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Social Media’s Dirty Little Secret

This post was written for the Viralheat Blogathon on August 1, 2013. In the coming weeks, we will be featuring some of the Blogathon’s submissions on this blog.

Most social media trends come and go – in and out of our lives like last season’s shoes. That’s to be expected. In fact, that’s the very nature of social media. Timely topics and novel uses of social media itself set the world on fire, only to lose their luster and be replaced by the next shiny object. And like spike-healed ankle boots, I’m usually happy to see them disappear.

I can’t help but notice one trend, however, that seems to have real staying power: the tendency to equate an idea’s or brand’s or person’s worth with the amount of social media engagement around it. I understand why this happens, especially in a corner of the world like the San Francisco Bay Area. Social media was invented here. Lots of us breathe it every day.

But there’s the catch! “Lots” of us. Not “all” of us. Social media engagement engages only a certain sector of the population.

Think back to the last time you went in for jury duty. People claiming financial hardship were almost universally excused, and you may have noticed a common thread among those left in the juror pool. They were white-collar workers whose employers would supplement their pay while serving on the trial, or were well-off enough that they could go a week without pay and still send in the rent on time. (For most people facing trial, this hardly looks like a jury of their peers.)

Similarly, those active on social media tend to live at a certain level of the socio-economic spectrum. Able to afford internet service and probably a smart-phone. They tend to be urban or suburban*. They tend to be extraverts. Depending on which social media outlet we’re talking about, they may skew toward one gender or the other (Pinterest, anyone?).

Don’t get me wrong: I’m perfectly aware that those are the people who buy the most stuff, and talk about it with their friends. As a marketer, they’re exactly the people I want to generate buzz with. But let’s not live so far up our own asses that we confuse social media engagement with social worth.

Just because something is trending doesn’t mean it’s meaningful. As much as I love babies, you’ll never get me to say that Lauren Silverman’s baby bump really warranted its spot as the #2 search on Google yesterday. (“Lauren who?” Exactly.) Where was Nelson Mandela? I don’t know – he was too far down in rankings to show up on the list.

Likewise, just because your brand or your cause isn’t trending doesn’t mean it’s not meaningful. Greenpeace does great work, but they aren’t getting anything close to the 600 tweets per hour that MomsAndBrands got this afternoon. See also: the St. Vincent de Paul Society, the Social Security Administration, and the worker-collective ice cream shop that I haven’t heard of yet. Don’t be discouraged if this is you. Social buzz is great, and it might be worth channeling some funds into building it. Just don’t let it distract you from your mission of supporting local organic dairies, living wages, and a truly tasty treat.

None of this is to say that social engagement isn’t an important part of running a successful business or non-profit. Let’s just keep it in perspective. Facebook and Twitter users don’t represent the entire purchasing (or thinking) population. There’s a lot to be said for engaging with people offline as well. Get out on the street and you’ll find out who your followers really are.

Author Bio: Sarah Goff-Dupont is the Marketing Manager at Atlassian.

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