Is Your Business Prepared for the 4th Age of Social Media?

By Ian Robin | 2 years ago | No Comments

The printing press. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The printing press. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

One of the first things any marketer, salesperson or investor considers before making a big decision is, “What is the size of the potential market?” In the case of social media, it’s every person on earth. That’s why leaders of businesses, governments, and other major organizations are seeking tools and strategies to take advantage of this latest revolution in communications.

Social media is actually not a new concept; it’s just the name we have coined for the latest form of communication. There have been other forms in the past, and the only way to fully understand the scale of the change social media currently represents and the opportunity it offers is with some historical context.

The 1st Age of Social: The Printing Press

Before the 15th-century advent of the Gutenberg’s movable type printing press, knowledge and information were controlled by an elite few. They needed both the resources to purchase handwritten manuscripts produced in limited quantities and the education to read what was often presented in Latin or Zhou Dynasty Chinese. Humanity had the social part figured out, but the medium was cumbersome, to say the least.

The printing press dramatically reduced the cost of a printed page, bringing stories and ideas to the masses. The implications of the declining cost of sharing were soon both obvious and significant. As Economist Digital Editor Tom Standage observes in his recent book on the first 2,000 years of social media, Luther’s pamphlets were to the Reformation what Facebook and Twitter were to the Arab Spring.

Governments and businesses responded with process. From the dawn of the 1st Age, everything printed on behalf of a professional organization, from the exact pantone reference for the colour in the company logo, to brand rules governing capitalization (HootSuite, for instance, will always appear with a capital “S”), was treated with the same rigour. Print is powerful, and it therefore deserves process.

The 2nd Age of Social: The Telephone

A telephone switchboard operator. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
A telephone switchboard operator. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Although it was in 1876 that the first complete sentence (“Mr. Watson, I am here!”) was uttered over a telephone line by Mr. Bell, it wasn’t until the 1920s that the talking telegraph started to look like a viable business tool. Once the technology arrived in offices, systems, processes, and administration were developed that have resulted in not only a phone for every desk and household, but also a phone for every pocket and and infrastructure that lets us dial to any other phone on the planet. In other words, a platform was built.

All electronic signals need to be organized and routed. Does your company still have an internal phone system? Or is this platform now in the cloud? Either way, something somewhere is doing the equivalent of a 1920s telephone operator.

 The 3rd Age of Social: Email

An early email address. Photo by Flickr user Jeremy Keith.
An early email address. Photo by Flickr user Jeremy Keith.

There was a time not that long ago when companies had a single email address for the entire organisation. This quickly moved to an email per department, to one per team, and finally one per person. Along the way, admin tools, processes, integrations and platforms were put in place to secure and simplify email so that it became a seamless part of our working day. The major shift with email is that for the first time addresses actually represented people and not places or devices. This precipitated a number of important changes, both good, and to the security-conscious, frightening. People can be emotional, people sometimes email things they shouldn’t, but regardless of their foibles, people are now the most important nodes in every network.

The 4th age of Social: Social Media

A HootSuite Social Media Dashboard
A HootSuite social media dashboard

The first three Ages of social media each brought about transformative changes in the way people and organizations communicate. A successful strategy in the 4th Age, the age of social media as we now know it, will integrate all these innovations: process, platform, and people.


Social media is a mostly public form of communication, so you will need processes in place to ensure you maintain your organisation’s values externally. Every organisation or market vertical will have different needs, so you must balance empowerment and containment.  Where you might prioritize containment in regulated industries, others might thrive on empowerment.

Whatever choice your organisation makes, it needs to have some very clear processes to ensure things run smoothly. How many people have the right to alter the company logo? Would you let an intern talk on behalf of the company to a global audience of millions without any training? How many people past and present know the passwords for the company social media accounts and what kind of damage could they cause? Take stock of your company and create processes that protect your brand image and assets.


All communication strategies are underpinned by a robust platform. Security is of paramount importance in the social media world. Mistakes can be damaging to the brand, share price, and bottom line.

Ensure your platform is built for a global audience. Don’t buy the equivalent of an in-house phone system only to find that you need a different system to talk to someone in Germany, China or Russia. Don’t get caught buying a platform that won’t scale to meet your long term goals. Make sure the pricing structure, support and global reach are all in line with a company wide social media strategy that takes you a long way into the future. All businesses need a secure and scalable social media platform.


Once you have the right platform in-house and processes to protect your brand externally, ensure that your people are enabled and trained. Social Media, like email before it, is a communication medium for EVERYONE in your company. It will not be limited to your PR and marketing teams. Sales, HR, Customer Support and others will all soon realise they can provide better levels of service, make more sales and save money through enabling and educating their own work force on social media.

Having everyone on board means you need admin controls in place to ensure people are who they claim to be and passwords and alerts for when they are not. Your CTO and CIO must be an integral part of your social media strategy and choice of platform or you risk providing a back door to your entire operation. The people on your team need to be trained and enabled, while decision-makers should be involved in selecting and running the platform.

In the 4th age, social media is for everyone in your business. That said, you need processes in place to ensure it runs smoothly and is still in line with your business goals. And whatever your social media strategy, you will need a single platform to support it.

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V2education 5pts

The use of social media should be as an inclusive tool - part of your working 'tool kit'. It's a bit like ICT. Colleagues in all business have the need to use the technology in the same way they use a pen or their cell phone. The problem now is that rather than training employees to use specific aspects of social media correctly and appropriately 'hubs' are set up that accelerate the interested/elite whilst the rest stumble in the background.

As an analogy from a schools perspective, 15 years ago (and even some now...) set aside separate rooms for 'IT suites' which rapidly became fallow and wasted space. Massive and costly real estate fail. Why? Wireless, tablet and mobile technology....meant people had their ICT capability on the go. Yes, specific areas for CAD and media work were needed but on the whole everyone went 'mobile'. I see the same happening with social media; acres of space and HR tied to it when in reality professional development should be seen as an all inclusive culture so that all employees are part of it.

Yes, you need someone to champion it but thereafter share the skills with everyone and train them up. A skilled workforce = better performance (especially with the onslaught of social media).

I wonder what the 5th Age will be? I bet it will be with us quicker than the 4th was.....

TheFoodEditor 5pts

Has anyone determined an optimal number of staffers designated to contribute to social media in a big company? For instance, 1,000 seems like an unmanageable number—even 100 seems like a lot of contributors to keep on top of. Thoughts?

DarthCactus 5pts

Is social media still that big of a deal though? Besides helping certain situations, IE, how Sony game developers for Everquest Next are using it to have a constant form of communication with their user base. With it's constant segmentation, how is it going to stay any more relevant than retweeting, reposting or copying and pasting information around the web?

More importantly I think is the fear of anyone using social media in regards to their profession and the desire to stay anonymous. Why? Because everything is becoming so much more integrated, IE, Google+ and Youtube, that it won't take much more than a simple oversight and that angry post you just made went public on a name that got linked to your work name and boom... Trouble.

As a marketing professional, I just struggle with the constant segmentation of social media. Tumblr, Kinja, Wordpress, Livefyre (who are you?), twitter, facebook, reddit, G+, RSS, what's next?

JaiGuru 5pts

@V2education The 5th age will be the decommissioning of the 4th and it will be socially motivated more so than a process of commerce.

evanlepage moderator 5pts

Hello @TheFoodEditor!  I don't there's a magic number. I think it's about educating your employees on how to use these tools properly. Once they're confident with the tools they can use them to become brand advocates by sharing company content and spreading news on their own accounts. Then a smaller group who excel can manage corporate accounts. If you're concerned about employees, they can also be given a variety of permissions levels so they don't send any inappropriate messages. 

JaiGuru 5pts

@DarthCactus It's a big deal in a broad sense. But the trick is a lack of platform standardization. For a long time MySpace was the defacto social media platform. Then it was Facebook. Now, droves of people are turning away from it due to a large number of issues including lifestyle changes, image, privacy issues before over zealous info selling and NSA spying.

The point is, businesses wishing to exploit potential gains from social media are universally playing a game of catch up. It doesn't really matter how clever you are, you cannot be perpetually ahead of this game. No one can. Trends are essentially unpredictable and only minimally manipulable. By the time the bulk figure out what the next great thing is, it will be more than half way through its life cycle. This is plain poor business.

evanlepage moderator 5pts

@DarthCactus  Hi @DarthCactus . I think this is where a social relationship platform comes in handy. Having your Wordpress, Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, RSS etc in your HootSuite dashboard helps you save time and effort by eliminating some of that segmentation. At the same time, the platform allows you to insert security measures like various permission levels to ensure that you're never sending errant rants to business accounts.