Saturday, August 25, 2012

What's the Real Value of Being a "Native?"

Back in July, Cathryn Sloane wrote an article arguing that the people most qualified to manage a brand’s social media would be under twenty-five.  These people, the argument goes, would be the natives.  They would be the ones who grew up using social media technology, they were immersed in that culture, and so they would be the ones who best know how to use it. 

“The key is that we learned to use social media socially before professionally, rather than vice versa or simultaneously.”

I find this argument to be a little insulting. 

Ms. Sloane is assuming that learning the culture is the hard part, and after that the marketing will be easy, and that this disparity is great enough that someone who is intimately familiar with the social media generation but has almost no experience in marketing is more valuable than a seasoned marketing veteran who had to learn social media as part of their job. 

It certainly is important to know the culture that you are marketing to, but you still need actual marketing skill.  Sloane’s assumption both underestimates the abilities of marketers and overestimates the importance of simply being familiar with social media and its users. 

What value is there really in having come of age with social media and knowing it “socially before professionally?” 

There are over 900 million people on Facebook.  That is more than double the population of the United States.  That user base is spread all across the world and across all sorts of different social groups.  There are conservatives and liberals, anime fans and documentary lovers, adrenaline junkies and homebodies. 

This diversity makes it impossible to know all of Facebook society.  With such large portions of the social population that hold very different values and think in very different ways from you, you can only really know your own demographic.

There is such a large and diverse population that saying something like, “I grew up with Facebook.  Put me in charge of you social media campaign,” is like saying, “I’m from Europe.  Put me in charge of your European marketing campaign(according to a 2010 census, the population of Europe is over 738 million, which still isn’t as big as Facebook).” 

As I said, it is important to know the culture, and a native would have an advantage over a non-native marketer, but in the end it still comes down to who is the better marketer.

The industry is rife with examples of older marketers targeting younger adults and teenagers, and professionals managing campaigns for countries that they are not from.  They can do this because they are talented marketers and know how to reach people in these cultures, despite not being native to them.

Skills such as telling a brand’s story in a compelling way, working in a good call to action, and tying in a single spot to a campaign stretching across several channels are not things that simply come to you because you know the target audience. 

Knowing what will or won’t resonate with a certain group of people makes you an effective test-subject, a benchmark, not a boss.

But really, are people on social media that different?  Aren’t these the same people that marketers have been targeting for generations?  A low-income college student who likes mountain biking is still a low-income college student who likes mountain biking when he’s on Facebook. 

The only difference is that marketers have a new tool to reach him.

Learning who your audience is, what their values are, how they communicate, how to best reach them, these are all things that every good marketer must learn, and not just once, but with every campaign. 

When we see a social media campaign fall flat, it is most likely not because the people behind it didn’t know social media.  It’s because they didn’t know marketing.  Perhaps this is something Ms. Sloane would know with more experience.