January 22, 2014

Part 2: The Slow Painful Collapse Of The Social Media Marketing Fantasy

Today's post is the 2nd part of "The Slow Painful Collapse Of The Social Media Marketing Fantasy" which began here on Monday.

It seems like only yesterday we couldn’t turn on the TV, open a magazine, or go to a website without someone exhorting us to “join the conversation.”

“The conversation” was the physical manifestation of the marketing industry’s fascination with social media. The idea was that people were highly interested in our brands and would be eager to chat and share their enthusiasms on line with other people.

The philosophical seeds of this conviction were planted in the mid-1990’s when it was postulated that the “interruption model” of advertising had run its course. 

The theory went something like this: consumers were no longer responsive to advertising messages like TV spots, radio spots, and magazine ads which interrupted their activities. Instead, marketing was transitioning into a period in which the “permission model” would dominate.

The “permission model” posited that in order to be effective, marketers had to stop bothering people with advertising, and instead gain their permission to market to them.

The way you got permission was to engage consumers with useful, interesting messages (currently known as “content”) that gave consumers value instead of sales pitches. If you did this, they would trust you, like you better, and permit you to market directly to them. In marketing terminology, they would “opt in” to your marketing programs.

Best of all, they would share their passion for your brand with their network of friends and followers who would, likewise, share with their network. A multiplier effect would be born.

There was only one problem with this wonderful proposition. It misinterpreted consumer behavior by substantially overestimating consumers’ fervor for brands, and concomitantly misjudging consumers’ inclination to share their presumed fervor.

Believers in this ideology assumed that a person's use of a product was a demonstration of enthusiasm for the brand. Sadly, in the vast majority of cases, it is merely an indication of habit, convenience, or mild satisfaction. It is not proof of devotion or enthusiasm.
Regardless of the time, energy and money we spend “differentiating” our brands, most people see very little difference between our brand and our closest competitors. While there are some brands that people do have great loyalty to, and some categories that people are truly interested in, these are the rare exceptions. In most cases people will change brands with very little bother if it turns out to be convenient or otherwise beneficial.

Most people will gladly switch from Skippy to Jif if they can save a buck or two. If the ballpark doesn’t serve Coke, most people will happily return to their seats with a Pepsi. 

The idea that social media would become a channel in which consumers would share their strong enthusiasms by having “conversations about brands” has turned out to be largely a delusion.

Most brands are finding that their social media programs are more time-consuming, more expensive, and less capable of driving sales growth than was promised. Consequently, they are abandoning the “permission model” and reverting to the “interruption model” in their online advertising.

You can see this most clearly on Facebook. Facebook calls itself a social medium, but its advertising model is good old-fashioned paid advertising plastered all over the page. Compare the number of paid ads you see on your Facebook page with the number of "conversations about brands." 

YouTube calls itself a social medium but it sticks pre-roll (mostly recycled TV spots) everywhere it can. 

The reason is clear: marketers are finding that they can get more value out of these websites by treating them as avenues for advertising, not conversations.
And, just a reminder, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, etc., don't make money from us having conversations about yogurt. They make money the old-fashioned way -- they sell ad space.

Social media are quickly evolving into just another channel for delivering traditional interruptive advertising.

It is also not surprising that the social media lobby has learned another lesson from traditional paid advertising. When you point out to them that they're not very good at generating sales, they default to the universal excuse for failed advertising -- it's not about sales, it's about branding. Whatever the hell that means. 

Social media is not going to die or go away. It will continue to grow. But the fantasy of consumers having conversations about brands and sharing their passion for brands -- and the claim that this will replace or surpass traditional paid advertising -- is simply collapsing as the evidence rolls in.

The “conversation” was a nice idea. It would be lovely if consumers were as eager to share their enthusiasm for our brands as we are. Sadly, they have other things on their minds.

It turns out that “the conversation” has been mostly a monologue.


Mikko said...

Just recently I had to think what three or four brands I really do identify with. The kind of brands I instinctively turn to, when I'm looking for a certain kind of product. After coming up with three brands, I realized that I don't like a single of them in the Facebook or follow them in Twitter. Nor am I going to.

VcF said...

Bob, while I agree with everything you've just said, I'd also like to ask about the so called "conversation".

It's true that brands are mostly unable to make us talk about them in our social channels, but don't you think they have the potential to make us talk about something?

For example, Doritos campaign for the slow dance. It made a whole country talk about the good ol' days when parties played slow music (or so the case study tells us). I think it's ok to pursue this kind of conversation (which wasn't achieved just by social media, I must add).

Jim said...

A whole country?

Jeffrey Summers said...

..and where's the intersection of functional utility in a slow dance and potato chips? My God.

Jeffrey Summers said...

Where's the intersection of any functional utility between slow music and potato chips?

Cecil B. DeMille said...

I must not be part of the country. I've never heard of this.

Granted I'm like a hundred and haven't eaten a Dorito in years...

Cecil B. DeMille said...

Conversations were the idealist view, I suppose. Not being an idealist, I have to suppose. Wait, that's not right. I'm a cynic by the George Carlin definition. I was an idealist at one point.

In any case, the only conversations being held with brands are likely calls to "Steven" in India for tech support. The ones being held ABOUT brands? Well, most brands would be wise to hold their ears.

Swifty said...

Marketers were correct that consumers wanted to move away from the interruption model of adverting. As a consumer, It's annoying and it's intrusive. The marketers were also correct that consumers wanted to have conversations with brands...and that consumers should be in control by opting in. But they didn't realize that the only two things that they wanted to tell the brands was either some sort of complaint or just to shut the hell up. Sure interruption advertising is annoying. But it's also effective.

Alan Wolk said...

It's all about the Prom King Brands, Bob. Remember that theory I came up with in 2008 -http://bit.ly/1dUkOAr - that there are certain brands people feel it is cool to be associated with - Nike, Apple, Starbucks - a good sign being "would many people wear a cap or t-shirt with the brands logo on it?" - Sports teams, music acts, TV shows can also be Prom King Brands.

And those brands do really well with social media promotions because people want to be associated with them, want their friends to know they like Apple or Nike or the Miami Heat. And though 99% of brands are not Prom King Brands, yet their social media strategies don't take that into account.

And it's not like social media is useless for all the Skippy peanut butters and Maxwell House coffees out there-- it's just that they need to be realistic about what it can do and what amount of effort should be spent on it. The fails you reference are almost always the result of overly ambitious plans that don't factor in the total lack of interest most consumers have in all the non Prom King Brands.

Jim said...

New rules, you mustn't speak about products anymore let alone their attributes waste of time all that.

Donovan Moore said...

Can't say I don't agree with you.

tim said...

I think this is what happens when marketing people try to move in and take control of good old-fashioned 'word-of-mouth.' Maybe they thought they could control it or maybe just make sense of it. The deeper they delved, the more in over their heads they became.

Dan Clark said...

While I agree the notion of a two-way conversation was fantasy, I don't agree that advertising is the savior. According to surveys by Forrester and Analytic Partners, people don't trust posts by brands and will simply ignore video ads. People go to social sites to see what their friends are up to. As such, a post titled "New Widget" will get crushed by "New Baby" any day of the week. Engaging, relevant content clearly is the answer to giving brands a chance to compete with posts of a friend's major life event. Marketers need to publish content that incorporates the psychology of sharing and memorability. Sure, an ad budget can boost content's place in the feed, but the content has to appeal to the viewer's interests first. If the company or product comes first, it will fail.

Bailey Burk said...

Bob: I find it interesting that this is a social media post, giving away free advice, with advocates of marketing, advertising and branding all sharing their view points.

It appears to me we are having a conversation with the brand -- the ad contrarian

VcF said...

Not saying that I agree with everything that's said in it, but here is the case study.


I think it's interesting to consider that, apparently, sometimes, you can make people talk about something. Even if that thing is not your brand directly;

Jeffrey Summers said...

1. This is not a case study. It's a narrative. 2. People aren't talking about the product, they are talking about the entertainment. Big difference.

richsiegel said...

I had a conversation with a brand recently. I told the folks at NordicTrack how much their cheap Chinese-made products suck. Then when the brand refused to "engage" in my conversation, I found the Facebook page for Jillian Michaels, their national spokesperson. I publicly conversed with her and her millions of fans. And I continued conversing until she called her contact at NordicTrack and told them to refund my money.

Tedel said...

For posts like this one you are my favourite advertising blogger.

Jimi Bostock said...

Yep ... good words ... and yep ... the smell of rat is getting stronger everyday ... but there are perhaps some instances that go against the trend ... that's my experience anyways ... the work I have done using Facebook for the Woodford Folk Festival has been a huge sales driver ... so, totally agree with your general point but just wanted to point out that in some circumstances social kicks butt ... so, as Talking Heads said, same as it ever was ... what's the problem, who has the problem, how do we fix the problem, how do we help them believe it, and then and only then, how do we reach them ... what has been happening in the past few years is that people have been rushing to the end game (reach them) with a set answer. Or, in another way, its always been Attention, Interest, Desire, Action ... and folks have been running straight to the action ... yep, it's not what you think, it's how you think ... same as it ever was

Jimi Bostock said...

looking forward to next year's post ... "
The Slow Painful Collapse Of The Content Marketing Fantasy" :)

Jimi Bostock said...

Yep, with ya mate ... exactly the sort of innane sweeping statements that caused the problem ... a whole country? WTF, I have never heard of it and I bet the great majority of every country on the planet has never heard of it ..

Jim said...

As long as when you say interesting you mean banal. Did McDonald's and Coca Cola make people talk about the Olympics?

VcF said...

Well, call it whatever you like. I just said case study because it has the three elements that, for me, define case studies: the brief, the idea and the results.

As for the second point, that's exactly what I meant. Doritos did start a conversation that I believe wouldn't have happened without this campaign. Even though the topic of conversation was not the product itself.

Cecil B. DeMille said...

What's the point of advertisers paying to start a conversation about something other than their products? I don't get why this is a good thing. 'Splain it to me.

Mid Century Modem said...

But the way he's making money is from the interruptive ads on the upper right that are selling his book and promoting ad consultants.

Paul said...

The first clickable web ad was sold in 1993 to the law firm Heller, Ehrman, White, & McAuliffe. They're not in business anymore.

VcF said...

Well (and I'm really not sure about this. Or rather, I'm not being ironic), I suppose the point is to get people to say things like "Hey, did you see that thing Doritos did about slow dancing?" or have a dialogue like

"-Man, slow dancing really should come back.
- How come?
-Well, I saw this Doritos ad that said yadda yadda"

I guess we can only make people talk about snacks up to a certain point. But if advertisers can get them to talk about something else entirely, but with the product attached to it, it might work.

I guess it has to do with what Dave Trott discuss here: http://davetrott.campaignlive.co.uk/2010/03/09/advertising-doesn-t-sell-stuff/

Things like the Doritos campaign, in my opinion, are what help to "tip the balance".

cmon bob give up already said...

I must say I am a big fan of your cynicism. But your grasp on social media marketing is somewhat deluded. Very few people will ever have a conversation with strangers about kitchen cleaning products. but the point of social media marketing is that, for high involvement purchases, people trust other people more than they trust advertising. If person1 tells person2 a brand works for them person2 is more likely to buy that brand than if they saw a billboard... even if the billboard was made by some grumpy old git in San Fransisco. And so it is that social media is not a new thing it is simply the age old practice of encouraging word of mouth... using technology

Jim said...

That is the heart of the mistake I think. SM attempts to be good old WOM where one friend talks to another.

It is the trust between the two individuals / friends that makes a referral work. The 'stronger' the trust the more trust in the advice. It is my trust in my Dad that when he say buy abc I then become trusting of the product or at least try it, especially for involved purchases.

There has never been so much lack of trust between strangers today in fact. However, interestingly 'we' trust that stranger more than we trust say CEO's or govn't official in many issues.

Experts are trust most. Mistakenly in my opinion. Maybe that is how social media people tacked the word expert on the end of their titles.

There is scant evidence that people trust SM anymore than traditional media for information. In fact the 2014 Edelman Trust Barometer shows trust to be highest in trad media v SM as 65% v 47%. Trad media is trusted the same as search engine results at 65% too.

Not that I entirely trust those figures btw.

The idea of SM is often theoretical very appealing (conversations, being non-intrruptive, getting handy tips fro strangers) but the evidence is scant in fact and often non exsistent. That is maybe why we are so often bombarded with the classic Social Media agency says social media works best and so on.

Jim said...

As long as by millions of fans you mean less than 95,000. SM has it uses for customer service I have no doubt.

Robert Brill said...

Thought provoking posts. Thank you for writing!

I think one important point is that Facebook's newsfeed ads bridge the gap between traditionally interruptive paid media and socially relevant media. This PaidContent.org link details this thought: http://paidcontent.org/2013/09/22/native-advertising-101-understanding-the-native-continuum/.

Specifically, these ad units share the same format as the surrounding content. They enable endorsement and allow for the same functionality as the rest of Facebook's social objects. When the ad unit is an amplification of a brand's post it also ends of being an example of content marketing, which strengthen's the value proposition to the user.

So, while they appear within the stream of the user's content, these "truly native ads" bridge the gap between interruption and social marketing.

Matt Sharper said...

Even though the topic of conversation was not the product itself.

then its useless

chips have nothing to do with slow dancing

LBarr said...

While they are better and more creative than the older ads they still don't want to make me click on them or "engage" with the advertiser. As a result, I use an adblocker and now I am not forced to see them any more. If you really want to get my attention, entertain me. Amuse me. Make me want a piece of whatever you are selling because you make me think that advertising that creative must come from a company that actually cares about its product. I won't click on the ad but I will get the warm and fuzzies and some day I might actually buy from you. I just bought a VW Golf based in part on the great feeling I got from their ads 20 years ago. It stuck with me all that time and I finally bought the care I wished I could have bought back then.
Now THAT is good advertising.

Jon Aston said...

I would suggest your next piece on the subject be to identify the many flaws present in the research studies and conclusions you've referenced as conclusive evidence.

For one, each of those studies seems entirely blind to the possibility that a shortage of real expertise in social media marketing may well be what led to the failures, not social media itself.

Another problem is that data used in those studies is predominantly based on older, "last touch" attribution models. Google's multichannel modelling only arrived on the scene in August, 2011. Awareness, adoption and developing expertise in more sophisticated modelling takes time and resources that, let's face it, the majority of businesses, including agencies, simply do not have to throw around.

bob hoffman said...

Do you guys ever run out of excuses?

Dale Cooper said...

The harnessing of people and their content to create cheap ad inventory. Ramp it up. Sell it on.

Pamela Jones said...

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Bruce Smithhammer said...

At the end of the day, this all stems from a fundamental misconception, and narcissism, on the part of people in the advertising industry (and this conversation is a prime example): - that because ad people sit around all day discussing advertising and "branding," the general public must be having these conversations too.

Here's a little tip - I don't know anyone in the general public who talks about any of this, or cares in the least. I can't tell you the last time I had a conversation about a commercial or an ad, with anyone who wasn't invested in the marketing world. Most people don't care.

And the reason that anything other than annoyingly interruptive marketing fails is precisely because that vast majority of people don't want to see ads, period. Combine this with the fact that the human brain is extremely adept at filtering out what it isn't interested in, and what you have is an online audience that is already very skilled in ignoring all of the advertising distractions when they look at a web page that they only went to in the first place for actual content. People don't click ads because increasingly, they have trained themselves to not even see them.

And frankly, AdBlock is a godsend.

andy said...

Sorry Maxkalehoff but until you can give me some actual numbers rather than your generalisations (delivering unquestionably...etc.) then I will believe the Ad Contrarian’s argument over yours.

Dudefella said...

I think a lot of people are missing the point. Bob isn't saying social media doesn't work at all; its just not the miracle drug that ad agencies and other big companies thought it would be. Obviously any advertising route you take is going to yield a result, but it's not 'pop the social medai pill, and yay billions of new customers!'

John Debon said...

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