Over the past week or so there have been a series of ideas coming together in my mind. I had been struggling to pull them together into a coherent framework until I saw this post by Peter Kim. He asks some difficult questions around the benefit of social media, but goes further — suggesting that social media does not scale:

One-ninth of the WORLD’s population watched the 2006 FIFA World Cup final.  Social media vs. Television for marketing purposes just doesn’t match up.

But in my view, this is looking only at potential reach around a single, fixed-in-time event. And surely the predominant global brand on display during the match was the FIFA World Cup — all the rest of the advertising space would have been segmented to maximise the returns available in each broadcaster’s market. This fragmentation of ad space is exactly the domain and power of the long tail — where social media can provide a resonance and relevance to niche audiences.

Having said this, there is an issue around the human resources required to activate a social media program. As Peter says:

I do believe social media can help sell.  Social content has started integrating into traditional tactics like banners and emails.  I have a better opinion of Comcast after Frank helped me with my cable modem and will resist Verizon FIOS for a while longer.  From my last post asking if social media matters, the commenting consensus seems to agree, with its impact in awareness, consideration, and preference.

But if social media marketing matters, then does it scale?

I don’t think so.  I think the technologies scale.  But the programs – especially those with a labor-intensive component – don’t.

socialmediascaleThe labour intensiveness of an active social media program can become a bottleneck. There simply are not enough Richard@DELL’s around to help every person with an issue. However, the aim — or certainly the aims I normally have in mind when constructing a social media or digital strategy — is to foster the growth of a community in such a way that “external participants” begin to play an active role. So rather than taking a broadcast view of social media, the aim is to facilitate a range of participatory action/activities. Effectively this means using social MEDIA to activate social NETWORKS.

In doing so you have to manage the constraints — COST, SCALE or CONTROL. Any change you make to one will impact both the others. The more you activate the social network, the less control you will have of your brand, your messaging and your story. Yet this is the cost-benefit paradox — for while you release your brand, your services and maybe even your support into the wilds of the social media landscape, you find, perhaps, a more authentic brand story coming to life — a story borne out of a participatory experience between your evangelists and your everyday or casual consumers.