Enter Social Media

In September 2006, Hitwise, an online marketing research firm, reported that the majority of traffic to online music retailer, HMV.co.uk, was referred from MySpace, a social networking Web site.  This traffic surpassed searches from two of the most popular search engines, MSN UK and Yahoo! UK.  The event was a milestone because it indicated a profound shift in patterns of usage on the Internet.  For the past ten years, the user experience online has been framed by search engines that use highly developed algorithms to connect users with information and content.  Now, a Web site largely driven by human interactions had come to surpass two of the most dominant search engines in the market. 

Consider the following evidence of the growing prominence of social media:

  1. In 2006, the blogosphere had grown 100 times in three years, and accounted for 50 million blogs (Technorati, 2006).
  2. 57% of teens who use the Internet can be considered content producers in some way or another (Fox & Lenhart, 2006).
  3. More than half (55%) of all online American youths ages 12-17 use online social networking sites (Lenhart & Madden, 2007).
  4. In April 2006, 35,000 new videos were being posted daily to YouTube and in February 2006, YouTube attracted 9 million visitors who viewed 176 million pages (Liedtke, 2006).
  5. Wikipedia consistently places in the top-10 results for Google searches on fortune-500 brand names (Fadner, 2006).

Defining Social Media

Random House (2006) defines media as the plural form of medium, “an intervening agency, means, or instrument.” 

Two centuries ago, media came into common usage, referring to the role that newspapers played within society.  As Thomas Carlyle (1869) noted, they were the fourth estate: the medium that existed between the political sphere and the individual citizen. It was their responsibility to frame political issues and provide citizens with the information they needed to make political decisions. 

During the twentieth century, radio, television and film ushered in a new paradigm of communications, popularly referred to as mass media.  The content of mass media was controlled by a small group of producers and distributors and consumed by a mass audience resulting in relatively uniform content tailored to appeal to a broad demographic. 

Towards the end of the 20th century, the availability of the Internet began to fuel a shift in communications. Emerging information and communication technologies (ICTs) began to blur the lines between production, distribution and consumption of media content. Usenet, Multi-user Domains (MUDs), listservs, and BBS systems are notable examples of early ICTs. 

As time passed, access to the Internet continued to increase at an unprecedented pace.  As a broader population went online, many commercial and academic efforts became oriented on how to make ICTs more accessible to users who may not have the skills and training required to fully engage with earlier communication tools. 

In the past several years, these efforts have resulted in ICTs blogs, podcasts, social networks, and a number of other innovations collectively referred to as social media.  Although these ICTs encompass varying terms of engagement, there are several traits that are common to all:

  1. User-driven – In contrast to mass media, which is fueled by commercially-produced content and tightly controlled distribution networks, the content is produced and distributed by ordinary users like you or me.
  2. Organic Content – In traditional media, content is produced, distributed, and consumed as a distinct unit.  In social media, content is constantly being reshaped and repurposed.  A blog article that is posted on one day is edited several days later.  A video that is posted one day is mixed or “mashed” with another video the next. 
  3. Community-oriented – Social media is about all the things that make community possible: collaboration, participation, and shared interests. 
  4. Open – The tools for production and distribution of communications in social media are accessible to broad audiences.  For instance, anyone can access a media sharing site like YouTube and post a video in a relatively small amount of time.
  5. Easy to use – Perhaps the single-most important differentiator of social media is that it is easy to use, it is accessible to people regardless of their technical training or aptitude. 

The Different Types of Social Media

There are a variety of ICTs that have sprung up that can be considered social media.  Here are a few of the more notable examples:

BlogsStreams of consciousness electrified
During the early years of the Internet, Web development was accessible to technically-savvy users who had the ability to write HTML.  The majority of these early Web sites were static and not always easy to use.  Over time, Web publishing tools became more sophisticated and easier to use.  Around the year 2000, RSS, a protocol commonly defined as Really Simple Syndication, made it possible to syndicate digital content.  This set the table for the explosion of what is commonly referred to as the blogosphere–the interconnected world of blogs. 

Blogs vary widely in form but most share the following characteristics:

  1. RSS – Many blogs use a form of content syndication protocol.
  2. Interactivity – Although some use their blogs as a publishing platform, most successful bloggers interact with their audiences through comments and with other bloggers through hyperlinks and trackbacks.
  3. Informal tone – Most blogs have an informal, informal tone.  There is normally a very limited editorial review process and often times no editorial review process at all.
  4. Timeliness of post – The informal editorial review process, ease of publishing and other factors keep most blogs extremely timely.  In many cases, they are more timely than the mainstream media. 

PodcastsTransforming your computer into a radio studio and tower
Podcasts are normally explained as audio versions of blogs which is not entirely accurate.  Although podcasts do share many characteristics with blogs, such as RSS and the personalized tone, the effort involved with production is currently substantially higher than with blogging.  Also, podcasts are not as interactive as other forms of social media, due in part to the nature of the medium.  For example, hyperlinking, is an interactive method that translates well to the textual medium but is far more difficult to associate with audio or video. 

In the past several years, video podcasts have increased in popularity.  Video podcasts share many traits with standard audio podcasts, including the same challenges to interactivity. Interestingly, interactivity may enhance video podcasting before audio podcasting. Several organizations are looking at ways of embedding hyperlinks into video. Siemens for instance, is developing a method that would train technicians with video manuals that would allow them to click on components in the video to retrieve more detailed video clips on that component (Economist, 2006).  

Social Networking sitesYour rolodex on steroids
One of the primary benefits of Microsoft Outlook was that it allowed people to place their rolodexes online and communicate with their contacts through e-mail.  Social networking takes this basic process and adds two important components.  First, social networking sites are user-centric.  The most important entry in your rolodex is your own. It is like having a personal Web page devoted to yourself.  Second, social networking sites allow you to extend beyond your personal network, into your secondary and tertiary contacts in other words, your friends-of-friends.  Core features of social networking sites include:

  1. Personalized pages – Social networking sites allow users the ability to create and edit their own profiles. 
  2. Connect with friends – Users can designate primary contacts and browse secondary and tertiary contacts. 
  3. Socialize with friends – Access to community-oriented ICTs that allow you to socialize with contacts within your network. 

Over time, the capabilities offered through social networking Web sites have become increasingly sophisticated.  They have begun to incorporate functionality from other Internet-based ICTs including file sharing, instant messaging, forums and blogs.  Social networks have also become the single-most popular form of social media, with over 150 million users on MySpace alone.

WikisThe never-ending brainstorm with a photographic memory
Imagine you are sitting in a brainstorming session with several of your co-workers.  Suddenly, you have a great idea so you walk up to the white board and begin to sketch it out.  Once you finish, a co-worker has a complimentary idea and walks up to the board and edits your original sketch.  Another co-worker mentions that they had a similar idea several months ago, so they snap their fingers and it suddenly appears on an adjacent white board. You think about all the ideas for a few moments and decide you prefer your original idea, so you click your fingers and suddenly the sketch appears in its original form. This is the type of interaction that a Wiki facilitates.

In its most basic form, a Wiki is a Web site that supports user collaboration through a variety of functions. There are numerous types of Wiki software available share the following characteristics:

  1. Create and update documents – Wiki users have the ability to easily create and update documents. 
  2. Review versions – Most Wikis store each version of a document.  This functionality makes it easy for users to view the various modifications that a document has undergone over time.
  3. Community-oriented tools – Most Wikis provide users with an ability to engage in some form of discussion about the documents they are collaborating on. 

Wiki software drives Wikipedia, the world’s largest online encyclopedia–and an increasingly influential online resource.  Wikipedia’s rapid ascent is in large part a result of being completely user-driven.  All of the content is collaboratively developed by writers and editors around the world. 

Media sharing sitesShow-and-tell meets the World Wide Web
In February 2005, three friends and former co-workers at PayPal registered a domain name with the intention of launching a Web site to allow users to upload, watch and share videos. Over the next several months, they developed the site and attracted venture capital funding, which allowed them to accelerate its development.  Fast-forward a little over a year and that small company called YouTube was sold to Google for $1.65 billion in stock.  Due to their rapid and astronomically lucrative ascent, YouTube has become a household name and the leading example of a media sharing site. 

While YouTube’s focus on video played a major role in their high market valuation, media sharing sites can involve various types of media including photography (e.g. Flickr) or news (e.g. Digg).  Alternatively, they can focus on emerging media like Adobe Flash (e.g. Newgrounds) and even Web bookmarks (e.g. Del.icio.us). 

Regardless of the medium, most media sharing sites contain the following functionality and characteristics:

  1. Distribution tools – The ability to upload and share different types of media.
  2. Community-oriented placement – In addition to being platforms for sharing media, media-sharing sites are also distribution points for public consumption.  Content on highly visible pages within the site, like the home page, are normally decided through democratic processes.
  3. Tagging – This refers to a process in which a user adds descriptive information to a piece of content, normally in a concise manner.  Tags allow users to share content (including multimedia content) that is not easily read by search engine crawlers.  
  4. Dialogue – Media sharing sites are not only about sharing media, but like all forms of social media, they are about sociability and dialogue. 

Advantages of Social Media

Social media is important for a number of key reasons:

  1. Social media is stickier than traditional media
    Social media has the potential to attract and hold the attention of a vast demographic of people who have grown numb to more traditional forms of marketing and advertising.  According to a study conducted by InsightExpress, a market research firm, consumer trust in advertising has decreased 41% over the past three years (Elkin, 2005).  Meanwhile social media engages consumers in a way that encourages trust and profoundly increases message retention.  According to the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA), 92% of consumers cite word of mouth as the best source of information on new product ideas. 
  2. Social media is viral
    Because social media is so embedded in the Internet, it has a tremendous viral capacity to reach wide audiences in just a short amount of time.  This represents both a substantial opportunity and threat for communications professionals.  On the one hand, a well-placed outreach effort can reap tremendous rewards if executed properly.  For example, Warner Brothers has attributed almost $100 million in revenue for March of the Penguins, to positive buzz generated from the independent Podcast ‘Mommycast’ (Gillin, 2006). On the other hand, the viral impact of social media has also resulted in countless negative outcomes for organizations that were not properly prepared to deal with the ensuing firestorm.
  3. Social media is interactive
    Traditionally, media organizations would make investments in research in order to assess the efficacy of their media efforts. Through social media, organizations can now communicate their message or distribute their content and enable users to provide immediate feedback, encouraging a process of dialogue between user and organization.  Enabling comments on a corporate blog, for example, has resulted in a positive impact for many organizations that have been able to gain valuable customer feedback from the practice.
  4. Social media has high visibility on the ‘Net
    Social media has grown up on the ‘Net.  As a result, social media holds a favorable position as far as visibility is concerned.  Wikipedia is perhaps the most notable example of this phenomenon.  Spannerworks, a search engine marketing specialist, recently reported that social media platform Wikipedia appears in the top 20 Google search results for 88 percent of searches for the top 100 global brands (Mayfield, 2007). 


In just a short amount of time, social media has made a big splash.  Perhaps the most significant indicator of social media’s importance is the fact that it has become embedded into the traditional media landscape.  Newspaper journalists now have their own blogs, the Tonight Show plays footage from YouTube, and several prominent Super Bowl commercials were examples of “consumer generated media.”  The integration of social media into the overall media landscape represents a new challenge for communications professionals. 

Social media presents a wide array of risks and opportunities and the stakes are high.  Through social media, PR professionals can reach their target audience in new, engaging ways.  At the same time, the potential to misstep and encounter an ensuing backlash is high.   PR professionals should consider the following areas when integrating social media into their communications strategies.

  1. Social Media Monitoring and Analysis – News Monitoring has always been an integral part of a PR strategy.  In traditional media, it would often take days for news to travel.  In the blogosphere, news can travel virally in a matter of hours: reputations can be made or broken overnight.  It is imperative for PR pros to constantly keep their finger on the pulse of the social media space.
  2. Social Media Outreach – Due to its high visibility and ‘stickiness,’ social media represents a novel opportunity for PR professionals to reach their target audience and optimize the retention of their intended message.  At the same time, appropriate outreach in social media takes tremendous investments of time and effort. 
  3. Social media distribution – Social media represents a change from the broadcast model of media: according to the Social Media Club (SMC), “Social Media is conversational media in all its interactive forms.”  For PR professionals, this means moving from a process of one-way communication to one that is more interactive. 

About the Author

Jiyan Wei is product manager with Vocus, where he assists with the development of new media strategies and provides oversight for PRWeb.  Jiyan obtained his Bachelor of Arts degree in 2000 from Georgetown University, where his areas of focus were English culture and performance, and classical music. He completed a Masters of Science in media and communications at the London School of Economics (LSE) in 2006, where his dissertation studied power dynamics in online communities. He is an active member of the Advertising, Marketing, and PR Society of the LSE (AMP), Society for New Communications Research (SNCR) and currently maintains a blog, Ether Breather (www.etherbreather.com), focused on culture, media, and technology.


Bates, D (2006), Mini-Me History, Institute for Public Relations, Gainesville, FL.

Carlyle, T (1869), Thomas Carlyle Collected Works: Vol. XII, Heroes and Hero-Worship, Chapman and Hall

Economist (2006), ‘From Hypertext to Hypervideo’, The Economist, 21 September.

Elkin Toby (2005), ‘Media Metrics: Something You Can Trust’, MediaPost, August issue.

Fadner, R (2006), ‘What does Wikipedia Say About Your Brand?’, Ad Age, September 14.

Fox, S & Lenhart, A (2006), ‘A portrait of the internet’s new storytellers’, Pew Internet & American Life Project, Washington, DC.

Gillin, P (2006), Gillin.com, viewed 8 March, 2007, <http://www.paulgillin.com/2006/05/sky-may-be-limit-for-mommycast.html>

Hopkins, H (2006), Hitwise, viewed 2 February, 2007, <http://weblogs.hitwise.com/heather-hopkins/2006/09/myspace_8_source_of_visits_to.html>

Lenhart, A & Madden, M (2007), ‘Social Networking Websites and Teens: An Overview’, Pew Internet & American Life Project, Washington, DC.

Liedtke, M (2006), ‘Now starring on the Internet: YouTube.com’, Associated Press, 9 April.

Mayfield, A (2007), ‘A Bluffers Guide to Social Media?”, Spannerworks.com, viewed 9 March, 2007, <http://www.spannerworks.com/what-we-think/our-research/a-bluffers-guide-to-social-media>

Parker, P (2005), ‘Study Bolsters Blog-Related PR Practices’, Clickz.com, viewed 9 March, 2007, <http://www.clickz.com/showPage.html?page=3514176>

Random House Unabridged Dictionary 2006.

Sifry, D (2005), ‘State of the Blogosphere, August 2006’, Technorati.com, viewed 20 February, 2007, <http://www.sifry.com/alerts/archives/000436.html>