When I was an undergrad, one of my favorite professors liked to use Kenneth Burke‘s “unending conversation”–or, as she put it, his party metaphor. To paraphrase, he likened literature/rhetoric/history/drama (depending on how you read it) to a party in a room. When you enter, there are already people there talking. You join in, exchange ideas, someone leaves, then eventually you leave. But the party keeps going, and the conversation with it.
This metaphor aptly describes social media, too. If you’re a marketer that’s entering social media, you cannot presume that you’re the first one at the party. You can’t just set up your own forum or create an infrastructure for your own target audience, imagining that you’re building a community of your own. Doing so would be like hosting a party without inviting anyone, or inviting people who don’t know you to your party. It can work, but unless you already have a big name with a lot of caché, it’s more likely to turn into an incoherent, awkward event with short-lived connections: from a marketing point of view, a waste of time and resources.
Scholars and practitioners of social media marketing stress the importance of joining existing communities and growing a social media presence organically. You have to join an existing party, meet people, make some contacts, and build some credibility–before you ever begin to build the infrastructure for your own parties.
I gave my students a task this week: they are to follow all the conversations that any single business conducts, no matter what medium that business uses (well, they probably can’t follow email conversations, but all the public ones). I’ll be interested to find out if they look beyond the company’s web site to see how its social media team participates in conversations at other people’s parties.