I originally wrote this essay in 2012. Now updated three years later it explores social media’s role in business and validates some predicted truths. In sum, use social media but don’t rely on it—you still need to run outside the pack.

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Can social media help business? This is a question asked every minute of every day somewhere on this globe. Yet it’s not a rhetorical one in the slightest.

I’d argue that it has no clear answer—if it did there’d be one book on the subject, and all businesses worldwide would be reaping a sound return.

Thing is, they’re not and the very nature of this fact rests with the term social media itself.

So what is social media? I’d define it simply as:

A medium through which people interact with each other over the Internet.

Before social media was coined, we actually referred to these interactions as messaging and emailing. There were bulletin boards, SMS, MMS, file sharing, and weblogs; and face books too well before the days of Facebook.

According to B.J. Mendelson, in his not tongue-in-cheek book, “Social Media is Bullsh*t” (I had to change the spelling there):

Come to think of it, the Web hasn’t changed much since the late ’90s.

Mendelson isn’t a big fan of social media as a marketing tool as you can tell. Yet his observation speaks some truths.

As I see it: from messaging came spam, from email came spam … I’d therefore define social media as it exists today in a totally different way.

Social media is the Internet’s attempt to escape from spam—until someone realized that it had to be paid for and spam caught up with it again.

But it’s the altruistic desire of humans to communicate with one another, that’s created the fun social media tools we’ve had in the decade since 2004. Let’s look at some of their roots with particular emphasis on a relative newcomer to the craze, Pinterest.

Facebook: An evolution of Internet applications that allowed users to diary their lives in front of friends and make new acquaintances. Through “liking”, tastes can now be shared and new bonds of commonality between users established. With Facebook people can follow each other’s lives in detail.

Twitter: An evolution of the instant-messaging services. It allows users to flash their thoughts into the ether quicker than before and by intention, in a much briefer way. By linking websites and photos, news can travel fast. Accordingly, enormous feeds can be broadcast to the masses.

Pinterest: The most novel approach of all in my opinion and as a result, reportedly more effective in driving web traffic than Twitter. Noticing people’s desire to share visually, Pinterests’s ethos ran: “Well, why not allow users to interact in a purely graphical way?” By capturing the visual content of websites, photographs, and videos then displaying them on virtual Pin Boards, commonalities and friendships could be founded.

Till business came along. With the best of intentions it wanted to share things too. The question arose: could businesses actually have “friends”? It’s here that things began to unravel.

Facebook went public and investors pumped billions into its edifice. These investors, businesses in their own right, wanted a return; other businesses, Facebook’s customers, wanted to advertise. Hence grew Facebook’s commercial philosophy: “Take their money—and let them be liked.” Businesses however, always wary, recognized that they didn’t actually want friends after all. They wanted customers.

In the case of Twitter, pay-for-promotion crept in too, but so did something more insidious. Twitter incorporated a URL shortening mechanism to help keep its Tweets brief.

Basically, if you wanted to add a link to a Tweet no matter the length of its web address, Twitter required that it be shrunk to cope with its character limitation quirks. As a result, the true identity of those web links disappeared.

Enter the cyber-pest. You’ll usually find them with an avatar wearing a bikini, a message written in garbled English, followed by a link. Click that link at your own risk.

What then about Pinterest? To me, Pinterest offers the most interesting of possibilities for commercial marketing, particularly for those selling a physical product.

By its nature, Pinterest implies the ability of a business to put its advertising online, external to its own website.

Want to see the latest widget? Here’s a Board’s worth of Pins complete with narrative. And here’s another of our office so you can see who we are; one for our holiday party for the fun we had; our activities in the community. What a beautiful way to make your brand known.

Thing is, there’s a huge problem with this particular social media model. Can you see it?

Anybody can find a picture on the Net, and Pin it to their personal Pinterest Board.

What if it’s a picture that you don’t want posted? Better yet, what if you’re an artist and you’re hoping to sell that picture for cash? What if that picture is property whose distribution you wanted insulated? What if someone passes that picture off as his or her own?

Pinterest has recently released “blocking code” that can be uploaded to any website thereby rendering its graphics “pin-free”. Nonetheless doesn’t this confess a weakness inherent in the whole spirit of Pinning?

In her brilliant book, “Pinfluence”, author Beth Hayden sought the viewpoint of Intellectual Property lawyer, Jonathan Pink, who stated:

Pinterest will either be sued into oblivion a la Napster, endlessly settle copyright claims … a la You Tube. … I’m betting there will be a lawsuit against the site that causes it to morph somewhat.

Beth’s book is a must read for its refreshing approach to social media theory alone. Note though, that as with any book on social media, expect it to be out of date within weeks of publication when it comes to talking features. This one was—you no longer need an “invitation” to join Pinterest, for example.

Yet, after spending fourteen chapters building up Pinterest to the point of being a fantastic medium for business exposure, she wallops the reader with her dire warnings of copyright risk.

Having page after page recommended that businesses Pin their own content to their Boards plus content borrowed from other sources, to attract a following base, she then counsels the Pinning of original work only and the watermarking of the whole to avoid being ripped off and sued. Say again?

It makes you wonder whether building a network of followers for a possibly short-term presence, is worth the effort at all?

In effect, for the cynical onlooker, what we have in social media for business users, can be summarized as this:

Pay to be liked, click for malicious spam, and watch out for copyright infringement.

What the heck are they talking about then, when they say that businesses need to jump on the social media bandwagon? Is social media a legitimate business tool at all?

As if in anticipation of this concern, while writing this post, Pinterest released an update to its service, specifically directed at the business community. Mashable reported it as follows:

Companies will now be able to create business accounts, which allows them to enter just a business name. … Pinterest is also launching a business microsite displaying case studies from brands like Etsy and Jetsetter, as well as best practices and guidelines for brands.

So the quest for businesses goes on.

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[Update] Fast forward to 2015

When I first wrote this article almost three years ago I was a keen advocate of the Pinterest craze for my business. Posting some of the pics that accompany my blog pieces here drew some likes and Re-pins, and I’m really grateful for those. My strategy, however, sought an avenue for people to subsequently visit Parkerpinion and read the stories that go with them.

Thing is, Pinterest didn’t really deliver there. In fact, given a properly run brand-website and blog, I achieved better performance—and on my own turf. After all Pinterest, like all platforms isn’t out there to look after my interests, rather its own.

Businesses might want to consider this theory of mine. In my opinion, a personal/brand website beats most social media platforms simply because it’s ours from the start. Either way, you still need to get noticed for it to work.

Social media hasn’t changed that. Business is still sweat ’n’ blood.

© 2012-2015 Adam Parker. You’ve just read a Parkerpinion.