Ever since social media has become a must-have in a marketer’s toolkit, brands are flocking to be present and engaging on these platforms. In the process, though, they may be losing sight of what it really takes to build trust, likeability and influence. That realisation is likely to lead to a new and more effective approach to social media marketing.

Good news. Bad news. It spreads easily. Being good. Doing good. Raising a voice for good and bad. We see it all around us. Brand launches. Offers. Reviews. Events. We are surrounded by them. Indeed, we are swamped. By options. By advertising. By messages from people we know. And those we don’t.

Six degrees of separation? Sometimes it seems more like one click of separation. Or rather one click to connect. We can connect with anything, anyone… anywhere, anytime. 24x7x365 is not about customer service anymore, but about our lives. Geography is history. Time zones are immaterial.

The water cooler is no longer something in one corner of the office around which office workers gather but has become a status update that can reach virtually anyone, anywhere, in the time it takes to click on a button.

Brands have woken up to this new reality; a reality driven by the power of technology and the spread of devices. They have kept pace with the growth and development of the Internet and embraced social media. Websites are passé. Social media is the new digital home of many brands.

That’s not surprising since that’s where the people are, and where the action has shifted. Almost 1 in 7 persons on this planet is on Facebook. If it were a country, the ‘Republic’ of Facebook would be the third most populous one on the planet after China and India. Twitter users crossed 100 million a while back. Youtube has more new content uploaded every week than the leading American TV networks produced in decades.

These numbers make brands drool. And spur them to mount aggressive marketing and advertising campaigns centred around social media. These are aimed at aggregating large numbers of ‘fans’. And then talking to them, interacting with them, in?luencing them.

They create elaborate strategies around social media marketing. Many work, some don’t. The ones that work propel marketers to do more and more of the same. The ones that don’t usually get marketers to increase investments in the short term, because the ‘others’ seem to be seeing success.

Large campaigns. Backed by large budgets. And an almost rabid focus to talk to consumers. Engage them. Get them to ‘Like’ the brand, and to share it with their friends. It works – to a point.

But really, this approach misses the bigger point. That social media marketing is not about marketing. Or even about the media (read: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube). But it is about being social.

Social, in a manner that enables the audience to talk to one another. With the brand playing benign host and providing the stimulus, the means, and sometimes the incentive, for its audience to stay at its party and interact with their friends. To tell others what’s happening. To invite them over. To make new friends. This social manner can help unleash the ultimate in?luencer for brands – the power of the audience, or of People as Media.

Yes, it’s no longer newspapers, television channels and websites that provide the best returns for a brand. They might provide reach, and an opportunity to see or interact.

But what they miss is the power of ‘People like me’. The ripples of in?luence that come from the people carrying a message, instead of the channel carrying it. These ripples spread and create waves. These waves get powerful as they overlap and spread further and farther.

Look back at any of the key events of the last few years, and you will see that the difference between success and failure wasn’t just an idea, a campaign, or a cause. But how the idea got picked up and drove people to make it their own. To champion and spread.

Think Barack Obama’s 2008 Presidential campaign. Or the BP oil spill from a few years back. The Egyptian Revolution. Or any brand campaign that touched you.

In fact, you can look back over 80 years to the Civil Disobedience Movement in India. Mahatma Gandhi’s idea was wrapped in strong conviction. And it spread across India. Through cities, towns and villages. From person to person. Through families, friends, communities. Till its reverberation brought down an empire.

This is the power of People as Media at work. Long before we knew media as we know it now. Long before technology enabled the interconnectivity we see today. Long before social media platforms were born. Long before one could ‘Like’ something and ‘Share’ it.

Today, with modern tools and technology, making People your Media is that much easier. Or that much harder. Depending on what you see as Media. And what you view as Social.

But one thing is certain. The difference between a campaign that’s noticed and one that creates real brand love and trust is bigger than the idea, the creative, and the cause. The difference lies with People as Media – people who can give the campaign wings and impact. Unlike that of any other medium.

Ashok is an award-winning global and regional Digital business &...