As of mid-July 2015 we will have been treated to the best look at the most famous dwarf planet in the solar system. It took over 9 years for the New Horizons probe to reach the vast outer orbit of this mysterious body.

What was happening in Earth technology when New Horizons launched in 2006?

  • Google bought YouTube
  • RSS was king of content discovery and curation
  • Apple’s iPod was riding high, while the company was already preparing a new device for 2007 that would eventually kill off the dedicated music player.
  • Firefox 2.0 and Internet Explorer 7 (shudder) were launched.
  • MySpace was still a success story. (1)
  • Oh yeah, and Pluto was still a “planet” until the IAU demoted it 6 months after New Horizons launched. (2)

2006 is also often considered the rise of the social networks. Events later immortalized in biopics like David Fincher’s 2010 The Social Network had just unfolded.

So, what does social media have in common with Pluto?

1. The apparent “demotion”

In 2006, if you were a social media “guru” then you were a hot commodity. The role was in high demand in communications and marketing teams.

But somewhere along the way, for many, the value of social media came into serious question. Does it really make a difference in business? Do we measure success by fans, by likes, by views, what? If we don’t have time, can it be safely ignored?

Like Pluto, social media’s evolution has become a bit of a “what do we do with it now?” kind of consideration. Does it fit cohesively into strategy, or is it an outlier by virtue of its quirks? Should it be “plutoed” (3) in our marketing plans?

2. Nine years later: still relevant

Pluto has been shrouded in mystery, and when we get there we’ll have many questions answered. But after the fly-by, we’ll have just as many questions about the nuances of this planet — sorry, dwarf planet. (Old habits.)

Social media also continues to raise as many questions as answers. It’s why the idea of “social media expertise” is a bit misleading. Marketers know it’s there, know it has significance, and insofar as it can be studied and understood, they can be experts.

But for many it remains an altogether distinct mystery, because it’s always been a moving target. The best anyone can really do is get as close as possible, and gain insights into social media’s trajectory and development for where it seems to be headed.

3. It’s not an isolated entity. It’s part of a bigger system.

Regardless of whether IAU or anyone else wants to demote the planetary status of Pluto, it will always be part of a larger dance among the planets — so much so that its orbit crosses Neptune’s.

Social media may or may not be as hot as it was 9 years ago. But trying to view it as something isolated and removed from other elements of marketing communications would be a serious error.

Social has always been part of the marketing system, long before the rise of digital social media. Now that it’s here, it seems that two extremes have constantly been at odds:

  • “Social media is vitally important and we need to put all our marketing efforts into the latest, hottest version of it.”
  • “Social media is passé and just needs to die already. Can’t we use those marketing dollars somewhere else?”

The first assumes that social media somehow replaces good marketing, while the latter assumes that social media is inherently bad marketing. Neither is true.

Instead, as marketers we need to rediscover the value of social as a meaningful component of how we communicate. Whether its role in any given marketing plan is Plutonian or Jovial, it’s still an irreplaceable part of the whole system.

The idea of "social media expertise" is a bit misleading, because it's always been a moving target

Any way we cut it, Pluto is still a fascinating world with many nuances left to be explored and explained. The same is also true of social media.

What discoveries have you observed about social media in the last 9 years? What do you expect it to look like 9 years from now? And am I the only one that feels like seeing Pluto up close is a bit like Christmas in July?