The Fourth Wave of Social Media

by Ken Mueller on November 9, 2012 · 33 comments

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300px Waves July 2009 2 The Fourth Wave of Social Media

Like any thing else, social media is growing up and has been progressing through different stages or waves. One could certainly parse it down further and come up with more waves or segments, but it seems to me that we are now in the beginning stages of the fourth wave of social media.

Here’s a brief breakdown of what I think the first few waves were like:

First wave: Social media comes on the scene, but is primarily for individual users. Most businesses look at it as trivial, a fad, something not to be bothered with. After all, social media is that thing that kids do to waste time, and it’s got that Farmville game!

Second Wave: This is what I call the big land grab. Everyone suddenly jumps into “Gotta get a Facebook page” mode. They don’t know why, or even what they are going to do with it, but they have to have one. This is the stage where businesses start to “use” social media, but usually without a strategy. They might be on Facebook or Twitter, but it’s an afterthought. It’s what you do when you’re done with all the other really important marketing and communications stuff. Consequently, everyone is doing it, but very few are doing it well. And all that matters are the numbers: how many fans or followers you have.

Third Wave:  This is where businesses began to take it more seriously. We are just starting to see them recognize that analytics and measurement are important. Social media is clearly here to stay, and in fact, it’s something that is actually important; it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. And because it’s important, we see the rise of a whole new series of tools for measurement, automation, management, etc. We move toward programs, tips, and tricks…analyzing and over analyzing. While moving forward, we are also moving backward.

Now, I believe we are moving into the next wave:

Fourth Wave – We now recognize that we’ve focused too much on the marketing and communications campaign aspects of social media, trying to fit the square peg of traditional marketing and communications into the round hole of this new thing. It just won’t work. Data is more important than ever, but not just for the sake of numbers. And we’re reclaiming what was lost during the third wave, namely the human side of social media. We went to far with “programs” and systems, and now we’re also reclaiming the buzzwords that have lost their meaning. Understanding that customers are people, not just numbers.

This is where the rubber meets the road. This is where social gets embedded within the core of our business models and cultures. Social is no longer on the outside, but is fully integrated into every aspect of business, both online and offline, with clear goals. Social isn’t just an extension of what we do, it is transformational, affecting how we do business on a daily basis. It’s a mindset, not just a set of tools.

I’m really excited by what I’m seeing. I think much of this actually started earlier this year, but as we head toward 2013 I think we will have a better understanding of what this all means. It’s less about the tools and more about the overall strategy. I’m involved in a number of projects and business ventures that I hope will be at the forefront of this transition, and even in to whatever ends up as the fifth wave.

Granted, there are still businesses that are approaching social media as if we were still in the first, second, or third waves. That will always be the case. Heck, there are still businesses that don’t see the need for even having a website! But over the past few years we’ve seen the power of social media in very real ways, and in most cases, what we’ve seen has been less about planned activities, and more about the role social plays in our everyday lives in some subtle, and not so subtle, ways. When social shines and makes an impact, it’s less about us trying to make it work, and more about how it works in unique situations in spite of us.

What do you think the next season of social media holds for us? What changes and shifts do you see happening now, and in the near future?

 

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29 comments
pavelnovel
pavelnovel like.author.displayName 1 Like

Excellent insight. We are entering the 4th wave because many businesses are realizing that social media is larger than having and tracking a great Facebook Page. However, we're still some way off from being in the fourth wave. Many businesses may realize this insight, but not many are implementing it. They're still thinking in terms of "campaigns" - to truly be in the 4th wave I think it's important for the business to realize that it's a continuous process. I believe the 4th wave is the most essential because that's when social media becomes embedded in the business' consciousness - this will serve as an integral philosophical business foundation for waves 5 and on. 

AmyMccTobin
AmyMccTobin like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

It's amazing really, how many businesses aren't even at stage 1.  The way I see it, many of them won't get to phase 4 until they're forced, kicking and screaming, but upper, upper Mgt. That's OUR job, to convince the real decision makers at the very top...

hessiej
hessiej like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

Pretty smart words Ken! Where it's going and when businesses will catch up is the key. I saw the same thing happen with Search. Now it's everywhere and baked into our marketing programs. Social is very different because now it's baked into the fabric of our organizations -- and yes that is scary.  Tools are tools. But people have to change their thinking in order to be ready for this impending fourth wave.

KenMueller
KenMueller moderator like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

@hessiej And that's our job. We often have to drag the businesses kicking and screaming. I think one of the reasons why it has been slow at times, and to the point made by @katskrieger and @ginidietrich , is that the initial two waves looked at social media as this new free thing. Oh cool! A new toy! It's free! and therefore they didn't take it seriously, and they were too busy trying to smash the methods of traditional media into a social framework.

richescorner
richescorner

This fourth wave of social media is interesting.  I'm actually very wary of it because people are getting marketted way too much.  Not only that, but it's very introverted type of marketing.  Meaning that businesses pull what you like and they feed it back to you.  The problem is that people are now only getting narrow perspectives of the world.  The internet instead of broadening people's perspectives and making them more open minded is now a tool to narrow focuses and cause people to become more narrow minded.  It's kind of scary.

KenMueller
KenMueller moderator like.author.displayName 1 Like

@richescorner I think it is actually broadening our perspectives, and the thing I like about this new season of social media is that it will be less about marketing, at least in the traditional sense. I don't think it will make us more narrowminded. If you look at the election and how we discussed it online, it merely mirrored the way we already are.

maryhruth
maryhruth

Great post, Ken. My thoughts exactly! 

KenMueller
KenMueller moderator

@maryhruth Thanks. I originally started thinking in terms of three waves, but broadened it to four. I mean, I could have split it up into ten waves, but wanted to paint with broad strokes.

KDillabough
KDillabough like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

"Everything old is new again." To me, it's always been about over-arching strategy, not trinkets or tools. I've always said that online tools are no different than a telephone or fax machine (eegads) or typewriter (double eegads)...they are all tools to REACH a HUMAN BEING. Although some businesses are still standing on the shoreline, I do believe we're coming into a kinder, gentler time of recognition that it's always been about the person. Cheers! Kaarina

pavelnovel
pavelnovel like.author.displayName 1 Like

@KDillabough Love this comment! Understanding the big picture is essential. I love comparing social media to telephones because I know there were definitely businesses that were reluctant about installing telephone lines in their businesses because they didn't see the ROI. Ultimately, I think the businesses that succeed are the ones that themselves WANT to talk to the customer. The mom and pop shops that tend to stick around are the ones where the owners are very friendly and want to spark up a conversation. Same thing in today's world, it's the business that genuinely want to get in touch with other people, particularly those people that are interested in their products. Like you said, it's always the recognition of the person.  

KDillabough
KDillabough

@pavelnovel Could not agree with you more: It's always been about people...always will be :)

KenMueller
KenMueller moderator like.author.displayName 1 Like

@KDillabough I think we ("we" being the business world) lost our way. I think this happens in cycles, and is something I've been thinking about a lot and looking to write more about. But we're coming back now. It mirrors the greater picture of where businesses are these days.

katskrieger
katskrieger like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

You are right in a lot of ways, but sadly I think there are far too many businesses stuck in wave 2. And I think a lot that are venturing intro wave 3 are still not tying any of these measurements back to overall business goals. Even the social business case studies, brands we all respect and admire because they seem to have it figured out, are nowhere near being a true social business.

KenMueller
KenMueller moderator

@katskrieger yeah, that's why I added that last paragraph. I think many businesses actually go thru all four waves, but the time it takes them to get through them is faster than it used to be. 

ginidietrich
ginidietrich like.author.displayName 1 Like

@KenMueller @katskrieger I agree with Kat. I see way too many organizations stuck at stage two. Heck, some of our clients won't even go into stage one. Sometimes we sneak and do things and ask for forgiveness later. We haven't gotten in trouble for doing it...yet.

Latest blog post: #FollowFriday: Tom Webster

KenMueller
KenMueller moderator

@hessiej @ginidietrich @katskrieger That's why the mindset is so important. If some of this is an issue, it indicates that something is very wrong with that organization's culture. That's why I think social media can be transformative. I've seen how it can help a business make some major internal cultural shifts. 

KenMueller
KenMueller moderator like.author.displayName 1 Like

@ginidietrich @katskrieger Oh, I agree with Kat as well. We're moving in this direction. But it takes time. A lot of this is based on observations of the small businesses and nonprofits I deal with, as well as the overall mindset in the body of literature out there on the Internet in blogs, etc. And yes, there are still businesses stuck at all of these different levels.

hessiej
hessiej

@ginidietrich @KenMueller @katskrieger Sneaking it in is great.... as long as business is moving in the right direction. I feel for those still stuck in stage 1. They won't listen because it's too scary to absorb all this change.

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