Social media is about dialogue. Or technology-enabled socialising. People get together to talk about stuff that matters to them. To exchange ideas, discuss, and share opinions.

Social media can “run” on different technology platforms: the Internet/web/PCs, and increasingly so the 3G network/smartphones/tablets. My Facebook/Twitter time is probably split equally between my laptop and my phone.

In the old days, social media used to run on newspaper/magazine “letters to the editor” pages, community (and church) notice boards, and of course the good old voice-only telephone.

Mobiles is the next upcoming platform, followed closely by tablets.

As with each wave of new technology, one counter-productive (and easy) distraction is thinking the technology is itself the social medium. The mobile platform is no more or less social than any others like the web. A fart app may actually be rather antisocial in some settings!

Outside of getting things to work, the technology does not matter. People interacting with each other, the topics and memes that are exchanged; those are important things in social media.

If you want to run social media successfully (on mobiles or any other platform really), I reckon you need to fulfil these core aspects.

  1. Your mobile app must enable people to converse with each other without hindrance or interference. This means allowing users to say whatever they want, and to openly express themselves. As soon as you attempt to censor the conversation, to mould it to your favour or message, it becomes a marketing/advertising tool. And thus it is no longer social media. Of course the technology must also work. Jumping on an immature bug-ridden platform is risky to say the least.
  2. The app must support different depths (or an appropriate depth) of engagement. “Liking/Unliking” a comment has a shallower depth of engagement than the posting of verbose comments or videos. It’s got to be easy and natural to do these things – good context-aware design is crucial. In mobiles for example the design must accommodate the presence of constant environmental distractions, as well as the small screen and miniscule keyboards.
  3. The business can only really participate on an equal level as everyone else. This can be hard-to-swallow humble pie stuff for many businesses used to the illusion of being able to ram their finessed messages down their customers’ throats, without having to really listen.
  4. There must be something interesting about the business or its products to talk about. The easiest way to do this is to find out what real conversations people are already having about your business or products. The only certainty is this – if what you do is not interesting enough for people to talk about, they won't! The best social media apps won't make any difference. Instead of obsessing over the technology, start by looking at your brand values, products and vision. Look at how your business behaves as an entity – is it chat-worthy?

Beware the bandwagon mentality. A business should look at mobile apps when and if there is a real business case for doing so. Jumping on the latest tech bandwagon for the sake of doing do, or just because it is fashionable, or just because everyone is dong it, is imprudent and irresponsible. Few businesses can justify being at the bleeding edge of technology.

Mobile apps are not for every business, at least not for now. And neither is social media. Like marketing, they are not magic fixes for businesses that have more fundamental challenges like weak differentiation and lacklustre vision.

Have I missed anything?