Tessa Chan

Welcome to the age of overabundant self-expression. Where your every mundane thought and action can be miraculously broadcast across the world in a click, whether anyone cares or not. The social media rash, while only mildly irritating, is spreading at an alarming rate. When I read that Oprah had joined the ranks of the ‘Twitterati’, I knew it was time we braced ourselves. It’s like seeing your granny wearing a Ramones T-shirt: you know it has gone mainstream. And celebrities, politicians, advertisers and their agencies are all scrambling for their piece of the pie.

There’s no denying that social media can be a powerful marketing tool. The problem is though, that even those clients who don’t know the difference between Twitter, Blogger, and Suckr are now demanding that these key ingredients be included in their ad menu. And even if they don’t demand it, their ad agencies are likely to be conscientiously ticking all the boxes for them anyway.

Meanwhile, sites like Facebook and Twitter are responding by nervously studying how to actually make a decent buck out of their empires. Who can blame them? Five-year-old

Facebook already has 200 million active users, and while Twitter is still relatively small, it made up for it this year with a whopping 1,382% growth rate. As I write, Facebook – who has already made some inroads with advertising – is threatening to come up with its own currency, while Twitter is quietly observing third-party initiatives from the sidelines, deciding what to do. I just hope that whichever method Twitter selects to lure marketers and businesses to their ranks, they stay true to their original opt-in spirit, keeping it relevant and useful. Because I can’t imagine the Twitter community taking kindly to being bombarded with uninvited advertising. The last thing we need is a continuous stream of sponsored Tweets: “This OMG LOL! message was brought to you by Dancin’ Donuts, WTF?”

At least Twitter’s 140-character limit is uncannily suited to our reduced attention spans.

Web 2.0 has given birth to a whole new generation of Internet Stars. Under pressure to tighten their marketing budgets, advertisers are keen to get in with the action. After all, these new celebs come complete with their own bands of devoted followers, and will usually “sell out” for a fraction of the usual endorsement fee. Who wouldn’t? Nowadays everybody wants to be – or own – an iJustine, Lauren Luke, Dancing Matt, or Obama Girl. At this moment in time, I suspect that hundreds of best-seller wannabes are anxiously scribbling e-books on how to emulate their success.

I personally believe that UK-based single mum Lauren Luke deserves every penny that her new Anomaly-launched make-up line must be raking in. iJustine has arguably redefined what it takes to be Business Woman of the Year; with over 25,000 Facebook fans, 94,000 subscribers on YouTube, and nearly 600,000 Twitter followers, she hardly falls into the amateur category. So the fact that Carl’s Jr has handed her, and her fellow YouTube stars, a small wad of cash to make online burger videos comes as no surprise.

Ever since Blendtec’s infamous “Will it Blend?” videos exploded on YouTube in 2006, the channel has been packed with determined advertisers who still think that posting a video, and ordering employees to write a few gushing anonymous posts about it, makes it “viral”. However, big brands still seem to have mixed feelings about being at the mercy of their consumers. While tempted by the sheer reach and potentially huge online buzz value, it has dawned on them that they have no control whatsoever over the resulting content, which often takes on a life of its own.

Recently, Skittles proudly plonked their flag on Twitter by turning their landing page into a Twitter feed, with a big “We get it!” But apart from lots of slaps on the back from industry insiders, what exactly did they get? Big publicity for Twitter, a stream of mind-numbing comments, some bad jokes and X-rated posts from people with nothing better to do.

And while social media seems like a free lunch, it’s not. It demands time investment, and, if you’re lucky, long-term follow-up. Be prepared to listen, and participate.

Yup, the worm has turned. People trust their peers, and even complete strangers they meet in chat-rooms, more than advertising. Long gone are the day of hard-selling, shove-it-down-your-throat marketing. Social media is not just another loudspeaker to shout at consumers through, it’s an opportunity to build communities and genuinely communicate with them. And there’s nothing like being a good listener if you want to make friends. So next time your brand or product gets ripped apart on the blogosphere, thank everyone for the valuable feedback and act upon it.

The reason so many of us are writing about social media these days is probably that it’s evolving so fast that nobody has really truly cracked it yet. Most of the biggest successes to date have been either improvised or unexpected. Obama was smart in that he focused on his objective, rather than the tools. Perhaps, next time we all leap onto the next social media bandwagon to speed along, we should first make sure we know where we want to end up.