Illustration from a July 2010 report on social media in China by OgilvyOne.

Social media: crack for marketers, not consumers.

by Yuan Elle Wang on 20 July 2010

Last week marketing agencies in Shanghai and Toronto announced with breathless enthusiasm that everybody who wants to sell something should jump into social media immediately.

On 14 July, OgilvyOne released a study on social media in China saying that “social media users are no longer discriminating between ‘brands’ and ‘friends.’ They are simply identifying a third group that they can engage with – ‘frands.’”

On the same day, Espresso, a digital agency based in Toronto, distributed its third evaluation of the state of social media. The summary, in two words: BLAZING HOT. David Armano, a digital strategist at Edelman, provided this quote to Espresso: “Social media is the crack cocaine of the Internet. We want it, we need it, and we go into withdrawal when we don’t get enough of it.”

Social media may well be the new crack cocaine of marketers. But the foaming-at-the-mouth tone of these reports doesn’t convince me that consumers in China, the United States, Canada, or anywhere else are stupid enough to think brands that want to sell stuff to them are actually their friends. I am also skeptical of the presumption that if companies are clever enough about insinuating themselves into social media, they will succeed at levels beyond their wildest expectations.

I’m a 20-something graduate student in communication in New York, media capital of the Western world. I grew up with social media in China, enjoy it as much as anyone else, believe it is a powerful tool, and have a vested interest in knowing its impact on behavior. But as a consumer, I know when I am being treated like a mark.

OgilvyOne, for example, states that Chinese “social media users are going online to experience a relaxing, social place full of information about products and brands that can be shared with friends. It’s about feeding a fascination for consumerism and it’s about being able to influence others with what you know.”

The majority of Chinese people probably have no idea as to what “social media” means. This doesn’t prevent them from being major players in the social media landscape in China and worldwide. Millions of Google users in China cannot spell the word “google,” according to Kai-Fu Lee, the founding president of Google China. But Google services are still important to them.

Instead of claiming that social media is a relaxing place to talk about brands, I would say social media is a place where potential consumers go for peer comments before making purchases. Social media is a buzzword now, but it is not a magic wand for generating gigantic amounts of profit. Companies might choose to become facilitators for conversations and discussions online, rather than believing they can manipulate the behavior of online influencers. Social media ushers in a new age for marketing methods and research, but it’s not going to replace the basic psychology of consumer behavior.

OgilvyOne makes sense in identifying some passionate brand chasers as “frands.” But it is awfully soon to declare, and rather disrespectful of human beings, to say they no longer know the difference between brands and friends.

Social media might be a relaxing place. But is it really true that people have nothing interesting to talk about but brands? I doubt that.

Wang, a graduate student in communication at Columbia University, is from Maanshan, China.

Above, an illustration from OgilvyOne’s July 2010 report on social media in China.

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