Why is Social Media Marketing Not Delivering on Its Promise

by Sean Garvey, President, InGo

Sean Head ShotIn the long history of technological innovations that have impacted marketing, social media and the promise it holds seems to be unique. Never before have there been such massive expectations, coupled with a growing sense of under-performance on those expectations.

Earlier innovations, going as far back as the printing press, or telephone, or more recently email, brought with them significant expansions in reach, and significant reductions in cost. For brands looking to reach consumers with their message, these technological advances provided large boosts in marketing activity; they were able to reach more and more people, and at lower and lower cost.  In the early days of adoption, these technological advances were correlated with boosts in sales, and it seemed that all that was required was to adopt the technology and “spray and pray.”  Over time however, as each new marketing channel reached a saturation point, its effectiveness plummeted, as the “noise” factor took the return on the dollar spent down to below single digits, showing that the correlation was better understood as “early adopter advantage.”  Ultimately, the “noise” gets so bad that civilized societies begin to legislate and regulate them in order to protect the consumer (see the TCPA, the CAN-SPAM Act, as examples.)

Besides reach and cost, another aspect of these historical technological advances has been ‘targeting’ – the ability to reach the right consumer, not just any consumer, with one’s message.  Over time, marketing advances have attempted to include greater and greater audience and demographic specificity.  The evolution of television advertising illustrates this well. At first, advertising on broadcast TV was enough; no matter what time of day or which program, you knew you were reaching the more affluent demographic.  As TV became a standard household appliance, certain times of day were designated “prime time” viewing, and certain shows could be relied upon to attract certain ages and sexes of the population.  The advent of cable TV, with its local capabilities and plethora of content-specific options, enabled advertisers to pinpoint zip codes and lower the price point so that smaller, more regional advertisers were able to advertise on TV.  It’s not an accident that beginning every evening at 5pm, the Golf Channel runs ads for erectile dysfunction cures on heavy rotation.

However, throughout these advances, as reach increased and cost decreased and as targeting capabilities got further and further refined, return remained fuzzy at best, and low at worst.  The return on dollars spent by marketing channel remains a highly dubious pseudo-science, with the result that most marketing spend decisions are driven primarily by tradition – “because we have always done it that way.”

Social media marketing seemed like it would solve all that.  Here was a marketer’s paradise: consumers freely sharing the most exact and intimate details about themselves, and not just demographic detail like sex and age, but likes and dislikes, interests and hobbies, etc.  Social media itself had the added benefit of being highly addictive, so people were spending gobs of time on their social network of choice. Add to that the unparalleled instrumentation that digital technology provides, and it is no wonder social media marketing had outsized  expectations.  Never before had there been such a powerful intersection of knowledge about, and access to, the target.  Marketing on social media should literally be like shooting fish in a barrel, except in this case, the fish help load the gun.

But it’s not…..

In a 2013 study, of 750 companies across a wide-spectrum of industries, 88% said they “didn’t feel they could accurately measure the effectiveness of their social media campaigns. Fifty-two percent said that dealing with social media ROI was their biggest frustration.”   With regard to the events industry in particular, a recent Lippman study stated that, while social media is the fastest growing portion of marketing budgets, it is “perceived as providing the worst ROI for events,” right alongside print advertising.  How can this possibly be?  A worse return than direct mail?  Than telemarketing?  Email?  It seems unthinkable, and yet there it is.

One school of thought posits that it is simply a measurement issue; it’s having an effect, we just can’t measure it very well.  But that is difficult to square with the amazing instrumentation that is part of the social media marketing package.  The impressions are tracked, the clicks and click-throughs, more and more sophisticated algorithms measure the trends and eyeballs, and calibrate the “value” of digital advertising space on a moment to moment basis, and yet the sales impact still seems at best vague, at worst, non-existent.  The best we can do so far is to track meta-measurements, counting likes and retweets and followers; what is called “social media engagement.” If the sales results were there to back it up, then no doubt meta-measurements of a campaign’s engagement would be enough to quiet the perception of social media marketing providing the “worst ROI,” and we would rest easy with the explanation that “it’s working, we’re just not sure how.”  But we don’t, and the perception persists, even as we increase our spend.  And the most likely explanation is that the results are not there.

A conclusion one might come to is that what is required is more and better instrumentation.  And based on a whole hatful of emerging companies with product offerings, it seems many have concluded this. Re-targeting, digitally driven consumer profiles compiled real-time, social network and behavior analysis, all tied to more and more perfectly timed message delivery capabilities, indicate that this is the answer in vogue.  But can we reasonably expect dramatically better results from this wave of improved instrumentation?  Given the nature of the case, we might rightly expect incremental improvements, but it is just as likely that this trend may result in “digital stalking” legislation, and no indication that it will produce returns in line with our current expectations of social media.  The answer isn’t more technological capability to improve the same dynamic.  The dynamic itself needs to be changed.  But how?

One of the implicit promises of social media is encompassed in the word social.  Social media, for all its current disappointments as a marketing vehicle, has shown many examples of the incredible cultural power it has: overnight YouTube celebrities, virilization, ice-bucket challenges, etc.  There is no doubt that there is dynamite in social media.  However, the way social media marketing has been adopted to date is with an emphasis on the marketing and a lack of emphasis on the word social.

Everyone knows intuitively that word-of-mouth marketing (trusted resources freely recommending a product or brand to other interested, potential buyers) is the most powerful type of marketing, and all the studies bear that fact out.  But that’s because it really isn’t marketing per se, at least not in the traditional sense.  Marketing is essentially an activity that brands undertake, to get their message in front of as many of the right consumers as possible, and they pay very handsomely, both to craft that message and have it delivered to the right consumer at the right time. The presence of a monetary incentive and the lack of trust in the relationship, make it a subtly but inescapably adversarial one: the brand has a vested interest in convincing the consumer to buy, and the consumer knows this.  Word-of-mouth marketing – ‘person-to-person’ not ‘brand-to-consumer’ – circumvents and cuts through all of that native distrust and natural skepticism.  The only problem is, it can’t be bought.

In fact, to buy it is to neuter it….

So therein lies the oh-so-frustrating rub; a technological advancement that enables word-of-mouth marketing on an unprecedented global scale, that isn’t purchasable or obtainable by brands via the traditional approach.  To square this circle, a change in thinking and a different approach is required.

The first step is to recognize how social media is different than any previous technological advancement.  Unlike TV, email, even the printing press, it is not unidirectional (brand speaking to passive consumer.)  It is bidirectional and even multi-directional.  On social media, the “consumers” have a voice, and they love to use it.  And that leads to our second insight.

The people on social media are not ‘consumers waiting to be marketed to.’  As noted above, they have a voice, and they are talking, a lot.  What are they talking about?  Themselves, their opinions, the things they are passionate about and want the world of their friends and colleagues to know.  Consciously or unconsciously, they are engaged in ‘brand promotion’: the brand of themselves online.

The last insight, is to notice our own behavior on-line. None of us click on the top returns from a Google search, because we know they’ve been paid for. Yet many of us pay for them.  When logged in as ourselves, most of us are completely unaware of the “suggested posts” on Facebook, but again, many of us marketers pay for them.

Once we’ve discovered these three insights, we can change our approach to marketing on social media and better unlock its potential.  My audience is not peopled with consumer targets; it is full of potential co-marketers.  Rather than finding more and better ways to target and track ‘consumers’ like they are game, we can turn our efforts to empowering them to market on our behalf.  This is what we call ‘advocate marketing.’

This change in approach is counter-intuitive, and takes intellectual discipline to implement thoroughly.  However, when done well, the results show beyond the shadow of a doubt, that our most powerful marketing asset is already in our possession.  It is our audience.

 

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