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.