The Honeymoon Phase

May 2, 2009
Can it really get any better than this?

Can it really get any better than this?

Remember when Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett finally met at the same age in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button?” It was the happiest phase of their relationship; they were sailing the world’s oceans, canoodling on beaches, diving off sailboats at sunset. They were so consumed with each other that they just blocked out the fact that their happiness was impossible to sustain. Have we reached (fighting back tears) that point in our relationship with social media?

Twitter is officially a media darling. Oprah is talking about it and its traffic is through the roof. Ditto for Facebook. Over 6,000 photos were uploaded on Flickr since I started this paragraph. 10 hours of video will be uploaded on YouTube by the time I finish the next sentence. We’re basically skipping down the block holding hands and we don’t care who sees us. It all seems so wonderful. But can it last? I have my doubts and that’s not easy for me to say.

It seems as though we are at a stage where users who are on social networks merely to keep in touch with old classmates are tolerating the number of companies that are there as well. But what will happen if and when the number of brands on social networks starts to overwhelm users and they inundate social media? Let’s not forget that companies are projected to spend $1.3 billion on social networks this year. Going back to Benjamin Button, doesn’t social media 18 months from now, full of brands, ads and bored users seem eerily similar to when Brad was all of a sudden a dozen years younger than Cate?

Not a day goes by in the life of the modern marketer without hearing those five syllables: so-cial me-di-a. Every company wants to know how they can get in on the action, and rightfully so. You’d be crazy not to inquire about it. Twitter is an opt-out service and users don’t have to follow brands if they don’t choose to. Same goes for Facebook; users don’t have to befriend a brand’s page if they don’t decide to. One would think that those facts would regulate how intrusive brands can be.

But remember that Twitter is currently not making any money and they turned down a $500 million offer from Facebook last year. Twitter CEO Evan Williams promises that revenue for the site is on the way. What’s going to happen when they have to start making money? I don’t really see how any change that they make to turn a profit will make the Twitter experience better for the user.  And don’t forget Facebook’s recent, controversial changes either. The site all of a sudden became friendlier for businesses and less friendly for users. Who’s to say that the next round of changes won’t be one that turns off users for good? It could become like the moment like when Cate realizes that her beau is 25 years her junior and that it simply can’t work.

Let’s say our relationship with social media does take a turn for the worse; can we rule out the possibility that consumers will flock back to their previous, steady relationship with traditional media? Maybe too much two-way communication will start to intrude on privacy even further and the relationship will end. Or is this a marriage that’s really built to last?

Marketers will play the role of marriage counselors in this situation and we’ll be prepared no matter what happens. We just need to make sure we’re not clouding our judgement by getting too attached to social media ourselves. For consumers, it certainly is hard to think about the future when you’re in the middle of a romantic honeymoon phase, because nobody wants to worry when everything seems so lovely on the surface.

Editor’s note: Check out this column today by Simon Dumenco of Ad Age. He argues that all the big social media — Twitter, Facebook, even YouTube — are doomed because none of them is bringing in any meaningful revenue. A different take from George, but the same basic premise: Social media may be unsustainable in their current form.