We’re almost 10 years into the era of social media and I think it's time we took a step back and had a fresh look.
The fact that social media is a huge cultural phenomenon is very interesting. But it is only relevant to marketers insofar as it affects our ability to influence consumer purchasing behavior or the building of brands.
It’s also time to be precise about what we mean when we say "social media." Our first chore is to separate "social media" from "social media marketing." As the great Mark Ritson points out, and as I have written, we are not sociologists, we are marketers .
We know that social media has been a huge worldwide phenomenon. But how about social media marketing? How effective has it been for the purpose of advancing product sales and building brands?
This is a critical distinction and has been at the root of tremendous misunderstanding and incalculable misuse of marketing dollars.
When the idea of social media first was introduced, it seemed impossible that it wouldn't have massive value in marketing. The logic went something like this: People are going to use social media to talk with each other. They are interested in brands. They will surely have conversations with and about brands. The web will allow them to share their enthusiasms with others who will, likewise, pass these conversations on and potentially create a huge amplification in which a few comments can morph into literally tens of thousands of impressions.
As Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg put it in 2007,
“The next 100 years are going to be different for advertisers starting today... For the last 100 years media has been pushed out to people, but now marketers are going to be a part of the conversation.”Of course, the attraction to marketers was instantaneous and powerful -- who doesn't want to create tens of thousands of positive impressions without spending a cent on media? In fact, many proclaimed the advent of social media to be the death knell of traditional advertising.
Understandably, marketers quickly adopted social media marketing as a fundamental component of their marketing activities.
Just as every now and then a relief pitcher hits a home run, inexorably a few brands did some things with social media that became big commercial successes. These successes became legendary and were offered up at every conference, in every magazine, and at every new business pitch as evidence of the remarkable power of social media.
As time went on, however, it became clear that the philosophical foundation of social media marketing was flawed. People were enthusiastic about engaging with their friends on social media by sharing personal experiences, political opinions, silly videos, photos of children, pets, and meals. But they seemed to demonstrate little to no interest in talking with or about brands — except sometimes to gripe about mistreatment.
But we became really good at ignoring the evidence of our own eyes.
A look at any Facebook page or Twitter feed would have quickly convinced any dispassionate observer that people were not broadly sharing their enthusiasms for brands. In fact, people were overwhelmingly not voicing enthusiasms for brands at all. And on the rare occasions when they did, their comments did not get shared and go viral, but quickly trickled away.
Additionally, pages that brands built on Facebook and feeds they created on Twitter drew initial interest as novelties, but soon became moribund as consumers found them to be bland and self-serving. Today, about 7 in 10,000 of a major brand’s followers will engage with a Facebook post. The number for Twitter is about 3 in 10,000.
Becoming a publicly held company, and needing ways to make money for its shareholders, Facebook saw what was happening and quickly changed its tune.
To their credit, Facebook pulled one of the most amazing bait-and-switch jobs in the history of business. Notwithstanding Zuckerberg's earlier proclamations, they realized they were in the traditional advertising sales business. They dropped the fancy talk about “sharing” and “engagement” and quickly reverted to “reach” and “TRPs” — the decades-old language of traditional advertising.
Facebook's business is no longer about providing a forum for conversations about brands. It is now believed that about 1% of a brand's followers receive the brand's posts organically. As Forrester Research vice-president Nate Elliott has said...
“Any marketers who believe they’re having a conversation on Facebook are delusional”Remarkably, there are still marketers and agencies who believe — or, in the case of some agencies, pretend to believe — that spending ad dollars on Facebook is “social media.”
It is no such thing. It is traditional paid advertising. But, as always, the social media lobby is nothing if not cunning. Every time their spurious claims are exposed they redefine "social media" to fit the facts. So we now have "social ads" -- a complete contradiction in terms. The thing that was supposed to replace ads is now ads.
Social media is an amazing worldwide phenomenon. But social media marketing — and the promise of free lunch through conversations and sharing — has turned out to be a fantasy.
Facebook's remarkable success as a platform for traditional paid advertising is the face of the fantasy.