Several days ago, I attended a very thought-provoking lecture called “Social Media: Beyond the Hype.” The lecturer was Robert Thompson, a renowned and often-cited professor at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. If you follow stories about media and popular culture in outlets like the New York Times, NPR or CNN, there is a good chance you’ve seen or heard Thompson comment on a recent trend or issue.   

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I attended the lecture primarily because of my interest in social media as a tool for business, marketing and market research. Thompson did touch upon the business implications of social media, but as an academic focused on popular culture. The main thrust of his presentation was about the broad impact that the phenomenon is having on all aspects of society including education, politics and entertainment.

While acknowledging that social media is an aspect of daily life that people should not and, indeed, cannot ignore, Thompson’s overall message was one of skepticism and a call for perspective on the phenomenon. He chastised mainstream media outlets and institutions of higher education for jumping headlong with giddy excitement into the social media frenzy without stopping to think about potential negative impacts or even if social media might be undermining the very foundations of their operations. He talked at length about the potential pitfalls of Twitter, in which the raw, unfiltered impulses of a person’s id are often tweeted on a whim for the whole world to see, citing the recent Anthony Weiner scandal as just one of many examples.

Although I went into the lecture as one who values social media and its potential, and still remain so, I did appreciate many of Thompson’s points and found him to be a welcome, sober voice of reason on the subject. As I said, my main goal in attending the lecture was to gain insights on social media as a business tool, and Thompson made several points that strongly resonated with me as a market researcher. They were:

1. Social media is ultimately just another communication medium, and like any tool its value depends upon the way it is used. This is to say, content and substance matter. It’s not enough just to have a social media strategy  — you still need to have a product or service worth promoting in the first place. It’s not enough to simply have a blog – there still has to be content on that blog worth reading.

2. The ease and speed at which social media and the Internet can transmit information can often serve to compromise the accuracy of information that reaches the public. Thompson spoke of this phenomenon mostly with regard to how erroneous news stories sometimes get reported, even in large and well-respected news outlets, because there was inadequate fact-checking and a rush to be first with the story. The same is true in the world of market research. A great deal of secondary data can be pulled off the Internet, but in the age of Wikipedia, it’s vitally important to rely on reliable, verifiable sources and check facts.

3. Social media has contributed to the cultural fragmentation of society. Several decades ago, according to Thompson, there was an identifiable “center” to American culture that was fostered by shared experiences and widespread acceptance of certain authoritative figures and institutions such as Walter Cronkite delivering the news every evening. Now, in the age of the Digital Revolution, people are more easily able to confer only with like-minded, similar people, and rely on sources of news that confirm (and pander to) their pre-existing belief systems. This trend has enormous implications to marketers with regard to segmentation strategies, marketing communication and niche marketing.

Beyond those three points, my main takeaway from the lecture was that regardless of how much a trend is hyped in the media or presented as THE thing that everyone must be on board with, it’s always important to step back and scrutinize exactly how that trend could hurt us as well as help us, to take emotion and enthusiasm out of the picture and look at a phenomenon objectively, being unafraid to challenge the conventional wisdom and insist upon seeing evidence of tangible benefits, and to give careful consideration of what is given up in addition to what might be gained. I think that sentiment was the essence of Thompson’s message and it is also the essence of market research.