Over the last few weeks I’ve been plagued by people promoting their “must-read” book on social media and social network marketing. Here are three good reasons why you shouldn’t buy any of them.
It’s already out of date
Google just bought Facebook! OK, not really. But that, or some other seismic event, could happen any day — making that book you just bought obsolete in an instant. The social media landscape is moving much faster than publishers can keep up with. Every day Facebook gains over 700,000 new members and more than 500,000,000 tweets are sent. New networks and tools spring up all the time, and others that have been around for a while come to prominence — GroupOn is a good example. And of course others wither away.
By its very nature anything printed takes time to edit, design and produce. And although print-on-demand and ebook technologies have made it possible for publishers to reduce delays, traditional books take extra months to produce and distribute. Once off the presses the content of a book is fixed, until the publisher goes to the expense of producing a new edition.
A book author would say that there are certain underlying truths that endure, whatever the news throws up — but for topics like social media, business and marketing, the value of a long-form text like a book is the detail it holds about sources, tools, sites, techniques and market players — which is precisely the stuff that goes out of date. Conversely, we could refresh this article or publish an update, quickly and cheaply.
Better information is available for free
With the advent of websites and blogs, disseminating the written word has become just about as easy and cheap as is possible. Whether you’re looking for social media or sewing, you can now find free primers, reference guides and tutorials only a Google away — probably up-to-date and packed with pictures and videos to bring them to life, in a way that printed books only clumsily manage through packed-in CDs and companion websites. And although there is plenty of low-quality information on the internet, you can use reviews and recommendations to sort the wheat from the chaff just as you would when buying a printed book.
Defenders of the book — and, by the way, I love books and have hundreds of them — will argue that being in print is an endorsement of your content’s quality. Perhaps in Caxton’s day, but technology lowered the bar long ago and plenty of terrible books have been published since.
Others will say that only the commercial rewards of a book will attract the best and most rigorous thinkers — bloggers and online commenters are mere amateurs or academics. But actually some of the most visionary commercial minds have found ways for online content, including free content, to pay the bills:
- Paywalls: everybody is talking about whether putting The Times behind a paywall has been a success or failure, but publications like The Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal have been operating successful subscription models for years. You can publish online without giving away the farm.
- Advertising, sponsorship and donations: it’s not right for everyone, but some brilliant thinkers use it: for example, independent analyst John Gruber of Daring Fireball can post full time thanks to the support of advertisers and sponsors.
- Brand: people like marketing guru Seth Godin have used free content and social media to help them create a brand that they can then monetise by charging for seminars and commissions.
- Loss leaders: Cory Doctorow releases all his sci-fi novels as free Creative Commons downloads as well as in print — and his print sales have grown as a result.
It’s like parachuting
You’re unlikely to end up with two broken legs from trying out social media, but there’s one thing social media shares with parachuting: it’s something you have to try before you can properly understand it — reading about it will only give you a small part of the picture.
Social media is intrinsically two-way: it’s social networking, not social lecturing. Many of the books that were thrust in my direction boasted titles like “Engage!”. Yet they unavoidably fail to practice what they preach. You cannot “engage” with a book: it is a consumption-only medium. Book authors now accompany their publications with blogs to supply some the interactivity that people now crave. But the input you have on such blogs leaves the original book unchanged, an artefact.
By reading blogs, following a few analysts and commentators on Twitter, asking a question on Quora or joining in with forum discussions, you can not just learn the theory of social networking, but experience it first-hand and feel for yourself how it’s changing.
So, how do I start to “engage”?
Social media is a complex and evolving field, and you’ll need a plan. Just identifying which of the ever-changing list of sites and networks to use is a big task.
Look out for part two of this article for a quick, digital and decidedly current guide to getting started.
And if you disagree, please leave us a comment below — unlike book authors, we can read and reply to your margin scribbles!