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Who Owns Hispanic Social Media?

Posted: 12/06/11 08:39 AM ET

Your humble coauthors stay informed of the latest trends about social media, often by attending events where bloggers, marketers, communication experts, and brands try to build mutually beneficial relationships. At these social-media watering holes, the discussion inevitably turns to the fastest-growing market in America: Latinos. Basically, everybody wants to know how to use social media to engage Hispanics.

However, an interesting theme often emerges that prevents companies and bloggers from truly hitting it off. In brief, companies believe that they are just as important, or even more important, than bloggers when it comes to driving social media. In turn, bloggers think that companies are just along for the ride, and that individual content creators are the real stars of the social-media world. The love connection between bloggers and brands can fray.

For example, Carol Cain is a Latina blogger who recalls when a respected brand invited her to a function that, in her words, "was actually a lure to an unpaid, focus-group session promoted as an exclusive event." Cain says brands still haven't learned that they have to "abandon the traditional approaches of the PR and marketing business, because they're dealing with a different beast."

As seen from Cain's experience, bloggers and brands are not just having a miscommunication. They are often sincerely at odds with each other over their respective roles, and even their goals, when it comes to social media and targeting Latinos.

Two key questions emerge from this disconnect. First, who "owns" social media -- people or businesses? Second, are bloggers or brands more important when it comes to capturing the Hispanic audience?

To answer those questions, we have to go back to ancient history, which in terms of social media, means the last decade or so. Blogging was one of the first significant developments in the field, and in the early days, many writers simply praised products or organizations out of a sincere interest in doing so, or to fill up space. But today most bloggers know that companies crave their social-media efforts, so they expect something -- increased readership, industry respect, cold hard cash -- for their efforts.

Businesses, of course, simply want customers. And one of the best ways to attract consumers is by getting bloggers to evangelize for you.

So brands don't just cross their fingers and hope that bloggers will say nice things about them. They fund many conferences and seminars (such as the ones we often attend) that revolve around social media. Businesses add value by providing cutting-edge tools and techniques for the social-media field. And brands insist that their framework -- everything from software ecosystems to data-mining programs -- sustains social media.

Therefore, it's not surprising that companies would ask for a little help with social-media campaigns from bloggers, who in turn are leery of appearing to be corporate shills. And it is in this conflict that one of the crucial disconnects between companies and bloggers lurks.

It's not that all bloggers are unshakable truth-seekers with ironclad integrity (hey, we can only speak for ourselves...). But bloggers who want to engage Hispanic readers are most likely members of the Latino community themselves.

As such, they won't jeopardize their standing within that community simply because a brand offers them a nice opportunity. Bloggers with a large Hispanic readership might get jittery when they partner with businesses to captivate the Latino audience. After all, a blogger has to build a relationship with his or her readers. It's practically a requirement for a successful blog.

This can be confusing for some brands and the marketing teams behind them, which feel that social media revolves around their initiatives and projects. In fact, many brands still view social media and relationship building as bonuses to traditional marketing efforts. But treating these concepts as a mere addendum, or forcing conventional methods upon them, only backfires, as Cain's experience verifies.

Social media demands a new mindset. No one understands this more than the blogger, who exists to communicate ideas and interact with his or her audience. This is vastly different than television or radio, which are more or less one-way streets.

This difference may be most crucial when it comes to the Hispanic market. As evidenced by Latinos' family-oriented culture, Hispanics value that personal touch. Furthermore, Hispanics are statistically much younger than other ethnicities, and as we know, young people are social media's biggest fans. Therefore, an off-handed approach to social media is not going to reach the Latino market.

Brands need to acknowledge this and admit that individuals -- symbolized by the blogger -- are the driving force behind social media. This will not change, no matter how many conferences, seminars, campaigns, giveaways, and dollars that brands bring to it. People, not brands, are the owners, motivators, and building blocks of social media. And that time-consuming and occasionally messy process of relationship building is vital to its power.

Social media has permanently altered the worlds of marketing, journalism, and consumer culture. However, one concept remains unchanged. Communication is a fundamental function of human existence. And it does not require corporate sponsorship. That primordial need to listen, and in turn to be heard, will always drive social media.