Is the “land rush” phase of social media ending?

Land rushYou can’t really get away from it these days. The constant proliferation of social media tools and techniques keeps chugging along.

I thought two years ago that the world of social media was still in its infancy and needed to grow and catch up with usability. I think this phase is nearing its peak. What I mean is that using social media tools and platforms has become easier (though I still have many gripes about Facebook metrics), and that ease-of-use will accelerate.

But look on the web at any producer of content and what do you see? What do you see at the top of this post? A number of different ways to promote, like, share, etc.

I can’t help but feel that all these silo-ed social media platforms are inherently … messy. And while they all contribute to “social validation” (good content gets lots of activity across many tools), does it really make an impact — to the non-marketer/end-user/reader/client?

I was talking with an old friend last night over a beer or two at The Publick House in Brookline. We kept circling back to a main point: Social media effectiveness is inherently opaque to the recipient/reader. That can’t last forever.

The proliferation of tools and platforms feels like the “land rush” phase of any technology: many businesses and solutions crowding in to every available space. At first it was first-come, first-serve. Then the market space quickly became crowded and winners emerged.

But it still feels “early phase” to me — like the beginning of the car industry. Did you know in 1920 there were more than 40 car companies — selling many different models? That did not last much beyond a decade — and we know how fast the digital world works.

As a marketer, I don’t mind this phase, and the adoption of content marketing continues to rise. But proving the effectiveness is a constant battle. I know companies such as HubSpot are addressing this (and companies like AgoraPulse specialize in Facebook metrics).

But what I’m sensing is that social media has to get beyond this silo-ed, fractured set of tools in some way. Either a clear walk-away winner emerges (not likely), or there is something on the horizon which makes all of this look … quaint. And old fashioned. Maybe it’s a pipe dream, but I sense it’s coming.

Content marketing in a war zone: a true story

Soldier crop1The idea behind content marketing is really nothing new, but it is very powerful. The idea comes in many forms, but the basic principal is the same: providing something of value helps to build trust, and trust forms the basis of any relationship.

I certainly didn’t expect to find an example of content marketing when reading about a battle zone. In Iraq.

I’d just finished Thomas E. Ricks’ book The Generals, a survey of recent American generals and their leadership styles, when I decided to read another of Ricks’ books, The Gamble, about “the surge” in Iraq.

In The Gamble, Ricks lays out the events that led to the change in strategy of the US military in Iraq that prevented Iraq from turning into a never-ending cauldron of civil war (think of Syria now). As Ricks recounts, just three years after the ousting of Saddam Hussein, the Bush administration, the Pentagon and even the generals leading the occupation in Iraq were completely rudderless an enmeshed in a fiasco.

They didn’t understand the conflict they were in (a toxic cocktail of homegrown and foreign insurgencies) and they had no strategy to “win” (much less define what “winning” meant).

Luckily, a few commanders on the ground knew they had to fight insurgency with a counterinsurgency. This meant protecting the safety of the Iraqi people first and foremost, and living among them. By forging connections with the populace, insurgents lose the “sea” they swim in. The lessons of these (very few) commanders paved the way to stability and drawdown/exit from Iraq.

Ricks recounted one of the stories, and in it I found the surprising example of content marketing. In 2006 in the Iraqi city of Ramadi, in Anbar Province, then US-Army Col. Sean McFarland’s 1st Brigade (1st Armored Division) took over military operations. He had seen counterinsurgency succeed elsewhere, and put that strategy in place in Ramadi.

At this point a new insurgency had moved in to the province, and it was making war on the local sheikhs: al Qaeda.

McFarland offered the Ramadi sheikhs the protection of US forces. And he meant it. When an allied sheikh was attacked, McFarland stormed the area. Invariably they routed al Qaeda insurgents, and soon after McFarland would work to build trust with the local community.

But how do you build trust with an entire community that isn’t going to read your newspapers, listen to radio, or even has access to electricity? Ricks recounts how one bright soldier noticed that what people did listen to were loudspeaker announcements from the local mosque.

So, a special team set up a loudspeaker post (broadcasting every day but Friday). They “broadcast” news from Al Jezeera, sports and other information — and information on local attacks by al Qaeda. The messages reinforced the goal: the American forces were saying “we can relate to you — and we have a common enemy.” Eventually, the US forces began to be seen as an allied tribe. A very, very well-armed tribe of allies.

But think of that strategy of the unit with the loudspeakers. It’s the essence of content marketing: by giving something of value (news and information), it allowed a relationship to form. It made a key connection.

And all without Twitter, or blogs, or Facebook or SEO.