This was to be ‘the social media election’. With the rise of social networks as a source of (and a conduit to) news, it was widely predicted that the likes of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube would flex their muscles as a source of information and influence. But this has failed to materialise. It is not to say that the role of social media has not been important, but it has certainly not been the social media-dominated campaign that was predicted.

Of course, this was unlikely to ever happen. What has happened, is that social media has played a role alongside other channels. People may have watched the Leaders Debates on TV but they discussed it on Twitter. Candidates have shared the party-line on Twitter, but real conversations with voters have happened offline. And even Russell Brand’s interviews on YouTube only reached a truly large audience when they made headlines in the press.

If there’s anything we can learn from this, it’s that the rise of social media platforms has not meant that they have replaced traditional channels. Rather they allow more routes to communicate a message and they provide more ways for people to discuss and debate what they think. These channels would not be as effective without ‘traditional’ media to fuel and spread the message, but social media also adds a layer of debate, discussion and engagement that would not previously have been there.

The same is true in marketing for any brand or organisation. Social media is not a replacement for traditional channels or for traditional campaigns. It does different things to TV or out-of home, for example, and it can add a new layer to engage, discuss and share in passions, interests and concerns. The job for marketers is not to worry about social media replacing other channels, but to work hard to understand how these work best together. Sometimes social media channels will be the best route for a message, but these will usually need to be supported by more traditional channels to get the reach needed or to make people aware of them. Other times traditional channels will be best, and social media can provide a complementary route for discussions or engagement.

But this is not easy – as has been seen with the discourse about the General Election. The temptation is to assume that social media must do what existing channels do, or must replace them to some extent. The reality is that the channels together will cover new ground and new forms of conversation. What happens where will change as consumer behaviour changes, but all channels will remain. It is the brands (and indeed political parties) that get them working together well that will succeed.

Matt Rhodes

About Matt Rhodes

Digital Strategy Director for work. Marathon runner and charity trustee for fun.

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