A Primer on Social Media, by Some Guy

By Matt Van Hoven 

Hear me on this: the best social media people are the ones who tell you they have no idea what they’re doing, but ask you to share with them the problem you’re trying to solve. This is jazz; the search for the God particle; science; exploration &#151 it’s over hyped and misunderstood &#151 and pretty soon it will segment and we won’t call it social media. Basically it’s communication + technology. Same message, different delivery &#151 and if we know anything about technology, we know it’s always evolving. So too will tech communication, or social media, whatever you prefer to call it.

If you think you know anything about social media, click continued.

I sure as hell don’t. But all communication is inherently social and every message is media, so the ability to utilize this trend is actually more about finding people where they are. Same goal. Different tactics.


When agencies look for social media experts, strategists, planners, et al, what they should be seeking are people who understand how to find people that your clients really want to find. It requires an understanding and passion for new technology and the ability to sell your understanding of it, why it’s going to be big, and how it’s going to help the client.

The rest of the game is creating messages that make your client’s product worth, I dunno, looking at. What I’m saying is agencies should stop thinking of social media as anything but two parts: the act of finding people and then delivering a message, uniquely. Or, the same thing the industry has been doing for a century.

The major differences lie in scale and cost. It requires a lot of work to reach a few people. The hope is that getting attention through social media will mean more. With SM you can give your client’s customers tools to make a purchase from their cell phones. That’s amazing when you think that the majority of all ad dollars are still spent on TV. Seriously, amazing.

That isn’t to say social is right for everyone. Or that TV is the wrong way to approach people today. I think the true value of social for advertising is the pressure it puts on agencies to evolve. It’s that “if we don’t have this skill set we will fall behind our competitors and lose our ability to do business” factor. What I’m suggesting is that social media is for 2010 what TV was for the 60s, the Internet was for the late 90s and so on.

Now if only we could tie diversity/sex issues to this, we’d finally move past sexist, racist agencies. Oh well. That’s another subject for another time.

Soon enough we’ll be able to tell you what this looks like &#151 but for now it’s nebulous, amorphous, dark matter. Because of this, I think social belongs to advertising (as opposed to PR). Advertising has always been about evolving to what’s next. That isn’t to say the industry has been good at it, but you get my point.

In a few days we’re running a piece on the social media hiring tactics used by two agencies &#151 one is a big digital shop that used to be a small digital shop and the other is just small and independent. Both happen to be hiring a bunch of SM folks, which really means they’re beginning the process of experimentation that is compulsory with the field. Here’s a few tips for agencies that are hiring:

-never hire an expert. don’t meet with them, either.
-ask them what they read (and know what publications do well with staying up on tools with social tie-ins)
-the person who will be good at this is probably no older than 30 and has no previous “social media” experience in his/her title.
-find out their freelance day rate. if it’s high, they’re not as good as they say they are &#151 this field is too new to charge $600 an hour.
-take a risk. tell your clients that this is a risk. be honest and tell them not to expect anything, or you’ll set yourself up to fail and create a perception that you know what you’re doing &#151 which you don’t.
-don’t assume that someone’s ability to make their blog/twitter feed successful means they can help your client. it’s a good start, but not a final answer.
-don’t sell your client a social idea then realize you can’t execute, freak out and hire some consultancy to do it. call the consultancy first, pay them for strategy, and move forward like a rational organization.

Update: You probably don’t need a social media department anyway. Click here to learn why.