Time to acknowledge the obvious: few things have had as much impact on the fabric of marketing as has the emergence of “Social Media.”  In his book – The Chaos Scenario (see video above) – author, AdAge columnist and NPR commentator Bob Garfield goes as far as heralding the end of mass marketing as we know it.

Overstatement?  We are, after all, hinting at a significant change for some communication innovations that have helped shape our marketing world.  Print, radio, moving pictures, television — cable news, for crying out loud.

While many organizations (and marketers, for that matter) wrestle with the function and role of Social Media, and more still will debate some or all of Garfield’s conclusions, few will argue that things are changing.  Fast.  So, for strategists, marketers and C-suite corporate leaders, here’s an abbreviated take on what is changing, and at least part of why Social Media seems to be growing exponentially at the heart of the change.

We’ve gone from “the audience is listening” (with apologies to the THX audio folks) to the audience is in control.  (The cynic might say the inmates are running the asylum.)  That’s it.  In increasing numbers, the targets are taking control of marketing — distribution, creative, messaging — all of it, without even the slightest respect for where marketing resources have been invested or the precise wording of the official company tagline.

Garfield calls this “Listenomics.”  No longer is the distribution of a video marketing message, for example, limited to those able to invest huge sums in costly video production and television ad time.  Today a customer or client — satisfied or unsatisfied — has access to global distribution channels.  And in case there are questions about the viability of Social Media’s channels, just ask United Airlines what precipitated more quantifiable response; their own media campaign or the now infamous “United Breaks Guitars” video produced by a very unhappy customer, and distributed via YouTube.  (Video below.)

Put another way, with the emergence of Social Media, word-of-mouth marketing is all grown up.  We have always understood its potential.  In most professional service circles referrals were the only form of business development (though rarely referenced as “marketing”) until the 90’s.  Even in the midst of mass media’s hayday, a cornerstone of brand development has always been the voice of the customer, client or target — even though almost always the voice of a paid actor.

Social Media is about the fabric of community — the dynamism of dialogue.  It is the authentic voice of the marketplace.  Strategic planning sessions and budget meetings are producing questions about how to address its role, and how to think about resources and ROI.  We’ll leave thoughts on those questions for another post.  But for today the question for marketers and company/corporate leaders is not whether Social Media is relevant; rather, it is whether we can break from messages that insist our targets listen to us, engage in a dialogue, listen to the marketplace, and enjoy the benefits of the most effective form of marketing any of us has ever seen — word-of-mouth, all grown up.