Antony Mayfield is a specialist in Social Media and currently works for Spannerworks who are the people who published the best guide to understanding the basics of social media and all of this web business - download it and read it - it doesn't get simpler or more concise:
He is also the author of Open which is a great blog and the best place to go to read up on what's happening in the web and read some decent and witty commentary on it. I spoke to him about social media and this is what he said:
THE RISE OF SOCIAL MEDIA
Coming from a PR background as I do, I can say that PR is all about changing the perceptions and behaviour of people. This is why I am now in social media, because social media is all about influencing people within a network.
Brands have to now understand that their brand sits within a network; all brands do. All brands want to increase their influence, but some don't move beyond this thought. The switched on brands will however come to the conclusion that by being the most useful brand in that network will influence people to think about and behave towards you in a postive way.
Together with this is the fact that actually search engines are not interested in what words you have written on your site - what they are interested in is how useful is your site to whoever has entered a particular search term. (See Search Engine Optimisation for more of this).
Being useful to your network all stems from understanding how your brand fits in online, and being realistic about it. (A great example of a corporate website that is truly useful to its users is www.edelman.com - Steve)
The fundamental point is that media is changing and passive audiences no longer exist, particularly online - the most popular websites are those that let the users contribute content, re-edit others content and make connections with other people. If you look at www.alexa.com (tracks traffic to all websites worldwide) and look at the Top 20 Sites visited by people in the UK you can see that Flickr, Bebo, MySpace, Ebay, blogger.com, wikipedia and YouTube are all in there - Out of 20 sites, at least 7 fit the criteria of the users being able to contribute, edit and make connections with others through the sites.
This illustrates the trend that more and more people are learning how to create stuff online which represents a massive shift in the way people use information. Online is swallowing up books and TV - there are thousands of ways to use the internet and these will absorb other traditional channels.
I have expressed this view to many and it has met with much anger - but never has it met with an outright denial.
This may sound like a stark warning, but if you don't understand the online world and developments within social media, you should understand that your entire world and its foundations are changing, and changing incredibly quickly.
My advice for anyone who is looking to get into marketing and advertising now is to understand social media. The only way to truly understand it is to engage with it - See for yourself how quickly networks can form. Be part of those networks then start your own - don't be an external observer.