The history of advertising is fraught with attempts to quantify and exploit "cool." The problem with these attempts, and with the concept in general, is that the very act of searching for what is cool makes you uncool. Think of it like Quantum Physics (though by doing this I've squarely planted myself on the wrong side of cool). You can determine the velocity (or trend) of coolness, or you can determine its current location (memes, specific viral videos, etc.) Understanding the difference between a meme and a trend is a critical step toward being able to effectively use social media. But this is just the tip of an extremely large, fickle, and cat-shaped iceberg.
There are a ton of people working in huge companies as "Social Media Consultants" or the like, often isolated somewhere within marketing departments with few other immediate coworkers. The irony of this is that companies think they can solve the issue of social media, which few understand and even fewer can use effectively, by hiring a single 20-something who appears to be "hip." The reality of social media is that you're only as good as the number of people who see, share, and comment on your posts, and the answer to increasing these numbers is to incorporate social media into the entire office structure. All employees should be able to post, review, and share things that they're interested in, and the company should benefit from large, disparate friend circles generated by a diverse staff. Hiring one person to manage a company's entire social media presence is like planting one apple tree and expecting to sell hundreds of apple pies in a few months.
Companies that "get it" are often the ones that never list jobs like the one I described above. These are companies that naturally value ideas, experimentation, and employee input — which all allow natural, viral growth of a social media presence. Word of mouth is a much more effective form of marketing than flooding inboxes with coupons, and even companies who advertise profusely benefit from an organic spread of goodwill. Take Starburst, for example — one of the most commercially successful sub-brands of candy, owned by the mega-company Mars, Inc. About 6 years ago, they released this commercial. It was instantly catapulted to viral status on the internet and became a meme, producing spin offs like this, this, and this (from Starburst itself). Very few marketing departments would have signed off on an ad like this, because there is always a risk that doing so will backfire, creating the social media equivalent of a black hole from what was supposed to be a bright star. If an ad or a social media post goes from being funny, goofy, or clever to being tacky, trite, or boring, it doesn't matter if you have the king of YouTube behind you, the crowd you're trying to convince to buy pistachios might be LESS inclined to do so based on your distinctly "uncool" approach.
I'm lucky to have worked at two companies that really get the concept of social media, and use it in smart, effective ways. Milestone, the subject of a previous blog post, regularly promotes its films, screenings, and events on Facebook, but keeps a healthy distance from the kind of ad-blasting you get from other companies. Milestone's posts are always well-received, with several likes, comments, and shares on each. Recently they were able to successfully launch and fulfill a Kickstarter campaign for the restoration of Portrait of Jason. They tapped into that social media capital, and also received generous write-ups in places like the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Village Voice, and recently, NPR. Broadcasting each of these things on Facebook, while refraining from too much blatant advertising, gained them a much larger following and a helpful dose of funding for film restoration.
DonorsChoose.org is also a pioneer in a certain brand of web marketing. As a company, DonorsChoose encourages ideas and communal thought as a corporate practice, resulting in a lively, energized environment where people are eager to share activity and accomplishments on sites like Yammer, Facebook, and Twitter. As a charity, it is always a struggle to keep people coming back, year after year, to give money to new public school projects in high-need districts. DonorsChoose puts out a newsletter to their donors a few times a year, telling them about projects that really need funding and making pitches for specific campaigns. They recently generated a sizable amount of funding to rebuild classrooms in Moore, Oklahoma, which was devastated by a tornado. Their good standing among charities and the foresight to combat this disaster while it was still freshly branded in people's minds landed them on CBS's official list of places to help in the tornado's aftermath, and has led to other prominent listings for top charities.
In essence, my argument is that you don't need to be a 20-something, spend all day on your computer, or tweet your thoughts 24/7 to have a healthy understanding of social media. You simply have to cultivate social behavior in your offline spheres, and this will organically lead to a powerful online presence. Trends, memes and viral videos should not be goals set for specific projects, but rather guides for social consciousness that will lead to new, creative thinking. You can't get to 10 million views on YouTube by copying the content and style of another popular video. But it is not impossible for a company to do so through traditional advertising — it just requires a few leaps of faith.