hyperbole, and can't imagine that we're actually doing things to make ourselves less welcome in the lives of consumers.

Radio abandoned the world of local personalities and events in favor of more profitable, remotely-served and carefully researched "formats." The only thing local is the ads.

Magazines lost their essence in the quest for revenue by cramming content in between all the ads.

Newspapers lost classifieds by charging exorbitant rates, because they could. Newspapers also suffer from relevance decay in the pursuit of the Woodward and Burnstein model of journalism, but that's another story.

Television reduced the length of programs in the name of adding more spots. Ad pods of four and even five minutes in length — once thought absurd — are now finding their way into the mix.

Cable will be next (you find a lot of those lengthy pods there), and then will come the Web. It is our nature in media, it seems, to take advantage of our fans rather than putting them first. In fact, the web properties of most traditional media companies are already famous for dissing users in the name of revenue, and that, too, will have its consequences. "Driving traffic" within a site raises the price of interaction with that site, and nobody feels welcome in such a scenario.

I remember a conversation with a general manager once about the essence of the local television business. He came up through the sales side and got the GM job, because he correctly answered a question posed by the group vice president: "Are we in the business of serving the community, or are we in the business of making money?" You can guess which viewpoint got him the job.

And that's precisely the problem, for somewhere along the path to profitability, we crossed a line and entered into the assumption that, as the masters of our businesses, we could behave in any way we deemed appropriate, regardless of how inappropriate our customers felt we were behaving. In the final analysis, for example, television doesn't have a revenue problem nearly as much as it has an audience problem. Fix that problem, and the other goes away.

This inability to accept culpability in our current conundrum is one of the things that keeps us from doing anything about it. The old adage about digging yourself deeper into a hole is relevant, because you have to know you're doing the digging before you can stop. This is evident in the blame game currently underway involving Jeff Jarvis and traditional journalists. Jeff thinks journalists need to look in the mirror in assessing their current crisis, but that's offensive to those who believe they are victims.

We must not overstay our welcomeAs media companies, we must make the assumption that we have customers — our users, not our advertisers — only because they've invited us into their lives, whether it's a TV signal, a newspaper, the Web, or whatever. Our first responsibility, then, is to respect that invitation and not be rude or boorish or, worse yet, overstay our welcome. It's basic relationship stuff.

I'm often drawn back to simple words of Tim Berners-Lee, widely regarded as the creator of the World Wide Web. Early in its development, he said, "The Web is more a social tool than a technological one," so this idea of an invited guest is even more apropos here. The pros of tech media — and especially experienced bloggers — understand this well, because they know that only in serving and respecting their readers do they stand a chance of "influencing the influencers" of the new world.

New York venture capitalist Fred Wilson is one of these people. His company funds some of the top, cutting-edge start-ups, and Fred's been blogging for several years. You'd think a guy like him wouldn't have time to blog, but he considers it a valuable use of his time. In a recent post (Do you ever do any real work?), Fred revealed his understanding of the principle of the invited guest and of what that means in the long run.

He wrote of a new investment, Boxee, and how he'd spent time sending free invitations to the people who had left comments about the company on a blog post he'd written the day before. It took him an early morning hour to cull through the comments, find email addresses and send out about 100 invitations to the alpha release, a number that seems insignificant when compared with Boxee's already 50,000 registered users. But, as Fred pointed out, in the world of social media, it isn't the number that counts, it's the guests themselves.

...the time and energy I've put into this blog for the past five years has built a unique and very sophisticated audience. You are connectors and hubs of influence.

I know that one person out of the 100 I invited this morning will be incredibly impactful for boxee. It could be five people, it could be ten. Who knows?

But in the world of social media, word of mouth and word of link marketing, it is connectors and influencers like all of you that make the difference.

And that's one of the main reasons I keep writing, commenting, discussing, and participating in blogs, tumblr, twitter, disqus, and the social media world at large.

Its about the "realest" work I do.

Fred is an influencer, and he understands that building an expanding circle of other influencers is smart business. He treats them as he would want to be treated, knowing that they could just as easily find other sources of influence. He's leading a tribe, and while you'd be hard-pressed to find a smarter, more connected and powerful individual, his behavior towards his readers is humble, transparent, honest and authentic.

Fred Wilson is also keenly aware of the power of unbundling, for his blog is likely consumed via RSS far more than by people actually coming to his site. His use of social media evidences his clear understanding of the concept of rescinding the invitation, for when your thoughts and ideas exist on somebody else's personal web page, you're smart to respect the invitation.

Seth Godin, who wrote the book on Tribes, is another influential guy that really "gets" this concept. To Seth, the Web is all about connections, and it is in those connections that opportunities for business exist. The connections, however, follow the simple laws of human interaction, including the recognition that forcing a connection isn't really a connection.

Seth wrote that to make money on the Web, you only need connect the disconnected:

  • Connect advertisers to people who want to be advertised to.
  • Connect job hunters with jobs.
  • Connect information seekers with information.
  • Connect teams to each other.
  • Connect those seeking similar.
  • Connect to partners and those that can leverage your work.
  • Connect people who are proximate geographically.
  • Connect organizations spending money with ways to save money.
  • Connect like-minded people into a movement.
  • Connect people buying with people who are selling.

There is no connection where one side is manipulating the other. There is no influence where it's forced. There is only diligence in serving the connection with others, and that means honoring the invitation that you've been given.

Advertisers are in on the gameAnd here's the real problem for traditional media companies about all of this. The new media companies of today are the advertisers of yesterday, and they are learning the rules of social media. Why ride the back of a third-party — a traditional media company — when you can work the invitations yourself? Advertisers are already experimenting with this through MySpace and Facebook pages, offering clever applications, building lists of "friends," and exploring how to connect directly with people who may be interested in their brands. In so doing, they're learning this first rule, and I guarantee you that they will be very careful in managing those relationships.

If advertising is the business of media, then what's left for us? As Seth Godin notes above, it's about helping advertisers make those connections, and that means we have to observe the rules of being social.

There's a lot of difference between being the person on the stage and being a part of the audience, but when nobody's looking at the stage, the audience is the only place to be. And down here, among the throngs, it's all about the invitation, for it may resemble the bar scene at times, but it functions more like a party at somebody's house. We can be an ass and never get invited back, or we can respect the invitation.

(Author's note: The reference to HBO's vampire saga is in no way intended to be a metaphor for traditional media companies and their customers.)