What Is Social Media Really All About? Who Knows

When The Financial Brand wrote an article titled “Why Social Media Is a Waste of Time for Most Banks & Credit Unions,” it sparked a fiery debate about the role of social media in the retail financial industry. One of the most striking facets of the discussion was the general confusion about what social media really is.

For starters, people can’t even agree on which tools are part of social media and which aren’t.

“I think there is a lot of confusion about what social media is in this debate with no clear definition,” commented Tim McAlpine, CEO/Currency Marketing. “Is it just monitoring? Marketing? Part of an integrated strategy? Sales? Blogging? UGC? Contests? Facebook? Twitter?”

Checking the Wikipedia entry for “social media” defines it as “media for social interaction, using highly accessible and scalable publishing techniques…which allows the creation and exchange of user-generated content.” But then when you scan the rest of the web, you quickly realize there is little consensus among social media experts and evangelists regarding what social media is about. For instance, a Google search for “social media is really about” produces these results:

How about taking a look at the definition from the other direction, what social media isn’t. Searching the web for “social media is not about” produces results that include:


So to paraphrase: Social media isn’t about the media, it’s about being social. It’s about listening but it’s also about conversations and telling stories, just as long as those stories aren’t about you or your brand. It’s about raising awareness and creating credibility (even though it isn’t about marketing), but don’t expect it to lead to sales, new customers or ROI. It’s a networking tool about people, but don’t use it as a prospecting tool. It can be used to build relationships and enhance customer service, but it isn’t a Customer Relationship Management tool.


Bottom Line: It’s no wonder bank and credit union marketers have mushy, murky social media strategies when even the so-called experts can’t agree on what social media is or isn’t about.

For Discussion: What’s your definition of social media? What is social media really all about?

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This article was originally published on November 22, 2010. All content © 2018 by The Financial Brand and may not be reproduced by any means without permission.


  1. Thank you so much for the link to my post! And great article. I think it’s important to treat social media like a discussion because there will never be a concrete definition. Social media, like most communications strategies, changes and develops with the needs of the industry, the audience, and technology.

  2. From a business standpoint, I think social media is all about communicating with people and giving them content of value. This is the only way you can expect to have success with it (from a business standpoint). 🙂

  3. Best definition of “social media” I have seen: “If you do it online it’s social media. Do it offline and it’s a BBQ or cocktail party or movie night or just plain life in general.”

  4. Mikal Gilliat says:

    This is a really slanted article. What is a financial institution? Savings, Checking, Loans, Auto, Mortgages, Customer service, credit cards, etc. You can make lists like this for any field and conclude it is confusing.

    Yes, I understand your point that most financial institutions fall short in expressing value in the social media arena. But, you can not ignore the reach this new medium provides. Even your own blog highlights the power of twitter and RSS feeds to draw visitors.

    If you take one of your points of what social media is and focus a strategy around it you should find success.

    Social media is a pretty instant process. And when the majority of financial institution do not offer full online account opening or a complete range of online services, it will be hard to have powerful cases studies on the effect of social media.

    For the time being, we should gain insights from the early pioneers in this medium. Not knock them down for trying. The web is a continuous evolution, expansion, growth, google.

  5. Mikal, if you’re asserting that the role of “social media” is as well-defined and understood as that of a “bank,” I’m afraid we’ll have to disagree.

    Also, you said, “If you take one of your points of what social media is and focus a strategy around it you should find success.” Isn’t that the tail wagging the dog? Shouldn’t you develop a strategy based on business goals, then determine what tools should be used and how vs. saying “I want to use this tool, so let’s use it to [create engagement/listen/provide customer service].”

  6. Frediano says:

    Social media is a self-subscribing marketing data collection tool. It is what we do when we should be actually working. Proof of this is the flood of people to SF Bay area to actually build these things, creating a housing shortage in an already stressed and development limited region. Supposedly to provide tools that, if we believe the breathy opinions, ‘enhance virtual presence and permit remote resources to effectively collaborate.’ Sure, that is why there is a physical flood of human beings to SF to actually work on more of these … self-subscribing marketing data collection platforms. Because there is money in narrow-casting boomer boner medicine ads etc.

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