“Social media” sure is a popular term, isn’t it? It is not hard to find seminars, blog posts, newsletters and all sorts of experts to teach us how to harness social media. People are all atwitter (pun intended) about getting on the social media bandwagon. Social media is the marketing flavor of the month, maybe even the flavor of the year.

Social media is fundamentally different from the old style “industrial media” in that social media is – by its very nature – two-way. It is about dialog and democracy.

But social media is fundamentally the same as the old style “industrial media” in that it is just one more channel of communication. Our discussions about marketing would be enhanced if we clarified our terms. My point is this: “Social media” refers to the channel, not the content itself. And like any other channel of communication, such as email, tv, radio, print, podcast, etc., in the long run – heck, even in the short run – there has to be real content within the channel. Otherwise people will tune out.

But the hype around “social media” shows that some are confusing the channel for the content.

The invention of social media is one more step down the long road of democratizing the publishing of and the access to information. This is both good and bad. It lends itself to what social critic Andrew Keen calls “the survival of the loudest and most opinionated,” where “everybody was broadcasting themselves but nobody was listening.” He characterizes this type of environment as a place where “the only way to intellectually prevail is by infinite filibustering.”

Do your scientifically-based customers want the loudest and most opinionated? Do they want infinite filibustering? No, they want substance; they want content.

Social media is powerful. Social media opens up new avenues to connect with customers. But social media isn’t a marketing cure-all. It is one more channel. I’m predicting there will be another, newer channel invented pretty soon now. In fact, the pace of technological change just about guarantees this, doesn’t it? When that happens, social media will start to feel “old-school.”

Don’t confuse the fluid for the pipe; don’t confuse the content for the channel. Your marketing efforts should start with a clear focus on the content, and then use whatever channels are most appropriate to share that content with your prospects. Social media is a good channel for dialog. And if you want meaningful dialog, you have to start with good content.