“They see only their own shadows or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave.” Plato  – The Allegory of the Cave

If you ever hear a so-called “social media expert” use the following four words, feel free to yell FIRE and rush for the nearest exit – trust me, you’ll be doing yourself and them a giant favor.

C onversation

A uthentic

V iral

E ngage

You’re a small business owner, an entrepreneur, someone with a head on their shoulders who works hard, has a decent enough business model and is way too busy.  You want to find out more about social media and figure it can’t hurt to attend a workshop hosted by a laid off PR executive or talk to your wife’s cousin’s best friend or the call up the kid who designed your website to learn more.  After all, each one is claiming to be an expert in social media.

So you sit down in person or jump on the phone and the words start rolling off the social media expert’s  tongue like a drunken mantra…conversation, authentic, viral engageconversation, authentic, viral, engage…you get the picture.

And it’s a distorted one because Conversation, Authentic, Viral and Engage have suddenly lost a lot of meaning when it comes to online marketing.

And it’s not without intent.

Social media experts want you chained in the CAVE watching shadows on the wall.

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave (the basis for The Matrix movies) is the notion that most of us live a life of delusion, not understanding reality, as if we were chained in a cave with a fire burning behind us experiencing “reality” watching shadows of puppets cast on a wall.

The real world is outside the cave, but when a prisoner breaks  free, the sun and the light is too much to bear and he succumbs to his existence and descends back into the cave.

Social media experts toss out the CAVE words with little to back them up, to keep you from realizing that you can do this stuff on your own.  Keeping you in the cave guarantees them a paycheck.

The sunlight is  the necessary and very personal HARD WORK that must go into any social media strategy and individual campaign.  I speak from experience when I say it is not easy to achieve any of the CAVE directives without committing yourself to a disciplined path with an end goal.

And that is why many of us stay in the cave.

The experts tell us…“You have to have a conversation!” but it goes no deeper than that and we either talk about irrelevant subjects that move no directive forward or turn talking into a one-way broadcast.  Next thing you know, we’re shelling more hard earned money to watch more puppet shows because what we’re doing isn’t working.

We hear “You gotta be your authentic self!” But what does that actually mean?  Does it mean you should show your snarky side and start dropping f-bombs or dig deep into your fascination with fishing lures from the the 1940s?  Of course not.  Most of us are not going to be successful just being ourselves.  First, because most of us are just not that interesting,  And secondly, because no one cares.  People care about themselves and solving their problems.  Don’t get me wrong.  You can get people talking.  But there are way too many of us acting as online therapists and not getting paid for it.

And can we just skip viral?

Nothing we do is ever going viral.

It doesn’t have to and it’s not the point.

Upload the kittens and the crazies if you’d like, but there’s  no data showing that viral GUARANTEES sales.

Just ask Pepsi.

The Pepsi Refresh program launched last year as a ‘good works’ campaign for the brand. Pepsi promised to give away $20 million to causes picked by fans on social media. The theme was ‘refreshing ideas that change the world’.

During the first year, the Refresh campaign received more than 80 million votes on Facebook. It also created 3.5 million ‘likes’ on Pepsi’s Facebook page, and 60,000 new Twitter followers.

However, in 2010, PepsiCo lost 2.6% of the overall carbonated drink market. (Blue Can Pepsi sales fell by 4.8% compared to the previous year.)

These are the kinds of campaigns that social media experts will actually cite as ways to ENGAGE your followers, friends, fans, etc.  I’ve sat right there in the cave and witnessed it.  But it’s just more puppet shows and more chains for both of us.  You don’t have the budget or the time for something like this and it’s overwhelming to even think of where to start.

So here’s my advice when it comes to social media:

First, get out of the cave.

Stop listening to anyone who throws around the cave words and accept the fact that you have some real work to do.

Second, believe (I mean REALLY BELIEVE) that you know how to listen, how to talk, how to be yourself and how to be passionate about your work, your art and your customers.  It’s shocking how little confidence people have in their ability to do this.  Did your mom raise you to be a mute? This is not complicated stuff.  Social media is a tool like any other tool.  Embrace it.

And finally and most importantly…

Set some clear goals and objectives and try and make this thing a revenue channel for you.

OK, that sounds easy.  We both know it isn’t.  I personally have made a ton of mistakes at this, but finally, after a couple of dedicated years, it is starting to kick in.  You just have to stick with it.

What’s right is what’s left when you’ve done everything else wrong.

Accept that it will not happen overnight and that you’ll make mistakes too but don’t sacrifice your freedom for the chains of an expert.

Get out of the cave and into the sunlight.

You’ll find what you’re looking if you’re willing to do the work.