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Operating Out On The Edge

WHAT'S THE MOST OVERRATED trend in business today? That's the question we asked 500 executives registered for Fast Company's Innovation Uncensored event in New York in April. Their No. 1 answer: social media. And the most underrated trend in business? Also social media.

This isn't as incongruous as it appears. Though social media was not the explicit theme of Innovation Uncensored, it came up repeatedly as a tool for marketers and businesses. Iain Tait of Wieden+Kennedy talked about the Twitter-fueled reach of Old Spice's online videos, and Jim Hanna of Starbucks noted that "Facebook has become our de facto advertising platform." But Hanna also cautioned that business expectations for social media should not be overblown. Social media, it seems, is a bit of a black hole: How do you gauge the value of a Twitter audience? How does a Facebook posting compare with a traditional ad campaign?

On page 86 of this issue, contributing writer Farhad Manjoo delves into the nascent industry that's trying to answer just those kinds of questions. In "(Like) + (Retweet) = $$$?" Manjoo, who wrote our April cover story on Google (and last summer's "Apple Nation"), examines the metrics put forth by the likes of Klout and Wildfire Interactive, and the ways that companies like Home Depot, Audi, and Nordstrom are using them. He concludes that the state of the art is still raw — yet the clients seem unconcerned. "No brand is challenging us on this," says Klout CEO Joe Fernandez. "We challenge ourselves way harder than any brand does."

Social media can certainly be a valuable resource for those who tap it well. But like any reflexive embrace of a new technology, it can also be a waste of time. Assuming that the latest Next Big Thing, or whatever worked for another business, will automatically work for yours, is wishful thinking.

One of my favorite quotes from Innovation Uncensored, delivered by Wieden+Kennedy's Tait, sums up what innovation really requires: "We're operating at the limits of what we're capable of delivering. And that's a good thing."

Twitter helped Old Spice attract more than 32 million viewers, but it's not the answer for every brand. | Photograph by Matthias Clamer

Using social media? That's an overrated no-brainer. Using it the right way, for your specific business goals? That's a whole different kind of challenge.

A version of this article appeared in the July/August 2011 issue of Fast Company magazine.