The real lesson to be learned from Mister Splashy Pants

Like many of us – I use Twitter as a good filter for all the stuff that I should read about but would never, ever find on my own.

Anyway, one little bit caught my eye; “How to make a splash in social media”. It was one of those hyper fast – 4 minutes presentations presented at TED/ India, featuring Alexis Ohanian of Reddit with a clever bit about how Greenpeace used social media to halt whaling. Good cause. Great message.  http://www.ted.com/talks/alexis_ohanian_how_to_make_a_splash_in_social_media.html

His opening, “Lots of consultants make a lot of money talking about this stuff.. I’m going to try and save you all the time and money and explain it 3 minutes” was the beginning of a clever and catchy presentation on the power of social media.

I was hooked, that is until he revealed the story’s main theme. Somewhat stunned I heard him conclude that social media was largely free. I was disappointed to hear yet another digi-rati so in love with technology that he failed to be objective. I was surprised that Reddit’s CEO, Alexis, clearly a thoughtful man, fell into the trap so easily.

It seems, therefore, left to us real world practitioners to set the record straight. My message is very simple. Social media is not free – but the myth is perpetuated because capturing its costs is harder than traditional media.

So let me repeat – social media is NOT free and I will use Alexis’ case study of Mr. Splashy Pants to introduce reality to his ever sunny and youthful telling of the story.

The presentation itself condenses the uplifting real world experience of a Greenpeace program that wanted to stop whaling. They introduced a grass roots promotion to name this initiative to garner attention. One quirky name, Mr. Splashy Pants created a groundswell, among the community; including the Reddit team which helped Greenpeace achieve its noble goals. The whales win, Greenpeace wins, social media wins and Reddit too.

His quotable quotes reinforce the “social media is free” theme and included a wealth of digital “truisms” such as:

  1. “It costs nothing to get your content out there”
  2. “The content distribution platforms are free so it only takes a few minutes of your time to distribute…
  3. “All links are equal …”
  4. “And the cost of iteration is so cheap…”
  5. “We {at Reddit} got behind it ourselves,.. we changed the logo …

Now all these “ism’s” sound great until you actually think about each one critically. So let’s do just that and you’ll see why Alexis, earnest though he was, succumbed to the myth like so many before him.

“It costs nothing to get your content out there” .  Who does he think is writing all this content that;  ”costs nothing to distribute”- content fairies with some pixie dust?

“The content distribution platforms are free so it only takes a few minutes of your time to distribute…” And since when is time, even “a little time”, free? And what if you are not as tech savvy as Alexis? Would it in fact be “just a few minutes” for most people?

“All links are equal …” How can he say this with a straight face unless he means all links are, quite literally, created equal? But anyone in the real world knows that even a 1,000 links with little traffic has very little value versus one site with lots of traffic. Getting quality links is the point and that is not really free to get.

“And the cost of iteration is so cheap…” This principle has caused more money to be wasted than perhaps any other ill conceived corporate mantra. Take it from real world experience – iteration borne of a lack of preparation (e.g. research) is rarely profitable. The ideal is to get it roughly right … but that takes upfront planning time which is definitely not free.

“We {at Reddit} got behind it ourselves,.. we changed the logo …” This little point sounds innocent enough and it is. They felt it was a worthwhile cause to get behind by creating a logo and giving it support. Well done. But tell me how many companies can count on that type of support which surely helped? Would that cost nothing too?

Time is money – even in the social media world. Maybe the reason this myth is a hard one to beat is because no single social media activity takes a lot of time. But when you add all the pieces together, you have a “content campaign” which is a time investment that most definitely is not free – but it does seem invisible.

That’s why Alexis fell victim to the “social media is free” trap. Don’t you fall for it too.

Judy Shapiro

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