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Social Media – A Heretic’s View

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Social Media – A Heretic’s View

No Better Place

I guess there’s no better place than the Evoke Network for me to confess the terrible heresy I’ve been carrying around for months now: I don’t believe in Social Media.

I’m not some Luddite with his head in the sand, or some old soldier who doesn’t believe that new weapons can possibly be as effective as ones successful in ancient wars. My agency has been building web sites since 1990 and we’ve been translating brands to social media since 2003. I’ve been a certified Google AdWords Professional since they began the program. We’ve helped clients get established and run campaigns using Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace (yes, MySpace), and others for years. I know this stuff.

But I don’t think it works.

To Start

First, I should define what I mean by “works”. A marketing communications tool or vehicle “works” when it delivers a targeted message to a targeted audience and a significant percentage of that audience takes a desired action as a result.

Social media holds out the promise of being able to do this faster and more accurately – and at far less expense – than all other media. But consider this: a test conducted last summer of how much location-based services like Foursquare and Facebook Places can help local businesses has shown an impact close to 2%, according to data reported by Fast Company. Two percent? That’s about what you’d expect from… direct mail.

The Data

The test was made by Applied Predictive Technologies, a company that uses artificial intelligence and randomized tests to help big companies like Starbucks assess the impact of various decisions. In most of APT’s tests of social media campaigns, the increase in revenue is in the neighborhood of 2%.

According to research released last April by customer satisfaction analytics experts ForeSee Results, fewer than 1 percent of website visits come directly from a social media URL. The company surveyed 300,000 consumers on more than 180 websites across a dozen private and public sector industries.

My Experience

At my shop, we recently helped one of our clients build a ‘community’ of almost 2,000 ‘followers’ on Twitter during the past six months. This campaign is purely for the purpose of recruiting new employees. The company needs to hire 50 people before the end of the year. We ‘tweet’ weekly about the fabulous opportunities of joining this progressive and growing employer. But nothing much happens. A few exploratory contacts, rarely even an interview. In a job market with double-digit unemployment.

Duncan Watts, a mathematical sociologist at Yahoo! Research, thought social media would be the perfect way to market his book, Everything is Obvious (Once You Know the Answer). “I’ve been using social media to promote my book,” he says, “and it’s just a waste of time – it has almost no impact at all.”

So what’s going on?

In my opinion, the current misperception of social media as the golden child of marketing is based on one event and two significant truths:
The Event – The economic crash of early 2008. Marketing budgets around the world were decimated, if not outright eliminated. Thousands of marketing professionals lost their jobs. And, without budgets, the ones that were left didn’t have much to do – until they found social media…

Significant Truth #1 – Social media is “free”. Well, as we all discovered, it’s not really free; the hidden cost is time. But that’s something that lots of marketing people without budgets suddenly had on their hands after 2008.

Significant Truth #2 – Confusion is where the money is. And nowhere over the past decade has there been more confusion than on the internet – and especially social media. Marketing and advertising people like to perpetuate the ‘mystery’ of the profession. If the client thinks we can do something they can’t, or can do it better, we generate billing. This also explains why advertising professionals rank only above used car salesmen whenever the trustworthiness of professions is surveyed.

Here’s What I Think Happened

The bottom fell out of the economy at almost precisely the moment when social media became a viable phenomenon. In-house marketing departments latched onto the new media vehicles because they had the time to do so and because they were anxious to demonstrate to their superiors that they were earning their paychecks. Advertising agencies, suffering through the global recession, stood behind the unproven media and spoke to clients in terms of ‘traffic is value’ and having ‘measurable interactions’ with their customer base while billing for designing, creating and maintaining social media campaigns and programs that didn’t result in increased sales or performance.

Three months ago I spent a whole week looking for statistical data that showed that somebody was making money in social media. Apart from a few isolated cases, I found virtually nothing – apart from marketing communications companies.

Would the money that is spent on social media be better invested in a good CPC program on AdWords that drives traffic to a well-designed web site at the precise moment when a potential customer is actually interested in the client’s product or service? I believe so. And that is the recommendation I have been making to my clients for the past six months.

Another Tool In The Toolbox

Social media is just another tool in the marketing toolbox; it has its place, depending on the company, the industry, and the audience. It does not take the place of good branding. It does not immediately create relationships with your market.

Social media may someday prove to be the holy grail of marketing that everyone seems to want it to be and many think it already is. But it’s not there yet. Until actual results improve, don’t believe the hype. Don’t fall for the logical fallacy that just because something worked once for one company it will work again for a different company.

Think this is all wrong? E-mail me. Just don’t visit my Facebook or LinkedIn profiles. And whatever you do, don’t follow me on Twitter.

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