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Is the big spend in social media a big mistake?

Is the big spend in social media a big mistake? Brant Emery
Why is it, that for a highly statistical and scientific driven discipline, many marketers still make broad and misinformed conclusions? In relation to this, is the massive investment in social media solutions an industry wide confirmation bias in action?

Especially irksome is how many in marketing and branding have a tendency to confuse correlation with causality, to make big assumptions from little data, to infer behavioral trends from few factors.

Geneticists share a common metaphor for this, they call it chopstick gene thinking. The idea is that if you look at a random sample of people, you’ll find that people with the gene for blue eyes are disproportionately bad with chopsticks. Now, this isn’t causal, it’s a logical fallacy. People with blue eyes tend to correlate to non-oriental origins, thus the cause is non-genetic, it’s cultural.

Marketers do unfortunately have a bit of a reputation for confusing causality and making relationships where there are none. Disraeli’s famous quote could easily have been ‘there are lies, damn lies, and statistics marketing.’ I’m not saying it is consciously intentional, it's just that many an eager agency, marketing team or brand owner have taken what they want to see from data. In fact, it’s a well-known cognitive quirk called confirmation bias – our tendency to see what we want to see, to mold data to support favored hypotheses. Especially in the early days of social media I remember seeing some very, let’s just say ambitious, connections being made.

So why is it important to establish cause and effect for marketing? The move to an online society presents real opportunities for tracking and understanding human behavior in ways never known before. From advanced targeting and retargeting for online adverts to segmenting customers, the data is piling up for digital marketers. So much so, that ‘big data’ is becoming a real challenge for enterprises in the 21st century and some digital marketers are complaining of too much information.

According to Gartner, the market for Business Intelligence, analytics and corporate performance management grew by 16.4% in 2011 to $12.2 billion. Companies are investing in platforms to answer four critical questions: What’s happening? Why did it happen? What might happen? What should we be doing? However, a critical consideration for marketers is this – even if you think that you’ve got the pattern down, remember that although consumer behaviour can be modelled, they are still human.

As Andrew Edwards, co-founder of the Digital Analytics Association, says in a recent ClickZ article “Focus analysis on whether your audience did what you wanted them to do (this is really the heart of the matter and always has been) and don't bother with trying to sell a different flavor of breadcrumb to every ant under the magnifying glass.”

I agree. A good way to approach data is understand what you’re trying to achieve and what you want the consumers to do, and always place it in context of the bigger picture.

When it comes to the burgeoning areas of social media, handling the big data is becoming a multi-billion business. Now social marketing solutions are primarily designed to distribute the most engaging content to the widest possible audience of target consumers.  Social media marketing platforms are seen as the highest growth area for CMO investment. In May, Oracle bought social marketing company Vitrue for $300m. Giving Oracle an application to help marketers publish and manage social marketing campaigns across Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Pinterest, YouTube and other social networks. The idea being that you push out engaging content to raise awareness, build fans, engage consumers, and generate new leads or sales. So these social media tools help push out content, track which content generates the most shares or interactions, and then enables fine tuning.

Now, when many people talk about this – I hear them saying things like ‘this replaces one-to-one referrals with the power of one-to-many’. No, no, it doesn’t. Now, when a consumer answers a poll and by that action amplifies it to their network, they are not making a brand referral. Don’t let that action confuse you. The act of proactively recommending a brand to a friend, or to your network, doesn’t come from engaging with content. This is just a level of interaction. As Forrester says, these are social impressions. Like advert impressions, just a bit richer and more interesting.

If you really want people to recommend you, it’s still about brand equity, customer service, and exceeding expectations. Brand promise, emotional values, and customer experience are still core to motivating consumer behaviour. People don’t recommend an automobile brand to a friend because they saw a funny picture. They recommend a brand because it exceeded their expectations. As I remind people, you can’t over perform on a brand promise. If you do, that’s when a promise becomes a great experience, and that builds brand loyalty.

I think there is still a bit of a massive industry-wide confirmation bias happening here with regards to social media. People are seeing causal relationships, where as yet, none have been proven. Just as P&G massively boosting its ad spend, to the detriment of its own staff, didn’t increase sales as they expected (24% increase in ad spend, only a 6% increase in sales).

Investing in social media, is not investing in a causal relationship with your consumers. It is a very powerful tool for gaining insight into the characteristics of your target market, a great customer relationship tool, and a great way to build personal attributes to your brand. In ClickFox’s 2012 Brand Loyalty Survey, they show that only 15% of consumers express their loyalty by joining the brand’s social media community. In addition, the burgeoning trend to brand content is only one half of a true, conversational, relationship that social media enables. The other half has been overlooked... but that’s a different post entirely.

Brant is a 15-year experienced integrated communications professional who works as an independent brand consultant helping companies be better brands. His unique approach is called 'applied brand thinking' and he works on helping companies...

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