During one of the roughest economic patches we've seen since the Great Depression, the business world saw a huge increase in the use of social networking for marketing purposes. Even now that we are climbing out of this economic hole, social media is still on the rise, transitioning from the "shiny new experimental tool" to a device that is on the verge of necessity. So is it a coincidence that this message medium excelled during a time when money was tight?

Absolutely not. But not for the reasons you may initially think.

Many (including myself) saw social media as more of a cost-effective way to spread a brand message. If you had asked me a year ago why social media was so popular as a marketing tool I would have told you "because nobody has money to spend on advertising, so this way is cheaper." Though there is a little bit of merit to that statement, I have matured in my thinking (and mostly through experience) that this idea is a bit flawed.

So why did social media become so popular?

During the recession, consumers had less discretionary income. It's what happens in a recession, we can't spend as much. That being the case, we as consumers had to be more choosy on what to buy, when to buy it, and most importantly - who to buy it from. With the recession came a lot of distrust among us towards these companies and with good reason. Many companies had made unethical (or just dumb) business decisions which negatively impacted consumer confidence and definitely impacting those spending dollars. How were companies supposed to go about building back that trust?

If you said social media...you would be correct! (Bet you didn't see that coming huh?)

Social media wasn't just cheap advertising. It provided a channel for brands to become more transparent to their buying audience. With social media came a two-way communication between brands and consumers. We weren't forced to listen to brands feed us their BS on how awesome they were anymore. Social networks gave us the ability to respond to their messages and hold brands accountable. We were able to reach out to brands with our concerns and even customer service issues. Those brands who didn't reach back in turn didn't earn the trust of their consumers, falling even further behind in the process.

If you still see social media channels as a way for free advertising, guess again. For one, social media marketing takes time and time = money. Still cheap though right? Monetarily speaking, yes. However, using these channels isn't a way to just broadcast your brand. It's a way to interact with your target demographic like never before and let them join in on the coversation. It's easy to tell which corporations really want to engage and others that just want to be heard as much as possible. It may seem like a good short term publicity boost but consumers are a savvy bunch.

The BS will eventually be read through and these self-promoting-happy brands will feel the hurt in the long-run.

So what is social media to you? Cheap advertising medium or brand engagement tool?