Social media is just one of the tools in our toolbox. It is not a strategy. It should not be run in a silo, segregated from the rest of the organization. I have believed that, strongly, since at least a decade before Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube came along.

All of these vehicles, venues, and platforms are just tools we can use to tell our story. If our story sucks, if we are not a good company, if our products are lousy, then the last thing we need is tools to help more people learn about us faster.

If we have a strong story, make good stuff, sell it at fair prices, and treat our customers, our prospects, and our competitors with respect, then using social media to tell that story far, wide, and fast can help us succeed.

Social media is not social selling. And it is rapidly moving away from social marketing. It is just a very efficient way to have conversations with people who might buy our products, or not buy them, or influence others who might or might not, or interact with a million other people who might have some effect on whether or not we succeed.

And so it must always be focused on the people outside our organization, as they ultimately determine whether we live or die. When we get a tweet that is essentially a customer service question, it is a fatal error to think, or to say, that the question needs to be directed to our customer service department, which is not on Twitter. Either we have good customer service, or we don’t. How the question comes in the door is irrelevant, unless we don’t really care about our customers. And if that is true, then we are irrelevant, or soon will be.

I see social media following a similar trajectory to the web, although much more quickly, with much sharper climbs and probably a faster descent. It really wasn’t that long ago that just having a website was a novelty. It didn’t need to be any good, or do anything useful. Just having a URL meant you were a sexy company. That lasted about three years. Then people started to demand that the website add value to the customer experience. So good companies began to install online help systems, and answer their email around the clock. The best ones began to see their online help system as a sales tool. Customers could now decide to buy from a company because they could clearly see how much support they would get after the sale. And they could see that before buying. Before even showing up on the company’s radar.

A bunch of groovy new startups arrived on the scene promising to take companies that suck, put them on the web, and magically turn them into great companies. Companies that suck, and some that don’t, bought into the hype, made a few people rich, the web collapsed, and a zillion internet gurus were out of work. This entire scenario played out between 1995 and 2001. The web didn’t go away. But the people who didn’t know how to make use of it did. And the web is a better place today.

Fast forward to today. You have to be a company that doesn’t suck. That’s always been true. Just two years ago, just being on Facebook meant you were a cool company, and you felt all sexy and warm inside. But if your company sucks, now it sucks on Facebook. And Twitter, and YouTube, and the other next best things to come along. And your customers, former customers, and competitors have yet another way to share the story of your sucky company. And leave you in the weeds. Lots of people claim to be social media gurus and sell a lot of snake oil. I think that we’ll see the social media bubble burst in two years or less. Social media won’t go away, but the hype will. The gurus will be unemployed. Meanwhile, the people with good storytelling skills will remain successful.

So, be a company that doesn’t suck. Have a great story. Tell it well, meaning listen more than talk. And use social media tools to help share that story with more people faster.