Considering the fact that a lot of people have started using ‘digital’ and ‘social’ interchangeably, let me try and make sense out of this misguided practice.

To start with, digital is not the same as social. At best, social could be a subset of digital. Let me explain.

Digital marketing or digital communications makes use of any digital (as against analog) tool to communicate – between a brand and its target audience. These tools could include television, mobile, internet, radio and of course, social media (assuming you already know that internet is not equal to social media). Billboards may not be part of this mix for the simple reason that they are printed…and not digital. Digital billboards are of course a reality, these days, however.

Here, television and radio are usually termed as mass media because of the numbers they reach. Purportedly.

Before I get into social, let me also add another subset within digital – interactive (marketing). This subset within digital differs in a way that it provides a way for the audiences to interact with the message/medium in a controlled manner. So, for instance, a simple television ad with a phone number flashed in it for seeking some specific information explained in the ad may be considered as interactive. Of course, the most popular form of interactive marketing/communication happened when internet arrived since interactivity was easier than most other legacy communication tools.

This is not to be confused with social, however.

The fundamental difference between digital (and interactive) and social is something I had explained in one of recent posts on brand bashing by social media stars in India – the form of communication itself.

Digital and interactive are primarily either one-to-one or one-to-many communication forms.

Social is many-to-many communication. And that makes all the difference.

What’s the difference, you may ask. If one-to-one is obviously between two people, one-to-many is one source broadcasting something to a reasonably-sized group of people. The crux of many-to-many is simple – just make both one-to-one and one-to-many completely public and accessible…you have many-to-many. Of course, it has its own dynamics that kick in due to the fact that everything is public and mostly archived for later use – it ceases to remain one-to-one or one-to-many anymore since the world is watching the conversation and has the power to jump in whenever they want. The other aspect is discoverability; on how people get to know about these conversations. That’s where platforms like Facebook come in since they have an established social/friends-based connections mechanism to make even one-to-many (brand-led) communications discoverable and visible to anyone with a Facebook ID.

And so, here’s how all this makes a big difference.

In one-to-one communication, the brand (in this case) knows what it wants to communicate and perhaps has some idea about who it is talking to. A mail-merged direct mailer, for instance.

One-to-many communication is the most prevalent form of broadcast – across TV, radio, digital signages, websites etc. and this assumes that the message (from the brands’ side) is something that the target audience will appreciate/enjoy. And the subsequent assumption about an action performed by the people who consume the message.

Social is many-to-many and here, the crux is uncertainty. Brands may assume that they know what they are getting into, who they are talking to…but they just don’t know what the reaction would be.

In a way, brands become party to the overall communication flow. They may assume that they created the message and shared it with many of their fans (like a Facebook page), but the fundamental difference is that the audiences do not have any restriction in talking back. They could respond on the same Facebook page…on their own Facebook walls or Twitter profiles…on a related message board…wherever, in essence. Just because the response hasn’t been added to the brand’s owned media online, does it not bother the brand? Of course not – it sure does impact the brand, but as you notice, the brand is just another party to the overall conversation.

For the first time in the history of brand-led communication, brands have to deal with complete uncertainty due to the nature of internet as a democratic, social medium.

There are some nuances in which brands can deal with this uncertainty, however.

1. Know your audience in as much detail as possible. Know where they exist online with or without your intervention. Know their predominant sentiment towards your brand, your brand’s category and your competitors. This would help you not sound like the salesman who entered a party and opened his suitcase in the middle of the room and started selling his wares…only to be jeered by the crowd.

2. Work on your language – very, very diligently. It is one thing to be cognizant of who you are talking to and it is completely different to also know that all of those people can talk back to you. In real time. And, all at the same time. That level of uncertainty should be accounted for, in social media and not wished away. In a way, this level of awareness can bring great brands down to reality and make them one among its audiences and that is precisely what social media is about – humanizing brands. At the very basic level, the language of the brand’s communication will change dramatically – from corporate-speak to normal spoken language without diluting or trivializing the essence of what the brand wants to communicate. Here, it is not necessary that the brand should talk like its end-consumers (that could however be a planned strategy. See ‘Should brands talk like dis jusâ?? coz its Twitter?‘) – it can talk sane language without pandering to semantics of how its audiences allegedly speak.

True, one-to-one and one-to-many communication needs these two essentials too, but this needs to be seen in conjunction with the next point!

3. Prepare to join a conversation â?? rememberâ?¦this is not a broadcast. In a many-to-many communication, a conversation could start anywhere – the brand need not be the one to start it. A person from the audience could start it, many more people could join in…the brand could also join. The point here is to accept with humility that the brand is only a part of the overall conversation stream. What about brands that post Facebook updates and get tons of likes and comments everyday, you may ask. Fair enough, but just because the brand posts an update and gazillion people ‘respond’ does not make it social. It would still be a broadcast, but if the brand takes into account the comments that pour in and engages with each and every one of those (or as appropriate), that’s when social magic happens.

4. Plan for multiple scenarios and opinions. One of my pet favorites is that we’re living in the ‘Opinion Economy‘. Here, the brand should not only plan on what it should communicate, but also look at scenarios of how people may react to its communication and work on responses for each of those scenarios. For instance, if the brand expects caustic, sarcastic comments to one of its tweets, it could plan for witty repartee to assuage the negative sentiment – laughing at oneself, but at the same time displaying some intelligence in the way it is done is a great way to diffuse serious negativity. If there are queries, they need to be planned in advance and responded to. If there is kudos, they could be responded to with a note of gratitude. PR, as a function, is particularly adept at scenario forecast and planning…something that advertising world is usually not too bothered about given its nature of broadcast’ish communication.

5. Most importantly, social is usually real time and this timing need not be controlled by the brand. Brands, from an operation perspective, could set broader, implied parameters for social media engagement, as I have blogged earlier (disputing the ‘real-time’ theory of brands always being online – Should brand response on social media be real time? You have a choice!), but some amount of real-time’ness is essential for social communications. The implied signals could be as simple as clearly mentioning working hours if social properties are not handled in a shift system to account for multiple time zones. But, given the short attention spans with an overdose of information these days, it is essential that brands plan for real time communication at least during one significant part of the day.

To sum it up, many-to-many is the hallmark of social media communication. Brands are incidental to the conversation online – if they assume to be in control, they may merely be using digital communications…not social.

So, why is this explanation even necessary? Because, when brand marketers and PR teams broadly say, ‘We want to do digital’, they may or may not mean ‘social’. Digital does not require any internal attitude change or rallying of other divisions – it is merely extending the brands’ communication into yet another broadcast media.

But social is different – it first requires brands to understand that one division within the organization cannot own and ‘do social’. Why? Simple – customers, audiences and people generally don’t see brands as a set of internal divisions like sales, marketing or customer care. They simply see one brand and don’t care or have the time to bother about silos within the brand’s organization. So, as they set about sharing and adding opinions about the brand, it may affect any division within the brand’s organization.

Comments on the brand’s new TV ad campaign may bother the marketing team and eventually, the customer care and PR since it impacts the perception of the brand. Comments about service and support are obvious – impacts the customer care team and the PR team. Comments about general news about the brand is everybody’s problem – PR, marketing, legal…you name it! The irony is that many brands continue to pump in money in buying media and bombarding mainstream/mass media with broadcast-style communication without bothering the least about what people think about their products and services.

Not Equal pic courtesy, TMC Interactive.