I spend a lot of time talking to people about social media--how it can be a model for real-life content venue interactions and how it can connect museums and cultural institutions to users in new ways. But inevitably (and quite appropriately), someone will say, "all of this is very interesting. But my organization is functioning just fine without it. Is there some reason that I really need to pay attention to social media?"
This is an honest and valid question. And only recently have I concluded that my answer is yes--not that your organization needs to do anything in social media yet, but that you should pay attention.
Here's why. It has to do with reach. In the 2000s, it was important to have a website so that people could "find you" on the Web via search engines like Google. But the Web is changing into a socially contextualized information environment, and as that change happens, it becomes more important that people can "find you" via their personal social networks.
Here's a longer explanation, and here's the Nielsen research report that motivated this post.
The way we use the Web is fundamentally changing. Eleven years ago, Google launched and vastly improved search capabilities on the Web. Before Google, lots of people used the internet via services like AOL, but we didn't use the Web a lot. We sent emails and IMs. We engaged in chat rooms and consumed content selected by AOL or Prodigy or Yahoo.
Now, of course, Google is a huge part of our lives. We talk about "googling" things in all kinds of contexts. For many people (including me), Google serves as homepage. My portal to the Web is through search. This means that I think of "entering" the Web as a hunt for information. Google has conditioned us to think of the Web as the outcome of atomized search for information. I need to know something, so I look it up. I find the page. I find the answer. The end.
This is the reason that many museums and cultural organizations decided they needed websites in the late 1990s and early 2000s. We recognized that people were increasingly turning to the Web as a source of information--for content knowledge but also for trip planning. I believe that the primary reason most museums started their websites is about planning visits. Marketing departments realized that a large percentage of people were using online search engines to find interesting things to do, and they wanted to be there.
Now, things are changing again. Whereas the Web of the 2000s was dominated by search, we are entering a time when more and more people are using social media as their gateway to the Web. Ask a college student what her homepage is, and you are likely to see Facebook, not Google, pop up on her screen. The worldwide market reach of social networks and other "member community sites" (as Nielsen research deems them) is growing rapidly, and it seems likely that Facebook and other social networking sites will continue to attract older, more mainstream audiences.
This means that more and more people are "entering" the Web via social context. Last week, Susie Wilkening wrote a blog post expressing that Facebook has replaced her newspaper as the go-to place for relevant news in her life. It's not hard to imagine a near future where Facebook (and sites like it) also replace a lot of the ways we use atomized search. This already happens for me with professional research. When I'm looking for a resource on something, my first stop is Twitter, where I can send my research question to my professional network. Then I use Google to track down the references they mention. People often ask me how I find out about interesting projects going on at different museums. I'm not constantly googling "visitor co-created exhibits" and searching blind. I find out about these things in my social networks--via blogs, professional communities, Twitter, and socially-selected content feeds, which contextualize and direct me towards information of interest.
This isn't just a professional shift. For people who are deeply immersed in social media, social networks are already a much heavier influence on personal choices--where to visit, what concert to attend--than traditional advertising. Which means that your organization's website--a brochure out in the wilderness of the Web--is only going to remain relevant and useful as a marketing piece if it is being referenced in the social context of your users' lives. The time is coming when atomized search will take a back seat to socially networked information sources, and that is going to change what it means to have a presence on the Web.
Does this mean your organization needs a social media presence today? No. Think back to how and when you decided that you needed a website at all. What was that decision based on? Did you lose potential opportunities because you came late to the Web, or did you waste resources by investing too early in an untested environment? You have time to make the same kind of decisions with regard to social media. Some institutions already feel the imperative, whereas others are years away. Social media is already changing the way people interact with the Web. Don't say I didn't warn you.