In recent weeks, we’ve seen a blast of polar vortex — thanks in particular to a study by Gallup on U.S. consumer habits — putting a chill on sunny predictions about the effectiveness of social media marketing. Has “Social Media Fail(ed) to Live Up to Early Marketing Hype,” as the Wall Street Journal put it, or did marketers just simply misunderstand what social media was about in the first place?
Yes to both.
Whether for or against the findings, much of the noise in this this latest ‘social’ debate is pushing on the wrong assumptions. Social media was never meant to be a pure marketing medium and those who tried to sell it that way were in fact off the mark. The real question worth examining is whether the medium has moved too far afield from its innate value of socially related connections to a relentless focus on the pursuit of consumer market share and time invested on social channels.
From its beginnings, social media has been about communications and community — not the clever taglines and images that end up populating many branded posts. Do people share those over social? Yes, they do and they will. Do they then go out and buy the product? Not necessarily. Seeing and spending don’t always come hand-in-hand, and this is true of any marketing and advertising campaign, not just those on social channels.
While marketers have experimented with banner ads and now native content as ways to sell on social, the reality is that brands that head to social just to sell are misguided from the start. Brands and agencies that use social media as a direct mail mechanism (i.e. get the biggest following possible and blanket the audience with traditional marketing content) are taking an ineffective and potentially destructive approach. However, companies with a great story, great product and reputation will benefit from social channels if they are willing to put the time and effort into building relationships with current and potential customers.
In every media, people are looking for a degree of quality. That doesn’t mean social should be inundated with heavy or mind-blowing thought pieces. Quality in this context means giving people what they want when they want it. This tells us that what really is the most significant element in being successful on social is understanding your audience — a vast melting pot of customers, critics, employees, former employees, policy makers and influencers — which comes from smart data, analytics and insights that help a brand reach the right people in the right way at the right time.
Here is where paid media plays a role: Brands do have to pay to get their content in front of target audiences. Once there, however, social is only successful when you give people something that engages them, prompts them to add to the conversation and even share the idea with their friends to comment. While people may not immediately buy a product as a result, a strong, appropriate social presence is likely to augment a brand’s reputation and consideration when consumers are ready to make their next purchase.
The fact remains that social media has become the main, and potentially only channel, where people get their news and information (Pew study); you can’t ignore it. This has become even truer since 2012 when Gallup originally collected the data for its consumer study. The increasingly interactive nature of social and the speed and quantity of content have made it a challenge for most brands and for that matter many agencies. The real problem, and ultimately an untapped opportunity, according to a Bloomberg article on the Gallup survey: “Many social media advertisers have been too busy treating social media like traditional advertising platforms and neglecting the essence, and potential, of social media: people talking to people.”