Noise regarding social media is everywhere.  There are experts coming out of the woodwork telling you how your brand can be top of mind by engaging in social.  Tools galore make promises of helping you achieve anything you dream.  As the noise continues to mount, I am starting to see changes that I am welcoming.

Before I get into all that, it has been some time since I posted on Social Media Today, so let me re-introduce myself.  My name is Frank Eliason.  You may recall my time at Comcast and their ComcastCares effort.  I am pleased to see my former team at Comcast continuing to drive change.  I am proud of them.  Today I work in marketing as the Director of Global Social Media for Citi.  I am also author of the book @YourService published by Wiley.  In my spare time I also serve on the board of directors for the Council of Better Business Bureaus and the Society of Consumers Affairs Professionals.  I have been working for brands in social media since 2007.  Since that time I have watched the space explode. New marketing and PR firms came out specializing in social media.  More and more talking heads came out to tell brands precisely what they could do to be heard.  Brands everywhere started listening to the voices that told them what they wanted to hear.  Because of this we have seen explosive growth in brands spewing messages from all kinds of places, often similar to the typical marketing message of how great the brand is.  In reaction we have watched Consumers take brands on via social because of poor Customer experience, messages that are inconsistent with experiences or simply because they can.  Brands have continued to spend a lot of money promoting their post via social networks in an effort to have a voice, but if you take time to review the comments on these promoted posts, they are often filled with hate messages for the brand.  The reason is that these advertisements are interfering with their time with friends and family.  Imagine if you were standing with a friend talking and in the middle of your conversation a brand walked in to push advertising at you.  How would that feel?  Well that is what is happening via social media, especially within Facebook.

Today we are starting to see the tough questions being asked.  In the past marketers pointed to 'likes' as the measurment of choice.  We do not even know who the like is from: Customer or Prospective Customer.  We did not even know that they were even a human being.  Now we are seeing companies question these vanity measurements and ask how these efforts impacted the bottom line.  One of my favorite efforts in social media was the Pepsi Refresh Project.  It was an outside the box way of taking the brand to new levels.  When it launched it was by far the most discussed brand effort in social, reaching billions of hits.  That was in the 1st quarter of 2010 but by the 1st quarter of 2011, Diet Coke surpassed Pepsi to become the number 2 softdrink.  We can look at numerous efforts via social media and see similar results, especially when we look at bottom line performance of the companies involved.  Some of the best known companies in social have not been able to perform as well as competitors.  Yet companies like Apple are often among the most discussed companies and they have very limited social media efforts.

Before you start thinking I am negative on social media, that is not my goal.  In fact I have always been a huge propenent of social media.  The challenge is that over the past few years, especially thanks to the hype, voices and topics tend to be drowned out.  Companies wanted to hear about the magic bullet that would put them top of mind.  Unfortunately there is no magic bullet.  It is not about having tons of content that no one cares about.  It is not offering social servicing, which in my view has been a failure.  It has always been about the same thing, the culture of your company.  Social just highlights it.  It can be good, bad or ugly, and as we have seen it is often ugly. 

I would like to take you back to the early days of Twitter.  At the time we were just meeting new friends and talking about what the future would be.  I remember the entire Dell team, including Richard Binhammer and Lionel Menchaca.  Brad Nelson from Startbucks.  Amy Worley from HR Block.  We always knew the people behind the brand.  They were more than just Community Managers.  They were one of us, and they were friends.  Today brands strive to hide who they are, yet they are among the greatest connections we could have with any company.  Zappos is another brand often discussed regarding the early days of social.  To us it was not just Tony Hsieh, but rather the 100's of employees who were on Twitter talking to us everyday.  This is what social was about.  Humans interacting with each other.

I have been watching trends in social media for years, and from my perspective I see companies questioning the value they are recieving from social media, but more importantly they are seeing greater shifts occuring that break social media out of the current PR or marketing mold into something much deeper for the organization. Social media is changing the relationship companies have with Customer and also their employees.  These two groups have garnered much greater control than ever and it will cause companies to treat them differently.  Social is not about the message you spew, or values you post to your website, but instead it is the reality of what you do and how you do that.  Here is how I see winning is social media:

1) Be Remarkable - It really all starts with be worthy of remarking about.  Ultimately this is what drives conversation.  Seth Godin was ahead of his time in 2003 when he discussed Purple Cows, but ultimately brands have to find their Purple Cow.  I discuss this much more in depth, including a video of Seth discussing 'Purple Cows' on my blog.  I also posted on LinkedIn regarding Ryan Air, a much maligned firm, who in my view is remarkable, at least based on the conversation they generate online, even if some of us would see it as negative.

2) Listen - We like to say we listen through all different ways but the fact remains most companies only listen for what they want to hear.  Today most listen to social looking for that next brand crisis and rarely do they listen to other touchpoints.  Surveys are done but rarely is there follow up or change as a result.  We have to get much deeper and listen to everything our Customers and employees are telling us.

3) Engage - When I think engagement, to me it is not about social media publishing or even community management.  It is rather the culture we have as a business to involve others or not.  We cannot say on one side we do, but reality not care.  We have to have an inclusive culture that welcomes alternative thoughts and ideas and then we have to help bring them to life.

4) Facilitate - How do you facilitate dialogue?  When I look at social media, one of the companies I most respect is Nike.  They do an amazing job at facilitating the conversation that is important to their Customers.  They do not make it about the sneakers, but instead what people want to do with them.  They celebrate the achievements of their Customers, and in the end their brand garners the benefits.

2013 will be a pivotal year for social networks and businesses who strive to participate in them.  I expect we will see many companies back away from social media, because they do not feel they are achieving value.  At the same time I expect others will get even more involved at a much deeper level using the space to become remarkable to their own employees and Customers.  I will then expect we will hear those leading each of these paths to claim victory.  The reality is victory is really about business success and this comes over the long haul.  Success in my view will be companies who realize true word of mouth by their Customers is what social media is about.  Do not strive to be Apple or Nike or Zappos, but instead set the path that is right for your long term success.  Lead the way, do not follow others.

The fact is these thoughts are not very new, and have been discussed by many of us at great length over the years.  Sometimes voices are quieted down by the noise all around us, but now people are looking for the deeper message and it is time we helped to deliver that to them.  The world has shifted and companies, and people will need to shift with it.  I think this will be fun to watch as social starts to become what is truly possible.