Shhhh! Don’t look now but, social media is starting to look a lot like traditional marketing. The days where all marketers had equal access to features and community members are gone. Advertising rates and special benefits reserved for companies with big budgets are here to stay. The level playing field where marketers were only limited by their creativity has followed the Dodo bird into extinction.

Overall, this is a good thing because it is a sign that social media is maturing into a viable marketing channel. But, before we look deeper into the next stage, let’s take a trip down memory lane. Do you remember when…

  • You could force someone to follow you on Twitter by entering a code in the message field? Hackers had a field day making Conan O’Brien follow them. He had declared that he would only follow one person, but then he mysteriously starting following others.
  • Everyone had the same access to features and community members? Creative marketers used customization to brand their company’s social pages and encourage people to join their communities.
  • Brands were limited to 5,000 friends/fans on Facebook? It was only a matter of time before brand pages would be launched.
  • YouTube allowed customization of the background and almost everything else? Creative marketers made some amazing channels.
  • Every tweet, post, and video has the same opportunity to reach beyond fans, subscribers, and followers to give your business a voice that could be heard around the world?
  • Twitter sanctioned promotional tweets didn’t exist?
  • Facebook didn’t bury posts in people’s news feeds so they wouldn’t see your business messages?

Oh, those were the good ol’ years, er, days! The slippery slope towards advertising turned into a luge track with incredible velocity. It began with a few test promotions and then escalated into an avalanche of products and pricing.

In reality, it was only a matter of time before the biggest budgets could buy the best features. The purpose of business is to serve customers at a profit. The mistake made by many was thinking that users of social platforms are customers. They aren’t (with the exception of LinkedIn that offers a premium service to users.) Customers contribute to the financial wellbeing of the companies they patronize. Users are more like products with the services selling access to the highest bidders. This is quite different from the Kumbaya future imagined by social media early adopters.

What does this mean for companies that don’t have the budget to compete with big brands?

First and foremost, quality relationships with customers will keep you at the top of the list. If your relationship is strong, it doesn’t depend on third party access to connect your company with your customers. Social still offers unlimited access as long as your message is welcome to the recipient.

Creativity still wins even though platform limitations make it harder. Seemingly little things like adding solid keywords, providing easy links for sharing, and optimizing images increase your exposure. Take the time to plan carefully so you maximize the return on your efforts.

In time, the budgetary requirements for premium features will decrease as the platforms strive to reach financial goals. Watch for opportunities to test new options. It may turn out that the response offsets the investment.

The bottom line is that social media is maturing into a marketing channel and should be treated as such. Measure everything to insure that you are investing your resources wisely.