Social Media Definition: The Ultimate Guide That Will Make You Smarter

Real people and their human interactions define social media.

Social media provides the stage for multi-directional human conversation.

Further, when you use social media you can choose your favorite:

  • Platform,
  • Content format,
  • Communications option and/or
  • Device

To help you understand Social Media, 60+ marketing experts and influencers contributed their social media definition.

Social Media: Marketing Theory Evolves

Posted to the web in 1999 and published in 2000, The Cluetrain Manifesto laid the groundwork for social media as we know it today.

These “5 Theses” lay the foundation for the defining characteristics of social media (Source: Cluetrain Manifesto ).

  • Markets are conversations.
  • Conversations among human beings sound human. They are conducted in a human voice.
  • The Internet is enabling conversations among human beings that were simply not possible in the era of mass media.
  • These networked conversations are enabling powerful new forms of social organization and knowledge exchange to emerge.
  • As a result, markets are getting smarter, more informed, more organized. Participation in a networked market changes people fundamentally.

Around the same time, Seth Godin recognized that customers now had the power to ignore marketing. He described this as Permission Marketing .

According to Godin ,

“Permission marketing is the privilege (not the right) of delivering anticipated, personal and relevant messages to people who actually want to get them.”

Global Social Media Data

To put today’s social media landscape in perspective, let’s examine the top level global data ( Hootsuite )

On average, people across the globe spend 2 hours and 16 minutes per day on social media and use an average of 8.9 platforms.

Further, the world communicates with messaging apps . Of these, WhatsApp reaches the most countries but population counts.

The world uses messaging to communicate according to Hootsuite Research

While most social media posting takes place from Monday through Friday, don’t underestimate the potential for breaking through on weekends!

Most social media posting takes place Monday through Friday

While many marketers define social media as a personal form of media, most  posting occurs during business hours.

Based on Hootsuite Research, most social media posting takes place during the work day.

Social Media Definition: 60+ Marketers Define Social Media

Since our social media definition post was first published on May 9, 2011, we  decided to find out what professionals who used social media as part of their work thought.

So we asked senior marketers, influencers and authors for their social media definition.

In their own words, here are their social media definitions.

Where appropriate and still relevant, we included some of the original 30 social media definitions from 2011. These social media definitions include a note stating this.

( Editor’s note: Some definitions were reformatted and typos were corrected to improve readability. If the changes misrepresent your point-of-view, contact us and we’ll fix it!)

Ai Addyson-Zhang – Classroom Without Walls (@AiAddysonZhang)

Authenticity, vulnerability, and quality define social mediain terms of content creation, storytelling, and being a media personality.

Mike Allton – Agorapulse (@Mike_Allton)

At the broadest level, social media is the ability to share content, information and resources – media – with one or more people.

This is not limited to publicly accessible content and as a result social media can include private messaging services and platforms.

Andrew and Pete – www.andrewandpete.com (@andrewandpete)

Social Media is a tool we use to keep connected with the people in our lives. It’s a way to strengthen relationships and to make new ones.

While mainly our personal relationships they are also the brands, celebrities and businesses we like… and sometimes love… and sometimes love a bit too much and thus.

Syed Balkhi – WPBeginner (@syedbalkhi)

Social media in 2019 is all about building and growing communities.

It’s less jump cuts and more live video. Live video comes across as more authentic with its live comment section. These communities then spread among different platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter.

Many companies think that they need to come up with a mission for people to follow, but joining an existing mission works just as well.

Shane Barker – Shane Barker Consulting (@shane_barker)

The digital marketing industry is evolving at lightning speed and so is social media.

Since consumers want to be treated as individuals, not demographics, the way brands interact with them on social media is changing.

In 2019, the focus is on building trust and loyalty using real, personal and authentic content.

With new content formats and challenges, it will be exciting to leverage social media to connect with your audience in 2019.

Nora Ganim Barnes – University of Massachusetts Dartmouth (@norabarnes)

Social media in 2019 includes information digitally available.

This encompasses aggregated news, individual content, blogs and communities, AI, video and communications delivered via online platforms, websites and tools.

David Berkowitz – Serial Marketer (@dberkowitz)

Social Media is media for the people, of the people, and by the people.

Susan Borst – Interactive Advertising Bureau (aka: IAB) (@susanborst)

Social media continues to grow by double digits, despite what you read in the press .

Just five years ago, social media revenue on mobile and desktop was $7.0 billion. It’s now over $22 billion. (Source: IAB Revenue reports.)

Social media is a space that’s continually evolvingwith the rise video/streaming video, social commerce, native advertising, influencer marketing and new ad formats, including AR formats.

Brands and publishers want better measurement to be able to prove ROI.

Chris Brogan – Chris Brogan Media, LLC (@chrisbrogan)

Define it?

Social media is a set of tools designed to push content and commentary back and forth across the web.

Lisa Buyer – The Buyer Group (@lisabuyer)

Social media is today’s most transparent, engaging and interactive form of public relations, communications and beyond.It shapes brands and allows customers to participate in the process.

Social media builds communities and movements.

As a vital part of our communication ecosystem, it can also be dangerous and unhealthy when misused, overused and abused.

Antonio Calero – Hootsuite (@acalerog)

Social Media is a world of human interactions driven by content and supported by the use of technology.

Marjorie Clayman – Clayman Advertising, Inc. (@MargieClayman)

Social Mediais a new marketing tool that allows you to get to know your customers and prospects in ways that were previously not possible.

This information and knowledge must be paid for with output of respect, trustworthiness, and honesty.

Social Media is not a fad, but I also think it’s just the beginning of the marketing revolution – not the end. (Note: This is Margie’s original 2011 social media definition.)

Ian Cleary – RazorSocial.com (@iancleary)

Anywhere online social media gives people an opportunity to engage with you.

This includes social channels, chat bots and private groups etc.

Heidi Cohen – Actionable Marketing Guide (@heidicohen)

Social Media are the platforms that enable the interactive web.They do so by engaging users to participate in, comment on and create content as means of communicating with their social graph, other users and the public.

Social media has the following characteristics:

  • Encompasses wide variety of content formats including text, video, photographs, audio, PDF and PowerPoint. (Note:Social content is a by-product of creating content with your community.)
  • Allows interactions to cross one or more platforms through social sharing, [messaging,] email,and feeds.
  • Involves different levels of engagement by participants who can create, comment or lurk on social media networks.
  • Facilitates enhanced speed and breadth of information dissemination.
  • Provides for one-to-one, one-to-many and many-to-many communications .
  • Enables communication to take place in real time or asynchronously over time.
  • Is device indifferent. It can take place via a computer, tablet or smartphone.
  • Extends engagement by creating real-time online events, extending online interactions offline, or augmenting live events online.  (Note: This is Heidi’s original 2011 social media definition. )

Azure Collier – Tripleseat (@azurecollier)

Social media is about access.

With the use  of social media tools, live-streaming video, direct messaging, and content, social media gives businesses direct access to their customers .

On the flip side, customers have direct access to businesses like never before:

  • Find the information they need to help them make purchasing decisions,
  • Feel heard by reaching out directly to the business, and
  • Become more invested by connecting with and learning about the people and practices that make the business stand out from competitors.

Andy Crestodina – Orbit Media Studios (@crestodina)

Social media provides a digital channel for content, community and marketing, allowing people and brands to share information and have conversations.

Social media is dominated by a few very powerful platforms that collect data on users and the sell targeted advertising to marketers.

Brian Dean – Backlinko (@backlinko)

Social media is any online medium that connects people.

Melonie Dodaro – Top Dog Social Media (@ MelonieDodaro)

Social media is an ever changing platform to reach your target audience.

How I define social media ‘done right’ is another answer: Social media is a platform to meet your buyers where they are, to show up in an authentic manner, and add value to them through content and engagement.

Dr. Perry D. Drake – University of Missouri – St. Louis (@pddrake)

Social media are channels that allow individuals and brands to connect with friends, colleagues, communities or like minded individuals for the purpose of engaging and sharing experiences, insights, and more.

Bryan Eisenberg – Buyer Legends (@TheGrok)

The biggest problem I have with the term “social media” is that it isn’t media in the traditional sense.

Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and all the others I don’t have the word count to mention aren’t media; they are platforms for interaction and networking.

All the traditional media — print, broadcast, search, and so on — provide platforms for delivery of ads near and around relevant content. Social media are platforms for interaction and relationships, not content and ads.

Social media isn’t an advertising and branding platform; it’s a hyper-interactive relationship-builder.

Social media isn’t a magic pill for traffic woes; it’s used to deepen longer-term relations.

Eric Enge – Perficient Digital (@stonetemple)

Social media is the practice of creating and sharing content, or interacting online, for the purpose of enhancing your relationships with others.

Augustine Fou – Marketing Science Consulting Group, Inc. (@acfou)

Social media remains the same as always – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn.

Social media = people’s conversations and actions online that can be mined by advertisers for insights but not coerced to pass along marketing messages. (Note: The second paragraph  appeared in Augustine’s  2011 social media definition.)

Allen Gannett – Skyword (@Allen)

Social media is an ever-evolving two-way street for individuals, influencers, and organizations alike to captivate, reach, and communicate with each other by creating or sharing powerful experiences— which may or may not include pictures of corgis.

Social media also doubles as a data mine for users to opportunistically develop and defend effective marketing strategiesgleaned from market insights or current trends.

Mike Gingerich – Digital Hill (@Mike_Gingerich)

Social media includes the online platforms and apps allowing social interaction online between individuals and groups.

Dan Gingiss – Winning Customer Experience, LLC (@dgingiss)

It’s critical to remember both words — “social” and “media”. Many companies forget the “social” par t.

This is not another megaphone marketing channel; in fact, it’s the only marketing channel where people can talk back!

Listening and engagement are required in order to succeed with customers.

Todd Grossman – Talkwalker (@ToddMGrossman)

Social media is the world’s biggest virtual marketplace where humans share and exchange emotions, opinions, services, things and information.

John Hall – calendar.com (@johnhall)

Social media is beyond just using the platforms like Twitter, Linkedin, and Facebook.

Most social mentions of your brand aren’t just on the major platforms so it’s important that you focus on consistent positive brand mentions and content that will have a spread effect of inbound opportunity for your brand.

Ann Handley – MarketingProfs and Author of Everybody Writes (@MarketingProfs)

Social media is an ever-growing and evolving collection of online tools and toys, platforms and applications that enable all of us to interact with and share information. Increasingly, it’s both the connective tissue and neural net of the Web. (Note: This is Ann’s original 2011 social media definition. )

Sharon Hurley Hall (@shurleyhall)

Social media includes websites and tools that allow you to have conversations and form connections with people around the world.

Social media can include social networking sites like Facebook, business networking sites like LinkedIn, Q&A sites like Quora, discussion sites like Reddit, and other social gathering places online.

Mitch Joel – Six Pixels Group (@mitchjoel)

Social media is the ability to create content that has the hooks built into it which enable the consumer to share and talk about it as easily as possible.

Alex Khan – Attractiv Media GmbH (@1alexkhan)

Social Media is connecting the right people with a relevant message that adds value to their lives.

Samantha Kelly – Tweeting Goddess (@Tweetinggoddess)

Social media is all about reaching people you never dreamed of reaching before.

Also, it’s all about how you make people feel by adding to their day, making them smile, building trust and connecting globally.

Community and personal touch win in 2019.

Dave Kerpen – Likeable Media (@davekerpen)

Social media is online text, pictures, videos and links, shared amongst people and organizations. (Note: This is Dave’s original 2011 social media definition. )

Larry Kim – MobileMonkey, Inc. (@larrykim)

Social media are the online platforms and technologies where users interact with each other and are the content creators.

Adam Kleinberg – Traction (@adamkleinberg)

Most organizations approach social media wrong. They ask “who should own it?” as if it were simply another channel like email or search.

Social media is not one thing– It’s five distinct things:

  • A strategic tool for uncovering business insights .
  • Managing the influencers who are driving the conversation around your brand.
  • Marketing that provides value and turns customers into evangelists.
  • A critical component customer care.
  • Transforming your organization to meet the transparency and humanity customers now expect of brands. (Note: This is Adam’s original 2011 social media definition. )

Katie Lance – Katie Lance Consulting (@katielance)

Social media in 2019 is still social!

The people who are making the most out of social media understand that at the heart of social media are people!

Social media – when done right is still one of the best tools to scale relationship building (and for a company or business this is priceless.)

Lastly – social media in 2019 is also all about storytelling and creating value content for your audience.

Amy Landino – Aftermarq (@Schmittastic)

I define social media in 2019 as a place to find and engage in community.

We come together to have ongoing conversations and share our views so we can decide what the next natural step is in our own lives.

From consumption to creation, how we use social media is helping us figure out that next step based on the communities we engage.

Stephanie Liu – Lights, Camera, Live® (@heystephanie )

Social media in 2019 is all about authenticity and building meaningful relationships versus vanity metrics.

It’s about creating content that shows off your personality so you can easily and effortlessly build rapport so you stay top-of-mind and tip-of-tongue.

Fiona Lucas – iRespectOnline and Futureproof Your Kids (@irespectonline )

For businesses, social media continues to offer new ways of engaging with existing clients and attracting new ones.

In many ways, social media forces a degree of transparency as users demand more interaction and accountability from businesses. Social media platforms are humanizing because consumers demand that we listen!

However social media platforms have work to do to increase trust after recent privacy and data breaches. As a result, I expect to see further strengthening of privacy in 2019.

Social media is now such a “norm” in our lives that we forget that these platforms are private companies. As such, they need to follow their own policies as well as government policies.

Lisa Marcyes – Oracle (@lisa_marcyes)

Social media is an open digital platform that allows groups to network, engage, and share content.

Ryan McCready – Venngage (@RyanMcCready1)

Social media is any platform or place that you can interact with other people and companies online in 2019.

People may think that you should only care about the Big 4 social networks.

But you can find customers in any social network, big or small. Forums, community pages, and even comment sections can be parts of your social media strategy.

Alisa Meredith – Alisa Meredith Marketing (or Tailwind) (@alisammeredith)

Social media is the way brands and fans of a brand connect on a human level.

Scott Monty – Scott Monty Strategies (@scottmonty)

Social media is any method of sharing content and interacting with other humans online.

Donna Moritz – Socially Sorted (@sociallysorted)

Social media is about conversations, connections and engagement … being social.

We might have lost our way a bit with automation and turning social media into a place where content is blasted to the masse s (like old-school advertising)… but smart marketers are realizing that we need to bring it back to human interactions.

Social Media is less about controlling the conversation with content, and more about joining or being invited into conversations with our audience or customers, including conversations about our brand. They’re our best storytellers anyway.

Drew Neisser – RENEGADE (@drewneisser)

Social media defies easy definition given its ever evolving intersection between paid, earned and owned media along with customer service.

Paid social, through channels like Facebook and Instagram are proving to be incredibly effective and resilient media options.

Earned social, as in getting “organic” or “free” exposure, is increasingly challenging saved primarily by employee advocacy, influencers and the rare “viral” video.

Owned social, especially for B2B brands, is being absorbed into a brand’s overall content marketing strategy. For customer service, social remains a place to turn haters into lovers and lovers into evangelists or vice versa.

Bottom line:

Defining social media is a lot less important than understanding its role in a brand’s overall marketing strategy.

Lee Odden – TopRank Marketing and author of Optimize (@LeeOdden)

With social media , I think there’s a literal definition concerning the media that people create and share online.

But there’s also the notion that social media is about the technology that facilitates individuals and groups of people to connect and interact, create and share.

Unlike other software that works fine with a single user , social media applications and websites work better the more people there are using them Technology that facilitates collective wisdom, engagement, creation and sharing – that’s what I consider “social media”.  (Note: This is Lee’s original 2011 social media definition. )

Aaron Orendorff – iconiContent (@aaronorendorff)

Social media is any third-party platform built on an open foundation of a time-bound or popularity-bound feed.

Such platforms can certainly have closed elements, but if the foundation isn’t open, it’s not “social.”

Joe Pulizzi – Author of Killing Marketing (@JoePulizzi)

Social media is all about leveraging online tools that promote sharing and conversations, which ultimately lead to engagement with current and future customers and influencers in your target market.

The key to social media working, is having a content marketing strategy that involves the distribution of valuable, relevant and compelling content that promotes the behavior you are looking for that will ultimately drive your business.

Most businesses start with the tools.

Effective social media starts with a content strategy that helps to position you and your brand as the expert in your niche through provocative, informative and helpful content.  Then, once that is accomplished, the social media tools are now available today that make the plan come together.   (Note: This is Joe’s original 2011 social media definition. )

Keith A. Quesenberry – Messiah College (@Kquesen)

Social Media is an attention machine.If you want to be seen you must be relevant there.

Social media is computer-mediated technologies that allow creation and sharing of information, ideas, and other forms of expression via virtual communities and networks.

Rebekah Radice – RadiantLA (@rebekahradice)

Social media in 2019 is the convergence of conversational, relational, and visual marketing that facilitates organic, vibrant, and genuine communication.

Serena Ryan – Serena Dot Ryan (@serenadotryan)

Social media is the ability to connect with whoever you want in order to create the life you want.

Neal Schaffer – PDCA Social (@nealschaffer)

My social media definition 2019 remains the same as I would have used in 2009:

Social networking sites give people the chance to have their own personal web presence on the site while also allowing them to publish user-generated content to their profile.

What has changed over the years:

  1. Format of content social media users publish.  Content has become predominantly visual.
  2. Social networks that users have gravitated to.  In 2019, it’s undoubtedly Facebook (still) and Instagram,
  3. How social networks have become more and more mainstream in society, and
  4. How businesses leverage social media .

Mark Schaefer -Schaefer Marketing Solutions (@markwschaefer)

The 3 Hallmarks of Social  Media include:

  1. Social Media offers an Evolution in how we communicate. It replaces email in many cases.
  2. Social Media provides a Revolution in terms of the tools we need communicate.   For the first time in history we have access to free, instantaneous, global communication. We live in an exciting time!
  3. Social media enables Contribution. It’s distinguished by the ability of everybody to share and contribute as a publisher.

(Note: This is Mark’s original 2011 social media definition.)

Brooke B. Sellas – B Squared Media (@BrookeSellas)

Using online social media platforms for personal or professional authentic, one-to-one communication efforts, entertainment purposes, and/or for finding a feeling of belonging.

Dennis Shiao – Dennis Shiao Consulting (@dshiao)

The use of web and mobile technologies to discover content and connections, while fostering conversations and the sharing of ideas and opinions.

Ann Smarty – Internet Marketing Ninjas (@seosmarty)

Social media is any digital channel based on collaborating and interactive communication.

Michael Stelzner – Social Media Examiner (@mike_stelzner)

Social media marketing is the act of using social networks to connect with customers, drive traffic, generate awareness, and increase sales.

Dustin W. Stout – Dustn.co (@DustinWStout)

In 2019 I believe the evolving definition of social media is:

Any digital platform in which people can openly express themselves to others through sharing ideas, thoughts, and perspectives through text, images, or video.

Liz Strauss (@lizstrauss)

Most literally, social media would be any object or tool, that connects people in dialogue or interaction — in person, in print, or online.

In common usage, social media has come to mean a specific category practices, technology, tools, and online sites that involve social relationships, participation, and user-generated content. (Note: This is Liz’s original 2011 social media definition.)

Chris – I Am Here, LLC (@ChrisStrub)

Social media is a place where people go to connect with their friends and family, and occasionally interact along the way with brands and businesses.

Magdalena Urbaniak – Brand24, MaxTractor (@Meg_Urbaniak)

Social media is a place for brands to listen to their audience and create the communication that really meets their needs. 

Brands must show a human face, talk like a real person, and ignore differences due to distance and time.

It’s ironic because:

As businesses show more realistic presentation, real people do the opposite.

As individuals, we constantly create a world of people who are always happy and who do nothing but spend time on the beach or drink coffee in fancy bars.

Personally, I’m really interested in how this develops because let’s be honest, no one knows.

Owen Video – The Video Sales Machine (@owenvideo)

Social media is the new Marketplace.

It’s where people and vendors and politicians and everyone comes to gather and share ideas.

Social media is how we interact with our communities and our world at large.

Deborah Weinstein – Strategic Objectives (@debweinstein)

Social media is the greatest equalizer of all time!

Social media features digital websites and apps that:

  • Allow users to create and share ideas, information.
  • Participate in social networking with friends, strangers, and like-minded socialites around the world.

Susan B Zimmerman – SBZ Enterprises (@suebzimmerman)

A social network allows anyone from anywhere to make meaningful connections.

Social Media Definition Conclusion

Regardless of your social media definition, all of these networks continue to evolve and our conversations grow. As it does so, participants find new ways to use social media to improve their business and personal lives

As marketers:

We have a responsibility to our audiences digitally and in real life to ensure that social media platforms deliver truthful and trustworthy content, communications and engagement. 

Further we must protect the data of our audiences and those with whom we interact with across social media platforms.As a result, we continue to earn their respect and to deepen our relationships.

How do you define social media?

Please include your social media definition in the comments section to expand this conversation.

Happy Marketing,

Heidi Cohen

This post is dedicated to Trey Pennington , an early social media influencer, who died since the original post was published.

Editor’s Note: This Social Media Definition post was originally published on May 9, 2011. At the time the post contained 30 social media definitions. Since then, the content was significantly expanded with new data and input from other marketers. Further many of the original contributors updated their definitions.

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