This article was published on August 2, 2011

The best books about social media that you’d never expect

The best books about social media that you’d never expect
Lauren Fisher
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Lauren Fisher

Co-founder at Simply Zesty. I love everything social and I think I have the best job in the world! I'm particularly passionate about bloggin Co-founder at Simply Zesty. I love everything social and I think I have the best job in the world! I'm particularly passionate about blogging and seeing innovative uses of social platforms by organisations. Feel free to drop me an email if you've got any questions, comments or you just want to say hi - [email protected]

There’s certainly no shortage of books on social media, social technologies and online communities that are invaluable reading for brands, marketers etc. But there are some excellent books on social media that actually have nothing to do with social media.

What do I mean here? The kind of books that are in completely different industries or written before social media actually existed, that contain principles and thinking that cross over seamlessly into social media. The nature of social media is that it can be influenced by so many other factors, both as a medium and an essential component of society and human communication.

Below are 7 books that I think are invaluable reads for those working in, or interested in, social media.

Guerilla Marketing by Jay Conrad Levinson

I only read this book for the first time last year, and it is an excellent book for discovering marketing principles and strategies that apply to social media, even though social isn’t covered explicitly in there. It was first released in 1983 and contains excellent advice for marketers on how to get the best bang for your buck, with very limited marketing budgets. Many of the case studies used focus on using niche, targeted media as opposed to investing in ads in national newspapers for example. This thinking often applies to social media, where companies can now target people down to an individual basis, as opposed to going for a mass market reach to try and get in front of the right consumers. I fully recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn the basics of word of mouth and disruptive marketing, with nearly every paragraph applying to social media.

Confessions of an Advertising Man by David Ogilvy

This seminal book by the respected ad man David Ogilvy again was written before social media existed as an advertising or communication method. It contains however, fundamental marketing principles that can be applied to any medium, including social. The book covers advertising as a practice, as well as the ins and outs of the agency world, making this book a valuable read across the industry. What I found particularly interesting when reading this, was the inspiration I got for social mechanics such as Facebook ads, looking at how the tried and tested principles of advertising in print, could be distilled down into the minute amount of characters you have in social ads. Many of the same principles still apply and it shows that social advertising is an art just like any other.

Discipline & Punish by Michel Foucault

Those of you familiar with Michel Foucault might be surprised by its place on this list, but believe me, it is will deserved. Discipline and Punish was written by the French philosopher in 1975, originally in French. It contains a history of how individuals and communities have been governed by discipline throughout the ages and how punishment has evolved as an essential way of control. This is fascinating on its own, but towards the end of the book, Foucault looks at the principle of the ‘Panopticon’. This was an experiment put forward at the end of the 17th Century, as a way of allowing self-discipline. The idea was that it was a way to control society by erecting a central podium that had cells surrounding it at a 360 degree angle. If you were in one of the cells, the point was that you had no idea when you were being watched. Therefore, you had to ‘conform’ at all times, to avoid punishment. It’s a fascinating concept that I think has absolute relevance in social media.

Whereas organisations were once used to being relatively closed, and able to tightly control the information that left the company, this has now completely changed. Now we essentially have the individual consumer at the centre of the panopticon, able to ‘spy’ on companies at any one time. Through social technologies, communication has been wide open. You never know when someone’s on your Facebook Page, Googling you, or what your employees might be saying at all times. Therefore, the only option is to ‘conform’, be open and honest to avoid public punishment and humiliation. I recommend reading just this section of the book if nothing else, to see how a concept put forth centuries ago absolutely applies to social media today.

Crystallizing Public Opinion by Edward Bernays

Widely regarded as the ‘father’ of public relations, Edward Bernays first introduced the concept of PR and invented such PR techniques as the press release, in the early 1920s. He was the nephew of Sigmund Freud and it’s easy to see how psychoanalysis has factored in so many of his campaigns. One of his earliest PR stunts was to promote smoking for women, when he placed high profile debutantes in the crowd at the Easter Day Parade in 1929, showing that it was acceptable for women to smoke. Of course, this transpired into coverage as Bernays ensured reporters were there to witness it.

As well as the tried and tested PR practices and theories established by Bernays that still hold sway today, His work ‘Crystallizing Public Opinion’ is also an important text that applies to the basics of social media. In the book, the first written about PR as an industry, he lays out the methods and techniques used by governments to shape public opinion. At a time when organisations are losing control of public opinion, that has been so easily shaped without rebuff for years, it’s an important read in how public opinion can be influenced. Of course, this is a lot more difficult to do than in Bernays’ time, as now people have a very public platform to counter and distribute their own interpretation of a truth. For understanding how public opinion functions however, this book is one of the most influential and important.

The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere by Jurgen Habermas

Another book that’s heavy on the philosophy and sociology side, in this work, the sociologist Jurgen Habermas looks at the idea of a ‘public sphere – that is a space for public discourse that is independent of government or the controlling authorities. While Habermas looked at this as happening in coffee shops, town squares etc. While this was examined in the 18th and 19th centuries, it is a principle that absolutely applies to social media today and I believe is crucial in examining the function of social media and networks as a space that is owned by the public, independent of any agenda the ruling authority (be they government, corporate etc) want to set. Reading Habermas’ interpretation of the public sphere allows us to understand how people are using social technologies and what they’re getting out of it in this way. Marketers that are armed with this knowledge and understanding will ultimately get more out of the space and be able to engage with people in a very real way.

A Mathematical Theory of Communication by Shannon and Weaver

In this article that was later republished in a book, the writers Claude E. Shannon and Warren Weaver, put forward a model that looked at the theory of communication and how signals or messages are interpreted by individuals. As you can see below, the model is fairly linear, showing how messages travel through different channels before they reach the end user :

Though this model was linear, being originally introduced in 1948, there is a central tenet of the model that is amplified today: the noise source. Here, Shannon and Weaver examined the external factors that contributed to disturbing the ‘signal’ that could mean what was received by the user was different to what was originally delivered by the ‘transmitter’. Today, this noise source is amplified through social technologies, as every single message that’s put out, by an individual or organisation is subject to interpretation and re-distribution that can mean that when the signal is received by someone else, it’s entirely different to what the company orginally wanted you to get. Think of this as first reading about a campaign on someone’s blog for example. Your understanding of this will be shaped by the blogger’s interpretation, instead of the straight facts the organisation wanted to put out. This is an essential read for understanding how communication works, with the real value coming in if you look at how this might have adapted today, and how you can look at this as an opportunity instead of a disadvantage.

The Copywriter’s Handbook by Robert Bly

The Copywriter’s Handbook was first published in 1985 and his been republished multiple times since, updated as communication changes. It has been endorsed by David Ogilvy as an essential book for copywriters all over, no matter what level you’re at. Though copywriting has always been associated with traditional advertising, good copywriting is essential in social media marketing. Robert Bly’s book contains excellent advice on how to create copy that sells and persuades and this is something you can’t afford to ignore in your social communication. When content is the central currency for brands online today, good copywriting should be at the centre of this. It applies perhaps now more than ever, as you have such a short amount of time to capture and keep people’s attention. Good copy can do this, and good copy can be achieved if you follow the rules in the Copywriter’s Handbook.

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