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5 reasons social media is a waste of marketing dollars

Jonathan Salem Baskin
5 reasons social media is a waste of marketing dollars Jonathan Salem Baskin

A lot of smart, creative people make a compelling case for social media marketing and encourage brands to shift more money into such activities. But the latest news from some of social media's business pioneers challenges the very assumptions upon which those decisions are based.

Old Spice's YouTube videos didn't impact sales (its great traditional advertising and in-store couponing did), nor did Ford's Fiesta user-generated content (sales were fourth in its category through 2010). Both Burger King and Pepsi recently announced disappointing sales and declines in category rankings in spite of much-heralded social campaigns. While the technology has been used to distribute promotions to friends or followers, making it a somewhat adequate replacement for direct mail marketing, this news at least suggests that social media campaigns haven't proven to be viable marketing activities.

Maybe that's because occupying consumers' time isn't marketing; entertaining them isn't, either, nor is spending time and money doing anything that gives them nothing on which to base their buying decisions. In fact, most of the arguments and equations invented to excuse social's lack of causal effect on sales rely on definitions of awareness and guesstimates of intention that are a half-century old (as if it's unfair to hold expenditures on social campaigns accountable for any immediate business results). Our professional forbearers rejected this idea of branding without selling as costly and irrelevant, yet we've revived the same old thinking to defend most of our new media campaigns. Only the terms have been changed: We create "content" to "engage" with consumers, which isn't any different from running a TV commercial without a "sales pitch" in the 1960s.

In spite of what we've learned from the latest news, however, the trend continues undaunted. Brands like Heineken, Coke, and Unilever's consumer and home products divisions have announced plans to rely on the very mechanisms that have failed to produce results for their competition. Pepsi has doubled-down on its social efforts as it continues to lose customers. Seattle's Best intends to outdo Old Spice by producing more content that will say even less about its merits as a product worthy of purchase.

Before you leap to defend social media, consider the very real possibility that these brands are using it in the wrong way. Maybe our assumptions about the tools are just flat out wrong. In this article, I'll explore five core concepts that could hobble social media marketing and should be reconsidered, if not replaced entirely.

We've gotten so comfortable with our old ideas about marketing that we let this one slip by, but it's a whopper: Brands don't exist, at least not like rocks or tax returns. Brands are ideas that have no external existence or legitimacy apart from the creative agency of human experience. Brands aren't things but rather conclusions, and therefore have no voice, reputation, attributes, or actions that aren't the result of somebody doing something (or something happening to them).

When we track brand perceptions or awareness, we're really taking snapshots of moments in time, and it supports a really old-fashioned, analog way of understanding branding as something that will sometime, somehow make people do something. Every assumption of what those measurements mean a minute, hour, or week after we last checked is less a causal link and more an inferential hope. There are no brands separate from people thinking about brands.

This should make it impossible for your brand to talk to consumers. People can do things because of a brand idea, and in its support or to its detriment, but they can only talk about your brand, not with it. It's what they always did, only now social media channels are an immensely powerful enabler of deeper, wider, and more frequent conversations. Changing your fundamental definition of how you approach your branding would change not only how you use social media, but also repurpose all of your marketing communications to make every interaction an opportunity for individuals to say things about your brand.

Nope. It's not inherently anything, and never has been. Considering the qualities of time and effort required to conduct them, conversations actually come with a cost, whether obvious or not. And, of course, conversation isn't something new: People have been conversing since the first "oog" and "argh" were uttered in the Stone Age. More recently, marketers maintained ongoing conversations with their customers through whatever mediating tools were available to them, starting with person-to-person exchanges and then migrating to mass-produced and electronically distributed media.

The premise that social media give you a first-ever chance to converse with your customers is silly; they're different than the broadcast tools our predecessors used in the 1950s, and their conversations might have been slow and imperfect from our perspective, but it's not like they weren't talking. Assuming otherwise, especially when combined with the assumption that brands exist, yields a lot of the volume of silly, irrelevant uses of social media. Archaic media almost necessitated that people talk to one another about brands, and to make those less frequent opportunities count for more.

What if you assumed instead that your customer conversations should have a purpose? You wouldn't use any of the common ROI measures for engagement, since having a purpose would give you outcomes that you could track (and which might correlate more directly to other outcomes and results that mattered to the business). More importantly, if there wasn't something worthy of conversation, you'd start keeping your brand mouth shut.

We assume that social media enables people to converse with brands and therefore claim "friendship" or other qualities evidencing an ongoing relationship. This assumption might be flawed also, both due to the points already discussed, and because it begs a radical rewrite of what it means to be a friend. Do any of us really think that consumers who've clicked on a Facebook page are friends of a brand, let alone participants in a community? Just because a platform provider has tagged a button or function with one term or another doesn't make it illustrative of the behavior it enables.

Friendship throughout history has been a quid pro quo relationship requiring not just interest and affection but reciprocal behaviors and real-world implications. We can talk all we want about how friendship is somehow different online, but then we should find better descriptive terms. Perhaps this is why it's really hard to convert large lists of friends/members of brand sites into consumers ("monetizing" the platforms, as it were). They're not really there, per se. And if they're fed useless entertainment when they do show up, we can expect to get back something equally valuable.

Think of the other assumptions up to this point, and consider a perspective on these platforms that didn't try to capture names or qualify them as friends, and instead used the moments of interaction as opportunities to have useful and true conversations about brands. Less friends and more engaged people, right here and right now. No new definitions required.

Customer service was an expansive term throughout most of business history, encompassing product design, sale, delivery, use, service, and replacement. Complaints were a small, though vocal point in this continuum, but the other elements were structured to preclude customer dissatisfaction; complaints were an outcome of the system functioning imperfectly, and fixing them was considered a response to the failure of customer service. Today's idea that tracking dissatisfied tweets equals serving customers turns this model on its head, with no credible substantiation for why other than, well, because the technology exists.

Two conflicting trends are at work here: While business operations have gotten leaner (cutting costs, automating, or outsourcing many of the steps on which customer satisfaction once relied), brands haven't communicated these changes -- and the resulting lowered expectations they warrant -- to consumers. They've opted instead to disappoint consumers as a business strategy, and rely on social media tools to quiet the complaints that emerge onto the mediasphere. Customer service often is seen as a function of managing complaints instead of delivering complaint-free experiences.

I wonder how differently businesses would approach online engagement if the point was to preclude service dissatisfaction. Could it be used to help get consumer expectations in better sync with the operational capabilities behind brands? Again, think about conversation as a tool for level-setting and consensus-reaching versus an absolute good, or as a channel for delivering brand messaging.

Much of the canon in support of brands providing "content" to consumers is that they don't want to receive overtly commercial messaging; they just want to talk and have relationships (see prior assumptions). Thus, a number of social media campaigns make not even the slightest presumption of trying to sell something. This could be faulty reasoning, as evidenced by the facts that consumers 1) still don't trust brands or what businesses claim, 2) brands continue to struggle to charge premium pricing for brands, and 3) consumers now are less loyal than ever before.

Businesses always provided information to the marketplace, and it varied from being somewhat to overtly commercial. But it was always clear why they did it, and they usually admitted as much in the stuff they presented. Businesses exist to sell things -- it's a simple, inescapable fact that everyone knows -- and it never occurred to past generations of communicators to claim otherwise (or try to avoid the label). Could consumers be aware of this fact still, and that's what contributes to their suspicions (in spite of how happily they're willing to engage with free, mostly worthless marketing content)?

Maybe you have to sell -- explicitly. Orient your conversations toward conclusions that involve consumers giving you their money in exchange for your products and valuable thinking in support of them. Transactions aren't something that happen separate or later on but could be a core component of how, where, and when you deliver social media campaigns. You don't need a new phrase like "social commerce" for this, since commerce has always been social. Maybe you just need to do a better job of admitting it.

Bear in mind that social media didn't cause the recent business failures or shortcomings at Old Spice, Ford, Pepsi, or Burger King. Social media also didn't prevent them, and since the thinking is so muddled and imprecise on what exactly businesses are supposed to get from those activities, it's impossible to hold social marketing responsible for much of anything that matters, good or bad.

Perhaps that's the ultimate point: Conversations, distribution lists, service, and selling aren't new ideas; they're not implicitly good or bad, and you don't need new math to measure them. Your strategy puts them to good use or not, and your approach to your brand is a core foundation of your approach. As long as we continue to apply an old, outdated definition of brand -- as some abstract idea that we use technology tools to deliver -- I worry that we're doomed to continue the mistakes of the recent past. We need to come up with new, different, bolder assumptions to drive our social media marketing strategies. Social media channels offer incredible tools and opportunities.

But I think we need to use them to start selling again, don't you think?

Jonathan Salem Baskin is a global brand strategist and author of "Histories of Social Media." 

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.


to leave comments.

Commenter: Jeremy Olsen

2011, May 18

I was actually really excited to read this article but honestly found it a little lacking. The points through the article make sense, from a very tunnel visioned perspective, but really the success and failures of SM campaigns should me measured solely on how they are executed.

Social Media will deliver exceptional results for some things, and come up lacking for others. It is the same as any medium that marketers / advertisers use. Major Brands that use SM as a method of remaining top of mind, of to increase brand awareness are setting themselves up for failure right from the start. With all of the examples listed in the article, all of the intended targets would have already known every message that was broadcast.

The Old Spice campaign was hugely successful in the fact that it spread organically. If there was a good message integrated OS would have seen results, because they got the impressions. The problem wasn't the overall strategy though, but the development of the tactic. It simply lacked reasoning to back the call to action.

I will say the last point in this article was bang on, but it is unfortunate that it countered the validity and almost contradicted the rest of the article. I am still glad I read it though.

Commenter: Tom Kasperski

2011, May 18

I'll start with an apology for my pissy attitude, but the link-bait headline, straw man arguments, and over-stated rhetoric in this article rankles me.

First of all, brands aren't "ideas", they're experiences. Companies/products/services that provide the best experiences win in their category. As consumers, we make choices based on our own experiences. And sometimes based on the experiences of others.

Second, don't blame the tactic. Blame the tactician. There's nothing magical about social media - just as there's nothing magical about :30 spots, print ads, POS displays, etc. If you're not achieving a business goal in a measureable way, stop doing it.

Third, the idea that people don't talk with brands is patentedly absurd. You never spoke with a flight attendant? A customer service rep? A sales person? THEY are the brand, more so than any :30 spot. Social media is just another means to get an answer, to get a deal, to offer a suggestion. And although we don't make "friends" with brands, we "like" some brands.

Don't get me wrong, I agree with most points made in this article. But manner in which they're made rubbed me the wrong way.

Commenter: robert marich

2011, May 17

Great article and I'll add something. I'm author of the business/academic book "Marketing to Moviegoers" and I count just a half dozen THEATRICAL films that became successful with online-centric ad campaigns. That's out of around 8,000 films since "The Blair Witch Project." Worse yet, you'd think smallish indie films would climb social and online media to success but fewer are hits than ever. Yes, one can point to bits of success here or there, but online (I'm looking even more broadly than social media) is no game changer, so far. It's counter-intuitive. I expected more.

Commenter: Frank Motola

2011, May 17

Jonathan you are so on target with this. Thanks for being willing to mention that the Emperor has no clothes. Most in the industry just continue to fuel the fires of Social enthusiasts with clients money. Branding is one thing, selling is quite another.


2011, May 16

I'm in the music business, and we've known for quite some time social media isn't really that helpful when it comes to sales. We know there's only a 2% "click through" rate for ads REGARDLESS of who places the ad or what type of business it's for. Myspace has failed because Murdoch tried to turn a profit,and people fled to Facebook in droves to escape the ads and the obnoxious bands. People don't go to social media sites to make purchases,they're there to SOCIALIZE! If Facebook ever goes public and tries to make a profit,they'll meet the same fate as Myspace did. Businesses don't realize that Myspace and Facebook have the same business model as newspapers and magazines; they have to sell advertising to survive.When Facebook increases their advertising, (and they're going to have to to turn a profit) the same people that left Myspace will leave Facebook. 99% of the links my friends post are to a video they like on Youtube. I'd like to know if Old Spice's video popularity translated into new sales.I didn't switch from the deodorant I use even though I found the videos amusing.When was the last time you visited Facebook to make a purchase?

Commenter: Spencer Broome

2011, May 16

Like most things, the answer falls somewhere in the middle of this discussion.

Commenter: Carolyn Baumgarten

2011, May 16

I'm curious then, what you propose companies do, in the wake of the current social media boom. Postpone all efforts until further notice? Stop using social media to engage, and instead just return to one-way ad broadcasting? Delete all social media accounts period?

As a social media-junkie, and young consumer, I feel like the communication type you advocate has become largely obsolete with the advent of social media. At least online, consumers no longer respond favorably to flashing messages in their face about free deals and offers, because reputable companies are no longer the ones offering these. Rather if you take a look at the top ten brands (http://news.cnet.com/8301-13506_3-20058819-17.html) most of them are highly engaged using social media. I understand that sales is the bottom line of any company, but sales isn't driven solely by advertising. Now, more than ever, it's driven by popularity and reputation, among other things. And for anyone who has a Facebook or Twitter feed, brand popularity and reputation are heavily impacted by social media.

I fail to see how you disentangle the potential causes of Old Spice's sales spike, in order to conclude that social media had little to do with their success. In fact, I'd argue just the opposite. Old Spice didn't increase their Twitter following 2700% just from issuing a few extra coupons. Old Spice didn't become the #1 body wash brand for men by just creating clever commercials. They did these things by combining traditional one-way advertising with the engagement that social media facilitates. By creating dozens of personalized videos, resulting in an insane amount of impressions and youtube channel views within a ridiculously short period of time.

I don't disagree with you entirely. There is still a time and a place (and a demographic) for traditional advertising. But for many consumers, especially for millennials, social media is a critical tool that drives brand attitudes and reputation, ultimately resulting in sales failure or success.

Commenter: Tom Troja

2011, May 16

I agree with your focus on brand purpose in social. The challenge is that original purpose of social was that people could spend time with people not so that brands could sell products to people. Social by design really does mean people for people. It is why facebook has grown so fast. Brands now want in as that is where their customers are. All the "failures" you mention may also be seen as not failures at all but solid head starts in building social relationships by innovators who are further along in this new sales environment then their competitors.

Social is not a direct marketing platform, it just doesn't work that way no matter how much people wish it did. So... how would you sell... advance an idea... get people to move to your POV... try your product... at a cocktail party, at a class reunion... at a family dinner? You can look longer term... I know that is hard for many of us... and build relationships so when people are in a buying position... they buy you.

According to facebooks most recent marketing guide, you can use facebook to increase purchase intent, Generate awareness, Drive preference and differentiation, Increase traffic, Build loyalty and relationships, and Amplify word of mouth. All key parts of a sales process. How brands execute on these will determine their success across most all social spaces. These are all parts of a brands sales purpose.

Just shouting sales, sales, sales is about as distracting as shouting theater in a crowded fire. Using NY Post headlines about the social sky is falling gives ammo to those trying desperately to save their old budgets. You have a great writing style... maybe you can go into more detail about how you would you use socials "incredible tools and opportunities" to sell?

Commenter: Wes Herzik

2011, May 16

It's great to see someone apply traditional advert thinking to social media. Conversations like this help the communications industry and help us set back and re-think some of our work.

I do agree with some points though I disagree that the brands mentioned (Old Spice, Ford, etc.) were failures because they didn't move sales. I've seen tons of good and successful traditional media efforts NOT move sales but for other factors were successful. The same goes for social media. There are just too many business and marketing components at play. Also, I social media is really one touch point of many to consider as an integrated effort so it can't be expected to soley move sales.

For a staunch brand Old Spice, perhaps the company is ecstatic to have a young generation sharing and talking about their product. That in it's on right is likely successful. Perhaps Old Spice will add a 'hard sale' message (@ another touchpoing). Additionally, suppose a brand is inferior to other brands (smells bad, stains clothes, etc. ) and if that is the case no message will help. Furthermore, in support of social media, invaluable insights can be had from simply listening to social which can't revealed in other ways.

Just a few thoughts but I do like the article.

~ Wes

Commenter: Bruce Johnston

2011, May 16

Excellent article on all fronts especially the customer service experience. I never really thought about the conflicting trends at work that you point out but it's true - firms make dramatic cuts to their workforce and don't expect it to adversely affect the customer experience. Of course, how could it? Firms say: we've improved the bottom line which has nothing to do with the drop in sales and lowered revenues. It has to be sales and marketing's fault and that new social media whatever it is their experimenting with. Wow!

Commenter: Andrew Ettinger

2011, May 16

Best. Article. Ever,

Commenter: Chuck Lawyers

2011, May 16

Great article ! I have been fishing in these very same waters and it is crazy to sell but not be selling, how do you do that, why would you do that?

I notice that younger people don't click adds but older people love it when you point them at the best deals where they save money and get better value.

I feel what is more important is to provide your customers with a good product and when you disappoint acknowledge it, fix it and thank the "friend" for showing you the area where you can improve or in a positive comment, what more you can do to improve the experience even more.

Thank you again for a great article!