Posted May 29, 2008 2:00 pm by with 6 comments

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By Ben Wills

I still hear people ask “What’s the point of Social Media?”

I still hear people say “Social Media is a waste of time, and new marketers’ playground.”

I hear people talk about the value of Social Media for businesses. And they have no idea what they’re talking about.

But the absolute worst of all is this: They don’t know, that they don’t know, that they have no idea what they’re talking about.


An ontology is a way to observe things or systems, and to organize these observations for use in a more powerful way. For your business, this “more powerful way” will be to ultimately contribute to the survival of your business.

The fundamental concern of an ontology is to study the way things exist by asking “What actually exists?”

The structure of an ontology is simple: It is a description of a Subject, Object and the Relationship that exists between the Subject and the Object.

When you being applying this thought process to physical objects, for example, you begin to see that “the way things exist” changes as its use changes.

Let’s look at a coffee table. The purpose of a coffee table is defined through the language of its name, which is defined in its use. It is a table, instead of the floor, to place coffee upon.

So, then, what is a coffee table when you put your feet on it?

A foot-rest. Right?

So is it a coffee table, or a foot-rest?

We quickly see that both are correct, because “the way that something exists” is defined within a context.

Your Business IS the …

That’s great about coffee tables and foot rests. Good to know, right? But what about your business. Do you know what your business really is?

Let’s break it down.

If we want to understand what a business really is, we’ll take the ontological perspective, and apply it to fundamental functions of a business: A Customer, and a Product or Service. Without both of these things, the business ceases to exist.

In the ontological perspective, if the Customer is the Subject, and the Service is the Object, then what’s left?

The Relationship between the two: The Business.

Business is NOT About Relationships

Your business is not about relationships:

Your business IS the relationship that exists between your Customers and your Products or Services.

Apple is NOT the iPod. Apple is NOT hipsters. Apple IS style, modernity, reliability, and creativity. This is the experience, and therefore the relationship, that Apple Customers have with Apple Products.

Microsoft is NOT Windows. Microsoft is NOT corporate technologists. Microsoft IS unreliable, non-innovative, easy to use, and easy to break. This is the experience, and therefore the relationship, that Microsoft Customers have with Microsoft Products.

So, if what constitutes your business is the relationship between your Customers and your Products or Services: What is your business?

If you see that what your business is, is not up to you to decide, but that your business is defined by the context that your customers declare, then you’re on the right track.

What Social Media Really IS About

When the Internet saw major growth in the late 90s, the reason was because people had discovered that the Internet was a new context within which to transact money for products and services. This is where the commercial growth in the Internet occurred, followed by the services supporting commerce.

With the major growth of Web 2.0 and Social Media, the underlying discovery is one in which there is now a new context for the conversations (which represent the business-defining Relationships) that define markets. This goes to explain why the current greatest innovations (Twitter, Facebook, etc) have not yet proven their financial models, and why the next major growth will be experienced in industries which support these platforms and philosophies (FriendFeed, Brightkite, OpenSocial, etc).

In short, for the purpose of business, Social Media provides a new context within which to do business.

Social Media for the Survival of Your Business

With a new way of understanding the existence of your business through ontological means, the same principle can also be applied to other online marketing strategies and tactics.

In Search Marketing, what constitutes the existence of your Relationship with a potential Customer, is that you are dependent upon being a “relevant” search result. Without being a “relevant” search result, the relationship that constitutes your business in the context of searchers is non-existent.

This may seem like a overly-simple statement, but I would disagree and propose that the elegance of this type of solution clears up all of the tactical gymnastics that we so often get ourselves wrapped up into. The ontological perspective gives us this clarity, and is therefore the power inherent in effective use of ontologies.

Looking at the Five Pillars of Social Media Marketing, it is possible to discover the types of conversations to be had. Each of these has its own ontological structure and Relationships that can be defined; The Business remains as the Relationship, and the Customer as the Subject, but the Object becomes different…a blog post, a myspace profile, a Facebook application, etc.

As marketers, we then step out of this framework and observe the real interactions in our ontological structures, we then, very easily, discover the metrics with which to measure our performance. In the same way that distribution is static and purchases become the holy grail of the retail industry, subscribers and “friends” become a static metric, while customer sentiment becomes the holy grail, measured by online reputation monitoring.

Applied to Social Media, a business aims to constitute the existence of its Relationship with Customers in a meaningful and powerful conversation. The first step here, which is so obvious, is to open the conversation. Yet so many companies avoid it.

Where affiliate marketing, search marketing, usability, email marketing, etc, focus efforts on completing transaction, Social Media focuses its efforts on opening and developing conversations effective toward completing a greater percentage of transactions.

The companies that understand, develop, and cultivate Social Media in the culture of their organizations are the ones who will continue to evolve, redefine, and reinforce the Relationships that constitute their businesses.

These are the companies that will survive.

This is an entry to Marketing Pilgrim’s 3rd Annual SEM Scholarship contest.

  • I spent an hour and a half last night listening to some really smart people talk about social media/advertising. There was a lot of talk, a lot of questions…but there were not many answers.
    Now, after having read your post I can reflect upon the ontological perspective of social media, I feel enlightened and somewhat smarter than I was last night. I now know what ontology means, missed that one in school. I can also better articulate a meaningful response to probing questions surrounding social media. What a great day, thanks. 🙂

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  • James – Glad you enjoyed it! I find it interesting that understanding certain fundamental concepts allows us to more completely understand the complexities.

  • 3 letters. Wow. I have a degree in social science and just feel like I got schooled. Well done. This is what social media and the new marketing paradigm are all about. Your business is what your customers experience with you- I am taking that gem into the office tomorrow.

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