What is Social Media?

Social Media Defined in 12 Points

Two tin cans and a string What is social media? Ask a group of social media savvy individuals and each one will give you a different answer. Here’s how Wikipedia, a social media reference, defines social media:

It’s “media for social interaction, using highly accessible and scalable communication techniques. Social media is the use of web-based and mobile technologies to turn communication into interactive dialogue.”

Social media defined in 12 points

To answer the question, what is social media, here are the twelve main attributes based on thirty social media definitions from social media, marketing and public relations experts. Interestingly, there were 12 mentions of marketing, 6 mentions of brand and 1 mention of public relations (Note: some participants made more than one mention and no company or job titles were included.)

  1. Social media encompasses and is enabled by a plethora of technologies according to Rebecca Lieb. These social media platforms continue to increase and evolve. Gini Dietrich points out that social media has changed how, where and when we get news and information. Bryan Eisenberg underscores the fact that social media isn’t media in the traditional sense. It’s platforms for users’ interactions not the delivery of advertising.  Augustine Fou echos this sentiment; social media can’t be bought by advertisers.
  2. Social media consists of user-driven conversations, not marketing or advertiser messages. Social media reflects real conversations that happen online and offline in Sarah Hofstetter’s opinion. These discussions have a broader reach since everyone has a digital megaphone that facilitates information sharing. Jim Sterne recommends you not overlook offline versions of social media like bulletin boards.
  3. Social media enables users to communicate in all directions at any time as Michelle Chmielewski notes. Mark W. Schaefer considers this an evolution in how we communicate. Specifically, social media provides for consumer interactions that are one-to-many, one-to-one or many-to-many. Social media introduced channels supporting many-to-many communications.
  4. Social media allows interactions and/or communications to happen quickly in real-time or asynchronously over time. While real-time engagement has gained public notice with world events like the revolutions in North Africa and the tsunami in Japan, it also enables conversations to continue over time.
  5. Social media enables users to engage and participate at the level of interaction where they feel comfortable, be it creating content, commenting or lurking. Further, this engagement can vary based on the social media platform.
  6. Social media requires listening according to Rob Peterson. Interestingly, only Rob mentioned this critical factor. In fact, every business, whether they’re involved in social media or not should have some form of brand monitoring and listening strategy.
  7. Social media facilitates content creation including links, text, video, photographs, audio, PDF and PowerPoint. Effective social media starts with a content strategy, in Joe Pulizzi’s opinion, that helps to position you and your brand as the expert in your niche.
  8. Social media facilitates the collective, in Lee Odden’s words. In the social media ecosphere, the community is greater than the individual parts. In the process, social media connects a wide audience composed of individuals, peers, companies and the public. Businesses must understand that they no longer control a one-way communication channel.
  9. Social media allows participants to connect and interact in “social relationships” as Liz Strauss calls them. These relationships are the connective tissue and neutral net of the Web in Ann Handley’s words. Howard Greenstein points out that social media functionality is easy to spot because it’s no fun to use by yourself; an account with no connections has no value. These social media interactions can cross one or more platforms through other functionality including social sharing, email and feeds.
  10. Social media are web-based platforms used via a computer, tablet or mobile device.
  11. Social media creates real-time online events, extends online interactions offline (through platforms like Meetup), and/or augments live offline events online. Via social media, online and offline connect.
  12. Social media transforms organizations and requires them to be transparent according to Adam Kleinberg. While Marjorie Clayman underscores that social media isn’t a fad, in her words, companies must acknowledge prospects and customers with respect, trustworthiness and honesty.

Social media is the platforms and technology that enable a public conversation while creating a wide variety of user-generated content. At the core of these communications is the ability to build social relationships by listening and actively participating. As social media continues to evolve, marketers must be involved and use these tools to support customers interactions.

What do you think is missing from these twelve social media attributes? Please feel free to enhance this list in the comment section below. What questions do you think need to be addressed?

Happy marketing,
Heidi Cohen


BIg tip of my hat to all of the contributors to the 30 Social Media Definitions, especially those who are highlighted in this post including Rebecca Lieb, Gini Dietrich, Bryan Eisenberg, Augustine Fou, Sarah Hofstetter, Jim Sterne, Michelle Chmielewski, Mark W. Schaefer, Rob Peterson, Joe Pulizzi, Lee Odden, Liz Strauss,  Ann Handley, Howard Greenstein, Adam Kleinberg and Marjorie Clayman

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Photo credit: MarkHIllary via Flickr

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