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?
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