What the Egyptian Revolution Can Tell Marketers About Social Media

When we can say literally that the fate of nations is in question and the aspirations of people to be free are at stake, it may seem venal to wonder what consumer marketers can learn from events like those currently happening in Egypt.

Given that the role of social media is being much discussed in the context of the Egyptian revolution (and revolution, it seems, it must be called), however, we must look to Cairo and Alexandria if we are to have a real-time understanding of how social media is impacting the course not just of communication but of daily life.

To look at the conversation in Egypt from a social media perspective is to look at a conversation beset with confusion and controversy. Has social media played a crucial role in fomenting first unrest and then revolution, sparked initially by Facebook-enabled young Egyptians and rolling inexorably toward the mass demonstrations now under way? In other words, would what is happening in Egypt now be able to happen at all without the Internet?

Or, to look at the alternative point of view, was the upheaval in Egypt inevitable, based on decades of authoritarian oppression, coupled with rapidly declining economic realities (particularly food inflation)? In this view, the inciting spark came from the streets of Tunis, and what followed was merely facilitated, and perhaps initially accelerated, by the availability and flexibility of social networks.

The facts on the ground at the moment seem to favor the latter narrative. Internet access has been severely restricted (and eliminated entirely on Jan. 31 with the shutdown of the nation’s last functioning ISP), and mobile device traffic has been intermittently disrupted throughout the demonstrations. Yet it was during the peak of this disruption that the movement had gained the most momentum and saw the most dramatic crowd turnouts.

Also, the increasingly broad demographic in those crowds—young, old, rich, middle class and poor—would seem to indicate the message of resistance has spread well beyond the social media-connected population of a country that has only about 6 percent Facebook penetration (as of December 2010).

And yet . . .

The inciting spark among younger Egyptians that led to the first—and relatively unnoticed—demonstrations in Cairo was demonstrably based on Facebook networking. And tweets continue to flow, despite ongoing Internet and mobile network shutdowns (although it must be noted that since Jan. 24, 98 percent of tweets at #egypt on Twitter have been written in English; one would expect a significantly higher percentage of tweets to be in Arabic if Twitter were truly driving local events.)

And so, perhaps unsurprisingly, the truth about whether social media has been an inciting spark or existential component of the Egyptian revolution probably lies somewhere in the middle of these contrasting and incompatible viewpoints. Surely, the events of the last few weeks were expedited and incited by social media, but their expansion across all sectors of society and rapid acceleration in the streets seem to have much more to do with the sudden explosion of repressed popular frustration than with the person-to-person connectivity created by social media. What’s happening in Egypt is bigger than Twitter—and bigger even than Facebook.

There’s a lesson for marketers in all this. In an increasingly interconnected world, behavior is based on boundless channels of communication, and ascribing primacy to just one channel—be it social media, traditional media, advertising or whatever comes next—is likely to overestimate the importance of that channel and diminish the essential roles played by all other means of communicating and motivating behavior. Important messages will find their way through a community—if one channel is blocked or unavailable, powerful messages will flow freely to others. This is true for all social movements—political or commercial.

In short, consumers will access information they want and need in whatever way is readily available. As exciting and compelling as social media is, and as crucial as it is to reaching consumers on their terms and in their time, we should remember that only messaging platforms that are unbound by channel can really incite mass movements. People will move where they need to move; social networks will help them, or not.

A popular meme in the blogosphere surrounding political upheavals, from Moldova to Iran, from Tunisia to Egypt, is “Will the Revolution Be Tweeted?” Egypt shows us that the answer is “maybe,” and the revolution will happen anyway.

Michael Sullivan is director of the consumer practice for the North American region at MSLGroup. He can be reached at michael.sullivan@mslgroup.com.