Social media, Victorian-style

It was back in 1840, with the launch of a postal service that promised to deliver a letter anywhere in the country for a penny, that the first of this country’s social media really took off.

As the volume of private correspondence grew at an astonishing rate, the new phenomenon gave advertisers plenty to think about.  Organisations that had happily confined their media selections to newspapers and stage-coach seatbacks quickly came under pressure:  did they have a social media strategy?  What were they doing to make the most of the post?

At first, I suspect, the aim may well have been to persuade letter-writers to take on the additional role of delivering advertising messages.  This must have seemed an extremely attractive option to the advertisers, not least because it wouldn’t cost them anything.  If they could provide letter-writers with amusing “viral” content about Pears Soap or Beecham’s Pills or whatever early Victorian brands existed in those distant days, then the word would spread like wildfire among the corresponding classes – while, most wonderfully, budgets could be slashed to the bone.

In the event, the experience of the following 170 years shows that it didn’t really work out quite like that.  Letter-writers carried on writing letters to each other, or at least until the technology was successively superseded by phone, email and text.  But they never really made more than the odd passing comment about Pears Soap or Beecham’s Pills:  irritatingly, they preferred to write and read about things that actually mattered to them, rather than things that mattered to an advertiser with a social media strategy.

Which didn’t at all mean that advertisers failed to find their own uses for this powerful new medium.  They did.  From the Victorian age to the present day, they’ve poured billions and billions of pounds into their own, parallel stream of commercial correspondence, and often their activities have achieved excellent results for them.

But for those who now believe that smart advertisers can encroach seamlessly and organically into today’s generation of social media, enjoyed and appreciated by users and integrated enthusiastically into their own personal communications, it must be a bit depressing to remember that over the years, the medium invented by their predecessors has invariably become known as “junk mail.”

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