Social media is all the rage for marketers, and although it's a powerful tool, it is inherently superficial, and operates through distinct channels that must be understood in order to maximize its benefits.

I first activated a Facebook account in the fall of 2004, just hours before Mark Bellhorn hit a three-run home run off of Jon Lieber in Game Six of the American League Championship Series. It was a special time in Massachusetts. The social network was in its infancy, had yet to drop the article from its URL (it was still thefacebook.com), and was available only to users who could supply a college email address from an institution of higher learning deemed legitimate enough to participate. For what it’s worth, the college I was attending at the time (UMASS Dartmouth) was granted access somewhat late in the game, and I’d heard a few murmurs about the website from my high school buddies before I was able to secure an account myself.

Facebook, for users and brands alike, is all about surface and persona. In order to succeed in a social campaign, marketers need to understand that the landscape is one of immediacy.

Early Facebook was shrouded in mystery. Kids in my Sylvia Plath seminar said it was funded by the government as a way to monitor the obviously subversive sociopolitical activity of college students. In retrospect, just what the government’s interest in the illicit consumption of Coors Light and Captain Morgan’s was, I do not know.

When the social network made itself available to everyone, I remember thinking it was a huge mistake. The nice thing about Facebook, for me, was that it made it possible for me to keep in touch with my middle-class suburban friends, virtually all of whom were drifting aimlessly through liberal arts colleges and universities in New England just like I was. It targeted a specific demographic: one that was totally self-involved, image-obsessed, and socially bloodthirsty. All of the social stereotypes about college were true: it represented an opportunity for personal reinvention. Facebook allowed students to expedite and spread the word about their own bold new personas, and they embraced it.

Facebook's debut on the big screen painted it as solely about the alienation of frustrated and brilliant teenager.Of course, I think the website was primarily concerned with monetization from the beginning. No matter what that movie (I honestly didn’t see what all the fuss was about) suggested, Facebook wasn’t the product of insecurity, alienation and the personal strife of an insightful savant. It was a terrific idea that popped up at the right time, and it exists as such today. Although marketers recognize the social network’s distinct and far-reaching capabilities with regard to brand reach and financial success, strategies remain rooted in the superficial element of coolness. Facebook, for users and brands alike, is all about surface and persona. In order to succeed in a social campaign, marketers need to understand that the landscape is one of immediacy.

The long, awkward birth of social commerce

As Facebook moved into the commercial arena, it stumbled. It tried direct commerce within a social marketplace (I once tried to sell a life-sized poster of Muggsy Bogues that did not exist). I seem to remember the network hocking these weird e-cards and pictures of cupcakes. Suffice it to say that there were a number of stops and starts. I’ll spare you the relationship status joke that’s just begging to be made.

The breakthrough came when the website’s makers discovered the unique marketing opportunities their product presented. Today, Facebook is essentially an ongoing demographic survey. Businesses that maintain a presence on the website can monitor interaction, and marketers who analyze Facebook activity have access to the sort of data that even a novice would drool at: millions of people who are extolling their desires, literally clicking buttons to tell the world what they like and most recently, what they “Want,” in real time.

College represented an opportunity for personal reinvention. Facebook allowed students to expedite and spread the word about their own bold new personas, and they embraced it.

But personal Facebook and commercial Facebook intersect at a strange point. From the outset, personal Facebook was always about persona. Those first users, the shiveringly-hip, preening college Freshmen (and I was one of them) didn’t want to tell their insular world of other blindingly attractive college Freshmen about the music they actually listened to and the books they actually read. A friend of mine once made the astute observation that if Facebook were real, we’d all spend 16 hours a day reading Ulysses and “listening” to John Cage.

The second, perfect self

Elizabeth Bernstein of the Wall Street Journal puts it succinctly: we’re all just bragging. Her (ironically super-shared) column on boasting and online self-esteem points out that just about every status update is a form of bragging. Facebook is a world of perfect spouses (and, increasingly, perfect children), perfect vacations, perfect jobs, perfect graduate degree programs: “…the Internet has given us a global audience for our bombast, and social media sites encourage it,” Bernstein wrote. “We’re all expected to be perfect all the time. The result is more people carefully stage-managing their online image.”

We brag to anyone who will listen. We disclose information about what we are and are not. What we value, devalue, and by proxy, what those valuations say about us, or at least who we would like to be.

Sometimes, it’s earnest:

Facebook status are sometimes just earnest talking points.

And sometimes it’s petty:

 Facebook status can get petty every so often.

 Decontextualized, we can be absolutely shameless at times. We tell the world in a few desperate (and occasionally automated) words how young, smart, beautiful and bohemian we are:

Facebook statuses are often used just to show people how cool you are.

(NB: In my own defense, I was audibly rooting for a Boston sports team in a New York dive bar, and the “Will Hunting” was always offset with a string of profanities.)

As marketers explore Facebook for its commercial potential, they need to be aware of the breed of human that populates the network. It isn’t necessarily a real human, complete with fears, insecurities, desires, ecstasies, sadnesses and rage, but it is a relief of that real person – a conscious, crafted response to and defense against the very scary, real world. This response/defense isn’t novel, but it’s never been this public, this transparent.

What’s all this posturing mean for commerce?

Facebook offers access to the sort of data that even a novice would drool at: millions of people who are extolling their desires, literally clicking buttons to tell the world what they like and most recently, what they “Want,” in real time.

On a personal level, we shouldn’t feel too guilty. To remove yourself from the center of the universe is liberating, but it isn’t easy. Bernstein cites a Harvard neuroscience study on self-disclosure that found we brag simply because it feels good. Researchers noted that self-disclosure awakens the same areas of the brain that are activated by indulgences like food and sex, suggesting what our mothers always told us: people like to talk about themselves.

So as a marketer, where does this leave you? In an introductory presentation on SEO for new content writers yesterday, my supervisor pulled up a slide with an interesting observation:

“The web is an intuitively navigable landscape where only the cool survive.”

The most important thing for social media marketers to keep in mind is that social deals in “cool.” Where a comprehensive online campaign can dredge the depths of intelligent analytics and strive to be not just marketable, but informative, progressive and beneficial, the increasingly essential social component of a marketing strategy must always be, at its core, cool. There are models for social engagement, successful social campaigns, page and profile paradigms, that can drive a brand forward with little more than a Facebook presence. But it isn’t going anywhere if it isn’t cool. People, and therefore consumers, are not who they are on Facebook, but exist as whom they want to be. Marketers should recognize this, because Facebook already does.

Andrew McDonald is an editor in Brafton's Boston office. Emphasizing quality of content in terms of style and grammar, he maintains editorial standards for multiple content forms, produced for a variety of audiences, to provide clients with smart, relevant content. He likes long books and the Boston Red Sox.