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Social Media, Apple
By Jonathan Salem Baskin

Surefire Topics For Online Traffic Don't Seem To Resolve Anything

My latest column in Advertising Age reaffirmed a phenomenon I've seen for a while now: the topic most marketers want to talk about is social media. Praising or deriding Apple comes in a close second.

Everything else just doesn't matter. It could be a small, easy example from the endless list of other marketing tactics, or a single, bigger, complicated question about culture at large, and it won't warrant much attention or emotion...unless it can be distilled within the social media kettle. I can offer up the last few years of my blog posts (500+) and columns for AdAge (50+) as quantitative proof of my observation: essays about social media generate 3x or more comments and far more forwards than essays about anything else.

A similar phenomenon exists for stories (and conference presentations) about Apple, which seems to move everyone to wax poetic about its mastery of branding.

Both topics are getting old, aren't they? The funny thing is that neither topic is old at all, at least when it comes to conclusions.

The very premises underlying the what and why of online social engagement are still very much unproven theory, and much of it quite radically counterintuitive, yet because the technological what is so digitally obvious the latter gets confused with the former. Apple is such an outlier example of a great brand (Harley Davidson being a close, though tarnished second) that whatever it might reveal about marketing communications is obfuscated with product design, services offered, and a host of other qualities that make conclusions about its brand anything but conclusive or directionally followable.

But here's what happens when either topic gets repeatedly floated in articles or blog posts: after a while, the online conversations get tiring, irrespective of what they've resolved, if anything. The cases are closed because competing viewpoints have stated their positions innumerable times; the remaining differences must be the result of the debaters backgrounds, biases, or other proclivities. The problems have been solved.

No they haven't.

This is certainly the case when it comes to talking about social media theology, as I tried to do in my recent AdAge piece; probably four-fifths of them took a "side" and repeated the same stuff that’s been repeated so many times before. Social media are wonderful. Social media are terrible. Yet my intention was to raise the possibility that we might not be able to tell the difference, and that instead we were repeating the same opinions about brand advertising that folks debated 50 years ago. The remaining few comments derided me for daring to pose such a possibility.

Have we really proclaimed our beliefs enough to warrant the end of any debate? Is frequency trumps substance the real message of online engagement? It maybe well be so considering the content of so many social marketing campaigns these days.

Ditto goes for any so-called conversations about Apple. Jobs is a genius or he's a manipulative monster. The brand is a huge success or a horrible lie. Nobody changes their opinions but everyone wants to repeat them, at least until the repetition starts to feel boring or old...at which point the debate is considered resolved.

What would be truly new? How about actually talking about things vs. griping over past litanies of declarations that haven't convinced anybody of anything? Repetition isn't persuasive unless you're trying to brainwash someone, and most folks opt-out from anger or boredom long before they risk having their brains turned to Play Doh.

There has to be a basis for analyzing social phenomenon other than propagating hopefully entertaining campaigns at consumers and then asking them if they were entertained. People repeat what they've been told, generally speaking, and this has been true since long before the Internet was invented; tell 'em that the sky is falling down and then poll their opinions about the sky, and the most likely response will be that it's falling. Many of our conclusions about social efficacy are nothing more than self-fulfilling prophecies.

As for Apple, I've simply taken to never talking about the brand, and if I'm sitting in a presentation in which it comes up I pretty much shut down. The cliche is "“when you own a hammer all the world's problems look like nails," and I think it's particularly applicable to marketers and their perspectives on Apple. It would be really interesting to talk about the business sans the ads and packaging, and come to some conclusions about the operational component of the branding. Maybe ban the "m" and "b" words altogether?

But if you want traffic to your articles or blog posts, just keep writing about this stuff. Doesn't really matter what you say, since there's no discussion going on. Just lots of conversation.

Added: 29th November 2010

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