The Cavalry’s not Coming to Save Social

Business leaders often don’t “get” social media. It’s frequently treated as just another marketing channel, a way to push promotions and messages. This is often chalked up to a lack of understanding of the medium itself, based on some kind of generation gap between Baby Boomers and Generation X on one hand, and Millennials and Generation Z on the other.  Boomers and Gen X didn’t grow up with social media, and don’t understand how to use it properly, or so the story goes. Once they start retiring from positions of authority, and Gen Z and Millennials sweep in, marketing and communications will be transformed. Younger generations are “digital natives” who grew up with social media. They’ll understand how to use it to connect with people in an authentic, meaningful way, and not use it as a marketing megaphone.

White Horse not Required

It’s a reasonable expectation, except for one thing: digital native means neither digital expert nor digital enthusiast. That’s why no one should expect Gen Z to ride in and save social media.

Millennials and Gen Z use Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok and WhatsApp for entertainment and to talk with friends. That doesn’t make them social media experts: it makes them social media users. Using social channels to chat and post pictures of yourself with a cat filter doesn’t confer any innate understanding of the medium’s application to business. In that sense social media is no different from any other technology. In the late nineteenth century, typewriters became ubiquitous, but (amazingly) people didn’t suddenly become crack copywriters. Telephones invaded homes in the ’20s and ’30s, but that didn’t turn ordinary people chatting away on their party lines into expert orators. Using a technology in your personal life doesn’t make you a business or communications natural at it, nor an advocate, nor an enthusiast. It makes you a user.

Social media has changed marketing less than marketing has changed social media

The essence of marketing hasn’t fundamentally changed in the digital age: it’s still the business of getting attention through promotions and messages. Those 20-somethings in business school today, learning the marketing ropes in preparation to become the next CMO, are learning to use social media, along with print and digital ads, video, radio, billboards, digital signage and a lot of other channels. They’re learning the same fundamentals every previous generation did, not as a new wave of social media cognoscenti, but as marketers.

That’s why we won’t see a social media revolution as the new generation takes over: their youthful immersion in social media doesn’t mean they’ve acquired a built-in business sense for it. Gen Z is as likely as anyone not to “get” social for business.

What do we do now?

Social media shouldn’t depend on a generational advantage to realize its full potential. It needs people who fundamentally understand human communication, and the advantage to be gained by authenticity and genuine conversation. Social media revolutionized communication – for better or for worse, depending on who you talk to – but the revolution’s over: social won. It’s gone mainstream, so there’s no need for trailblazers or advocates anymore. There’s a need for people that can explain the benefits and risks of open conversation and transparency vs. doing more of what everyone’s been doing for the last 100 years in marketing and communications. That doesn’t require you to be Millenial, a Boomer or your 90 year-old grandma. It simply requires an understanding of how people communicate, and thankfully that’s not restricted to any generation.

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