I've been struggling for a while now in trying to make some sense of how we should manage social sharing as a viable marketing tool and also as another critical communication channel for our businesses. Content marketing is here to stay, but--notwithstanding the myths of virality-- it doesn't happen by itself, no one can make it happen for you, and it almost never happens overnight. (See The Trouble With Social Media .)   Nonetheless, while no one knows what makes a mega-viral hit, some players have emerged who can help you press your winning bets, amplify the impact of the "stories" that sell, and use your always finite resources in ways that will get you the most bang for your buck.

The folks who are best at it right now aren't the biggest guys or the most experienced ones - it's the fast, flexible and scrappy mid-sized players who are mastering the new tools and tricks of the trade. And while you might think that the PR firms would have a real edge in this area - it's the digital agencies and not the old-line flacks who are turning in the results that matter.

The best players of all right now are the complete newbies who don't know any better and don't know what they're not supposed to be able to do.  As a result, they're just doing it and killing it as well. If you want to see the future, keep your eyes on the "kids" creating content on visual platforms like Snapchat and Instagram, but even more importantly, watch what's happening with all of the new live streaming services. One thing that jumps out of the jumble is that polished and professional material is almost worthless, that edits interrupt the vibe, immediacy and flow of the best stuff, and that the rawer and more direct the footage, the fresher and more authentic it appears.

In our new "right now" world, the closer you can come to "real time", the better your bottom line will be. And speaking of bottom lines, it's also significant that these new channels are finally offering producers (previously held hostage by YouTube) serious audience volumes and financially attractive alternatives that are letting them make a living doing what they love.

We spend so much of our time these days sitting alone in front of some screen that sharing has become the default way that we make things real. It's not sufficient to "get a life" any more, we have to show the world-- or at least our world-- that we "have a life" and we evidence our existence digitally by sharing. Selfies are the new autographs not simply because they are self-authenticating (unlike that LeBron James jersey sitting on your shelf which was certainly signed by someone), but because selfies also make our lives real in that they show that we were there - in the moment.  If you can't prove it, most likely you didn't do it.

It's not an easy process to get a handle on all of this and it's even harder to get clear metrics so that you can accurately measure actual performance in economic (rather than "feel good") terms because so much of traditional advertising and marketing has been single-threaded and uni-directional (one brand or business to many customers and consumers) for so long that it's a real challenge to make this shift in mindset and come around to accepting and dealing with the reality that in this new media world the customer isn't interested in a single channel of anything.  It's truly an omni-channel world and the more paths you have to reach the consumer, the merrier.

Tech channels today (in part because of their broad scope, targeting ability and relatively low cost) are additive, not redundant, and the cumulative impact of well-crafted messaging (delivered in the right context and at the right time) across multiple channels may be the only effective way to break your messages thru the clutter and noise in order to reach and engage your customers.

But in trying to determine exactly how to take advantage of this peculiar place where the brands and the marketers no longer control the conversations and where at best - and only if you're very good and very quick - you may have a fighting chance at shaping some of the new narratives, there is a very substantial cognitive tension between creating and delivering real meaning (value and authenticity) on the one hand and securing effective monetization (costs and actual benefits) on the other. The entire social sharing space just continues to get more complicated and more difficult to decipher every day and very few players have demonstrated any consistent end-to-end success.

I think it's only going to get worse as the lines between content creators and content consumers continue to blur and merge into one another. In addition, this is not a concern or an issue that's going to fade away any time soon because it's too appealing (certainly on a superficial level at least) for any new business to ignore or to avoid this easy, low-cost and largely "outsourced" method of creating substantial quantities of content to "feed the beast".  Of course, there's a major issue about the quality of the third-party content that's being created, but once you've gotten over that issue (loving the circus, but hating some of the clowns), the fact is that you've got to have a presence in these discussions about your marketplace and - more particularly - about the place of your products and services in those markets - whether you like it or not. These conversations are being carried on whether you choose to listen and participate or stand idly by. Ultimately, listening is a great start, but listening alone won't get you to the head of the pack and, if you're not noticed (or discovered), you'll never been chosen.

So, in the same spirit as we have talked in the past about "smart reach" (See  To Sell More Your Marketing Must Embrace Smart Reach.) being essential to overcome the glut, noise and clutter of the traditional marketing channels, right now the most critical discussions center on the need for "smart sharing" and precision targeting rather than the kind of random regurgitation and rapid redistribution of content that we're seeing far too much of today,  often without regard to its relevance and value to the recipients.

Sharing without caring and sometimes without even reading the shared material has become an ingrained and knee-jerk process for too many people and one that just exacerbates the identification problems, the acquisition costs, and the difficulty of reaching and successfully engaging the right audiences. (See Three Ways to Put More Sting Into Your Social Media.)  Volume and velocity aren't as important to real impact and ultimate success as are the nature and quality of the connections that your sharing programs are designed to create and build over time. (See  Make Me Care and Then I Will Share.)

There are basically four buckets of social sharing today and three of them aren't worth spit. This doesn't mean that they won't continue to draw eyeballs-- some morons never get tired of wasting their time-- it simply means that those eyeballs are basically useless to your business. To build real connection and value, you need to attract and engage people who are highly influential, not the ones who are easily influenced. Too many agencies are just selling tonnage today and what it takes to win is a light touch - not a heavy hand.

So be smart and tell your people to skip these guys. And if they offer any resistance, just remind them that guilt by association is alive and well and that when you associate with dogs, you also end up with fleas.

(1) Shameless Sharing

Frankly, it's no easier to understand or explain the continued popularity of the Kardashians than it is to understand how The Donald is now the presumed nominee of the Republican party.  But it's clear that they've both been aided, enabled and enthroned by a clueless MSM that is in its own desperate financial struggle to drive eyeballs, clicks and views to try to make their mortgages. You have to wonder who imagines that these kinds of audiences and followers have the slightest value. They're the dregs whose main prior pastime was watching daytime television. And they're only as loyal as the next new thing.

Of course, the media guys aren't alone. They're running these scams with the connivance of the TV networks and the big ad agencies that continue to push big budget TV advertising while the whole world increasingly looks at everything but the nightly network news. (See  3 Things You Need to Know About Advertising.)  As the smart people who run real businesses and actually pay the bills wake up to measurable, performance-based marketing, these ruses and standard routines - based on the theory of greater fools - will end and end badly. Best to stay far away.

(2) Stupid Sharing

If celebrity, fashion and pitiable personalities aren't your thing, there's still a ton of other clutter and crap - made-up news, phony courses and cures, medicine based on miracles - that is constantly foisted on all of us along with the thousands of cat videos, singing parrots, dancing dogs and music videos from the dark ages.

I'm not exactly sure when the major brands just threw in the towel and decided that any visibility (regardless of the context or the accompanying associations) was better than being left out, but things today are totally out of control.

If you put your brand and your business's good name out there where you can no longer control the content, the context, or the conversations, you're jeopardizing years of credibility and hard work for a "benefit" that's uncertain at best. It's better in many cases to wait it out rather than to wallow in the muck that passes for online media.

(3) Solicited Sharing

I've been pretty hard on solicited social sharing services-- whether it's users of free samples, in-kind or cash payments for pictures, blog posts or other excited write-ups that are bought and paid for, etc.  It seems to me that you have to consider the source, the motivation, the integrity, and the value of this kind of content before you decide if it makes any sense to listen to what these "endorsers" have to say about anything.

It's the same question we all have about celebrity endorsers who exceed the scope of their experience and their actual qualifications and lose all their credibility in the process. And how many of us find the professional advice of the "doctors", "nurses", and even "sufferers" in TV ads to be valuable when the FDA makes these mopes reveal in big bold letters that they're actually all actors just hired to sell the stuff to sick suckers.   But I've been giving this particular bucket a second look given how much people today will share their tweets, shares and selfies without even knowing it. And smart data mining companies like Pay Your Selfie (one of the more advanced businesses at 1871) are learning how to aggregate and analyze shared images and then identify, extrapolate and provide these very useful insights to brands and manufacturers.

Pay Your Selfie was featured in a recent New York Times article about uncovering consumer desires. The article identified three aspects that really sets them apart from the crowd and makes them look much more like a next-generation digital market research firm. These parts of the program are in addition to the fact that they actually initiate and launch their own custom surveys to their panels as rapid-fire focus groups.

First, the participants don't have to have large social followings or be "professional" posters so there's a reasonable chance to get some real and diverse people participating and to avoid some of the risks and biases typically associated with self-selection surveys. In addition, done right, you can attract and facilitate the behavior of actual and credible influencers who honestly want to endorse the product or service. There's never been a better example of this kind of action than the millions of GoPro videos.

Second, the participants' selfies can be kept private and they don't even have to be willing to publically share their selfies so there's an improved likelihood that the information being gathered is somewhat more open and honest than we have come to expect from standard media and other polls where the world says they wouldn't touch Trump with a 10-foot pole and then turns right around and votes him in.

Third, as noted above, there's a tremendous amount of ancillary data that can be extracted from the experience - whether the user knows it or intends it - and this kind of circumstantial and contextual data is probably much more important in the long run. So who, what, where, how and when these activities are taking place are all bonus learnings for PYS's customers. The Times article even suggests that the users get so accustomed to the process that over time they lose any self-consciousness or desire to control and edit the content which makes for more accurate and authentic results. So maybe this particular bucket is on its way to being half full instead of full of it.

4) Smart Sharing

Encouraging and amplifying smart sharing, on the other hand, makes sense for everyone because word of mouth (whether analog or digital) is still the most important way that we learn almost anything. Smart sharing has four basic elements: (1) immediacy; (2) authenticity; (3) personalization; and (4) credibility.

I'll be covering these in detail in another post but, for the moment, if you can concentrate on avoiding the bad solutions, you'll be way ahead of the game. It's so much better to avoid the potholes entirely than it is to get a great deal on fixing your flat tires.