This post has been provoked by an exchange with Raph Koster on Twitter. Which is kind of appropriate, because Twitter is one of the social media I'm going to talk about.
There are a lot of people in a lot of companies out there who are looking at Facebook, Twitter, and other such facilities, and scratching their heads. The main question asked seems to be 'How can we make money from this?', and the one they don't seem to ask is 'Why do people use these things?'.
This isn't going to be a ground-breaking analysis of social media, but I'm hoping to make clear a few points. The main one is this: you won't make money directly from any social media use. You have no shopping cart there, you probably won't have anything showing up in the conversions column in Analytics, and trying to sell your brand to people will put them off instead.
Step back a little instead, and look at things from a different point of view. Pretend that you're in the mythical small town of the good ol' days, where there are balmy summer evenings where people sit outside the pub, snow in winter, a May Pole on the village green in spring, and a harvest festival. You get the idea. Now, your small town has businesses, and they get along pretty well. If someone drops by from out of town, they probably won't see anything they have to have, but the businesses serve their local customers, and do well. And there's an active, participatory community.
Facebook is the community noticeboard in that small town. Maybe an even smaller community is the right reference point, but since I spent a paragraph describing it, bear with me here. It's where people post "for sale", "room to rent", and "work wanted" notices, but you'll also see things about concerts, the Drama Society's play, the Scout trip to the Lake Country, and maybe some photographs from the Summer Fete. You post notices about anything other than your annual sale there, and people will probably quietly remove them - or tear them down, if you keep at it.
Twitter is the coffee shop, or the pub, or even the tables on the village green. You're probably there with friends, but there are people around who know them but not you, or who you only know vaguely. You can overhear things as well as have them said directly to you, and sometimes the conversations that arise from overhearing are more interesting than the ones you meant to have.
Blogs are more like presentations, talks, and lectures. These were big business before television, even well into the days of radio. People sit and listen for a stretch, and then ask questions. Sometimes people start arguments, and sometimes people completely miss the point.
So, that's why people use them - they give a sense of community that's often missing if you live in a suburb or apartment, if you work in an isolated office or cubicle, or from home - or indeed, if you're on the road a lot for work. It's a community you can be in from wherever you physically find yourself.
So is there anything you can do with them from a business point of view?
Of course there is. In our mythical small town, the business people are part of the community. Everyone knows what they do, and they talk about it with people - or are heard talking about it. Someone looking for a carpenter is automatically directed to John, because everyone knows that's what he does. And they know it because he turns up covered in shavings and muttering about elm being unavailable, as well as when he's worked for them.
In our modern circle, no matter what you do - unless, I suppose, you're an A-List celebrity, or a major political figure - I guarantee you there are people you know who don't know what you do for a living. But things like Twitter and Facebook give you a way to say - unobtrusively, and in a way that people will remember without being offended - that you work with Adwords for a living, or that you know how to make Excel stand up and bark, or that you grow organic vegetables, or whatever it is you do. And if you participate in the communities on these services, people will come to you when they have something to advertise, when they want tutoring in Excel, or when they want organic celeriac.
So... they're social media. Be social.