I’m Twittering today. And I’m Facebooking. And I’m blogging. And I’m writing my newsletter and my podcast. In pursuit of building my so-called personal brand, I’m getting my name out there and sharing my brilliance with the world. Once I get some decent lighting, 2010 will see me introduce a video blog as well. Yessiree, I’m building that brand right on up. Yup. Building that brand. Look at it go. Right on up there…

What’s striking, however, is that none of this pays a cent. Not only does it not pay, but it conditions people to want my content for free. I had the audacity to pose a question to my Twitter subscribers last week, to get some suggestions for an upcoming episode. One happy person responded, “Dude, STOP ASKING US how to get stuff done and START TELLING US how to get it done!” I have hundreds of pages of free articles. I have written close to 500 pages of podcasts, all freely available, and apparently that’s not enough.

The social media promise

The theory is that social media lets people discuss my products and services without my intervention. I can now enter into a dialog with my customers, that will let me optimize my products, respond to my markets, and manage my reputation real time. The magically I’ll be successful and have a thriving business. That sounds really good on paper.

Then I think for a moment. I’ve always been able to read reviews of my products. I’ve always been able to survey my customers. And if I’m at all smart about handling customer queries and support calls, I can even optimize my products and design in solutions for my customers based on their problems. In short, pretty much everything social media can do for me, I could do in a pre-social media world. So what’s the difference?

The social media cost

One big difference is the cost. Maintaining an ongoing social media presence is a huge use of time and effort. If I were a big company, I might hire someone full time to do nothing but tweet, twitter, Yelp, Blorp, and Blubber. But as a one-man shop, I have to do all this myself. Then I have to track the responses and figure out which channels are actually getting attention (that will change in six months, requiring another full round of marketing research), and then generate content content content.

At some point, I’m apparently supposed to develop products and services, which is where I make the money. And by the way, those products and services better contain content I haven’t given away for free in the process of generating all this social media.

My prediction

Where will this go? Based on my own experience, I think social media will continue to be important as a channel for monitoring end consumer needs, wishes, and experiences using products. At the end of the day, it’s a giant gossip network, and your reputation is part of your brand, so you’ll have to manage it.

When it comes to content from businesses to customers, I don’t think it’s sustainable. The free content generation will die down over time, unless there’s a clear return on investment to it. Quality content is hard to produce. Companies that can afford to hire someone to be a web presence will do so. They’ll be able to produce high-quality content on an ongoing basis.

Small businesses and solopreneurs will gradually drop out of the fray, simply because the demands are too great and the returns too small. It takes good education and/or experience to be able to generate huge amounts of quality content, and those things are expensive. How much time should a smart, capable, good person with great writing skills spend giving away their knowledge for free without expecting a return? If there’s a demand for high-quality content (which there may not be), it will mainly be on a subscription model.

The few who manage to attract large followings will do great, of course, but that’s always been the case. And attracting a large following seems to be a function of direct marketing skill, more than high quality content creation skill.

Bottom line: in five years, by 2014, we’ll see the quality of free content dropping as the high-quality content creators turn their attention to activities that actually drive their business. Social media will remain important for reputation management, however, and as a tool for monitoring our customers and what they’re thinking.

The future of social media: pay content, gossip ma…

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