The media isn’t the message.

A friend of mine who uses Facebook strictly as a way to connect with his friends recently posted a brief rant on his wall about people he barely knew in the real world sending him friend requests. He thought they were fake and had a few a harsh words for them. My friend is just a normal guy, with a normal day job doing normal stuff. He isn’t a social media guru or anything like that. Computers aren’t even the main focus of his work.

For regular people, the most useful aspect of social media is the social part, not the media part. Publishers and businesspeople often feel that the useful aspect is the media part. Amplifying this is that most publishers and businesspeople have a much greater familiarity with media models than with social models.

The end result can be a mismatch between regular people and businesses in the social sphere. This doesn’t have to manifest as any of the social media horror stories that circulate now and then. It can be as simple as people getting generally fatigued, one at a time, with businesses and how they use social tools. The audience can become fatigued.

In fact, audience fatigue can be a much greater problem for a business engaging in social media. Since it happens at the individual level, person by person, it isn’t something that flares up over a weekend and makes the news. And since it is experienced at the individual level, person by person, recovering that individual is very difficult to do using mass-scale media tactics.

Finally, individuals in your audience who are fatigued may not even be consciously aware of it — they just tune out.

In case you got fatigued reading all that, here’s a bullet-list version of the challenges posed by audience fatigue:

  • Audience fatigue happens without fanfare, making it easy to ignore or miss.
  • If someone is fatigued with your social presence, it may require individual attention.
  • A fatigued audience member won’t reach out to you; they’ll just ignore you.

You won’t hear a lot of people talking about audience because consultants and agencies can make a lot more money selling systems and programs for reputation "management" than they can from working on issues of audience fatigue.

And because audience fatigue is something that happens at the individual level there isn’t much that an agency or consultant can do that is going to be cost effective. In fact, your agency and consultant might be exactly what is causing fatigue in the first place.

I’ve seen a number of blog posts and articles promote social media as a great way to "just stay top of mind" and then go on to suggest a regular rotation of simple "just say hi" messages. Basically, the articles promote creating a script with a small handful of generic messages and then hitting up your audience with them on a schedule. This is the equivalent of a drip campaign in concept, but lacking even a drip campaign’s meaningful content.

Does it work? Sure, there are lots of times this sort of thing works. But I think it is also going to contribute greatly to audience fatigue. There’s only so many times you go around the script list before you repeat. Once that moment hits, the audience member is going to feel like they’ve been tricked. No one likes being tricked.

Part of the disconnect comes around the idea of who the audience is in the first place. The truth is, in many cases they aren’t even your audience to begin with. Even if they have liked your page or follow you or whatever, the audience is there for themselves and whatever their interests are.

In the old media industry, with the whole interruptive/appointment-based content model, then maybe you could say they were "your" audience. They were sitting there watching your TV commercial. But I think that attitude was probably not helpful even then — which is why there is so much human activity focused on finding ways to get television content without the television.

Contemporary audiences aren’t there just to hear your message. They aren’t waiting by the phone until you tell them it’s OK for them to call you. They’re living their lives and doing things they want to do. Sometimes those things involve you and sometimes they don’t.

It may sound like I’m telling you to back away from social media or online advertising or marketing or whatever. I’m not. Then again, if your entire digital presence is based on annoying people or sending them generic messages, then it might be better to stop.

Use social media tools to focus on the "social" and not on the "media." I know that is hard, especially now with the Facebook Timeline view that turns everyone’s page into an extremely rich demographic profile.

I know it’s hard because you’ve heard so many things about the strength of weak ties — you might even believe that Egypt had a citizen uprising last year based on the strength of weak ties — but let that go. Forget about the "media" side of it. Be social.

It’s strange to me how many interesting "social strategies" (and even in scare quotes that’s a loose definition) get pitched and promoted out there. This is especially true in the real estate industry. And it’s strange to me because so many of you are so social already that the real power of these tools is second nature to you.

I know, because I’ve met you at conferences and gatherings and hangouts. You’re artists, athletes, gardeners, church-goers, non-church-goers, mathematicians, farmers, doctors, nurses, teachers, coaches, parents, grandparents, business people, architects, technologists, nerds, geeks, prom queens, that popular kid, that unpopular kid, comedians, musicians, poets, car-racing fanatics, hippy tree-huggers, bicycle gears, caretakers, photographers, board-game players, opera enthusiasts, night-clubbers, mixed martial arts fans, emergency medical technicians.

You are all — at least the ones I’ve met, anyway — very social people who know how to be social. Even the awkward among you whom I’ve met.

If you ask around — among people you know who aren’t in the business of selling or promoting the "media" side of social media — whether people are looking for a greater number of "weak ties" or a greater number of "strong ties," I bet you’ll find a common answer.

Keep that in mind and you’ll be able to deal with audience fatigue.

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