Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Mainstream Madness

For a lot of us, mainstream media and social media have been, and continue to be, two completely different entities.  We here at Real Public Relations are here to tell you, not so fast there, buddy.  Don't believe me?  Look no further than this past weekend for proof that the lines have been blurred, and mainstream isn't just about your tv set and morning paper anymore.  We here at Real Public Relations love examples and we have three good ones today.  But first, a little perspective.

What can Betty White tell us about the power of social media?  Turns out, a lot.

When I worked as a journalist, social media was still just a twinkle in the eye of some college tech-geek somewhere.  We used the internet to dig for information, track down interview subject, play Risk online.  We used our computers to write stories, get emails and do research.  It was a tool, like a typewriter and beat sources used to be.  Even when I left in 2004, the internet couldn't replace good old fashioned legwork.  Going out, asking questions face to face, knocking on doors, lunch dates with "those in the know" were still the best ways to get information.

Traditional vs. New Media:

Today, with the advent of social media, reporters don't have to leave the newsroom as much as they used to.  Sourcs can be mined online.  Information comes in almost instantaneously in the form of tweets and Facebook IM's.  Newsrooms can cover stories across the world without stepping out of their door.  And that news comes in the form of first-person insight or even on-the-spot video, shot and uploaded minutes after a particular event.

Today, mainstream news relies upon social media more than at any other time in its history.  Kind of like how the phone changed communication in an irrevocable way, social media and the internet has done the same thing.  This matters because I clearly remember some heated arguments about bloggers when I was working in the newsroom.

At the time, blogs were the biggest form of social media online.  There were whispers that bloggers were going to overtake traditional news as the primary source of news and information in the U.S.  I railed against that thought, believing that an individual blogger couldn't replace a newsroom of experienced journalists with oversight, journalistic ethics and editors.  Fast forward six years and the entire world has changed.

I don't have statistic, yet, but it's a safe bet that million upon million of American, not to mention the rest of the world, get their daily information fix from the internet.  Some of it's in the form of online media sites to be sure.  But niche sites that focus on everything from the vegan lifestyle to government investigations to all things Jersey Shore now provide Americans with all the information they want or need to know.

A Viral Culture:

Let's take a look at three internet stories making the rounds this morning that shows the continuing explosion of social media and the merging of social media as mainstream.  Betty White, LOLCat and the BP Oil Spill.

First, let's start with LOLCat.  If you aren't familiar with this phenomenon, check out the site here, or take a look at this YouTube video.  Sure, it may just look like a bunch of cat photos with some clever copy added, but it has become an internet superstar with millions of viewers and a money-making machine for its creator, Ben Huh.  His site, I Can Has Cheezburger, is a string of lucrative network of profitable pages just like LOLcats.  Clearly, the guy understands what people like to see, read and hear online.  So let's take a minute to listen to what Mr. Huh has to say about the blurring lines of mainstream media and social media.

To read the entire article surrounding this video, click here to see the Mashable post.  

Agree or disagree with what Mr. Huh says, but I believe he touches on something very important when thinking about social media.  We're all familiar with the concept of a viral video.  Who hasn't seen a video and almost immediately forwarded it on to friends and family or posted it onto your Facebook page and Tweeted it for the whole world to see?

Huh makes the point that social media has, essentially, created a viral culture.  A culture where information is so easily passed from one person to another that it is ingrained in us now to send those items we like to anyone we choose with a simple click of a mouse.  If you like this post, and I hope you do, you can send this off to all of your friends (hint, hint) and they can do the same.  In theory, this blog could end up on the computer screen of anyone within typing distance of a Mac, PC or mobile phone.  That's power my friends.  That's even more powerful than the traditional mainstream media outlets.

Information Overload:

When talking about PR, a lot of clients talk about getting a hit in the NY Times, ABC World News Tonight, a cable show, Oprah, of course.  But even if you combine those audiences, you still don't reach the potential audience a viral posting can reach.  A hit on Oprah might net you, what, a million viewers?  Two million viewers?  Let's say the segment is very popular and you get some follow up on a rerun or some local news channels.  Let's even assume you get a write up in the popular O Magazine.  At best you're looking at, maybe, five million views.

Now let's look at some of the more popular viral videos, say, The Star Wars Kid.  If you haven't seen this video you haven't been paying attention.  Click on the link above to see the video on YouTube.  That video alone has 16-million viewers.  That's not to mention the myriad of remakes, remixes, TV show hits (Tosh.0, news broadcasts, etc.).

But that's just some kid with a staff.  How about something that matters?  Try this on for size.  This is video of the Nashville Flood.  It's just one of many videos featuring the flood on YouTube alone.

That video has registered nearly 800,000 viewers since it was posted on May 4th.  Think about that.  That's more viewers than the major networks pull in for their prime time newscasts.  Combine that video with the numbers for the other Nashville Flood videos and you're suddenly in the millions. 

This means that significantly more people are watching the user-generated videos online, sharing the stories with friends and family than are watching the traditional newscasts.  Does this mean that these people are ONLY getting their information from YouTube?  Of course not.  What it means is that people are now looking online to gather additional information and perspective from internet resources. 

So I ask you, if more people are turning to social media and the internet for information, who exactly is the mainstream?  Is it Good Morning America?  Is it YouTube?  Is it the Wall Street Journal?  Is it Hulu? 

Betty White and SNL:

Speaking of Hulu, here's another example of the shifting mainstream.  On Saturday, Betty White hosted SNL.  I missed it.  I was out with friends.  But I have since been able to watch the episode, on Hulu.  On Mothers Day, my mom actually asked me if I had seen Betty White on SNL.  My MOM!  She knows little about pop culture and probably even less about SNL.  But by goodness she was there watching it.  And not because of a commercial, or ad promoting the event.  She watched it because all the folks in her office were talking about it, posting about it, voting in the Facebook group, Betty White as host of SNL. 

And that's a phenomenon unto itself.  Campaigns by everyday people to promote an event or person or idea.  We've seen it with cancer drives, prayers for or against Obama, and a huge push to get Betty White installed as host of SNL.  Certianly White never really disappeared from hollywood, and her recent celebrity roast appearances have kept her in the spotlight a little bit, but I think even she would admit that the whirlwind of social media support has helped boost her career when most women her age are sitting on porches recalling the "good ole days" or fighting with others in the buffet line on the retirement cruise.  

Hulu doesn't reveal the numbers of viewers, but they did say that the Betty White SNL Hulu offering was the second most viewed video since the President Obama 2008 nominee acceptance speech.

More people have seen the Betty White episode online than actually saw it when it aired, and it was one of the most watched SNL episodes in a long time, according to Mashable.  Once again, the internet, social media and its various options and tools outreaches the mainstream broadcast. 

A Day Late:

Finally we look at the BP Oil Spill.  All weekend, we were inundated by stories of how their dome had failed, how ice crystals formed in the hoses and pipes and the whole venture had to be scrapped.  I got the information on my mobile phone, in my stumble updates, on Facebook posts and in Tweets.  By the time I picked up the Sunday paper, it was old news to me.  I was already looking to see what the next step would be for BP as they deal with this crisis.

Mainstream media is behind the curve for the most part.  They just can't keep up with the tweets and FB updates and RSS feeds.  That's okay, kind of, when dealing with entertainment and appointment viewing like SNL, LOST, and sporting events.  But when it comes to information gathering and actual news, people are meeting their needs more and more online.

So what does all of this mean to you as a small business owner and non-profit.  First, let's go back to Mr. Huh's observation.  It's a viral culture.  You  now have an opportunity to reach more people and potential customers than ever before.  Your social media efforts are no longer part of a niche fad trying vainly to live in the shadow of mainstream media.  In my opinion, you ARE working with the mainstream when dealing with social media, and the numbers are starting to bear that out. 

Your reach today is longer than ever before.  You can distribute information, fun facts, interesting video and brand your organization to more people than you ever thought possible.  Certianly, there is a place for PR and traditional media outlets, don't get me wrong.  But to those still thinking that social media is a fad or is a niche market or can't influence people in the same way that advertising or major media hits can, you're  falling farther and farther behind in the race for audience.

In a world where social media tools like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are on nearly equal footing with more traditional mainstream media outlets in terms of audience, you have to be prepared to use these powerful tools to reach out to potential customers.

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