The debate over social media’s effectiveness continues.

Quoting Dr. Mark Ritson, is social media “the greatest act of mis-selling in the history of marketing?”

For people who might have wondered if the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting “lockdown culture” that followed would bring more clarity to the debate about the effectiveness of social media, I think it’s safe to conclude that very little has changed in its wake. Many marketing folks continue to suspect that social media may be closer to “all hat, no cattle” than they’d like it to be. 

In analyses and evaluations going as far back as a decade, most big companies’ followers on social media have never exceeded 2% to 3% of their brands’ customer base. But the true numbers are even more discouraging, because many brand followers on social media are actually “sleepers” who might have liked a brand in order to participate in a competition, receive a giveaway, or for some other “instant gratification” reason they can’t even recall now.

Mark Ritson

A more realistic metric is how many people choose to interact with a brand on social media.  On that basis, the figures nosedive.  Mark Ritson, a brand specialist and professor of marketing who has worked at the London Business School and the University of Minnesota, pegs  true engagement at around 0.02% of the people who “like” brands.

Other research points to similarly disappointing metrics regarding social media’s impact on purchasing activities.  Adobe finds that only about 1% of its social media interactions end up in a purchase, whereas search marketing, direct website traffic and referrals from other websites are the real drivers in terms of the decision to purchase.

So the dynamics haven’t really budged in recent times.  At its core, social media channels enable people to communicate with one another, not with brands.  For the kind of brand marketing we routinely see happening on social media, it’s little more than an advertising medium offering inventory like any other advertising business.  But those aren’t the reasons why people are on social media in the first place – hence the disconnect.

Contrast those dynamics with organic search and paid search marketing, which come into play when people are searching for answers to questions – often about products and what’s available to purchase.  In that regard, any investment in search marketing is money better-spent because it helps keep websites aligned with Google search bots’ way of thinking and judging what content gets shown “first and best” on search engine results pages.  Marketers can see the results and judge the customer acquisition costs accordingly. 

Over in the social media world, it’s true that the biggest brands can show some “success” in their audience engagement, but it’s likely because they have such a huge brand presence to begin with.  That simply isn’t the case with vast majority of companies.  For them, the road to commercial success likely doesn’t run through Social Mediaville.

What are your own personal experiences with marketing via social media?  Has the reality lived up to the promise?  Please share your thoughts and observations with other readers here.

Advertising’s COVID Consolidation

The triumvirate of Amazon, Facebook and Google surge to even bigger dominance in the field.

Fueled by their ability to target audiences by attitudinal and intentional factors in addition to demographic characteristics, the “Big Three” platforms of Facebook, Amazon and Google were already heavy hitters in the advertising realm well-before COVID-19 burst on the scene.

To wit, they accounted for nearly 50% of all advertising expenditures in the United States in 2019.

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, resulting in changes overnight in how people work and live.  Thanks to lockdowns — and with more people than ever glued to digital platforms for everything from business communications to entertainment and online shopping — advertisers found the audience-targeting capabilities of the Big Three platform too irresistible.

So in 2020, even as every other kind of ad spending shrank – including double-digit drops seen in newspaper, TV and billboard advertising – online advertising continued to grow.  Even more significantly, the biggest gains in online advertising accrued to the Big Three tech giants rather than to digital media sites and publishers that sell online ads.

When the dust settled, 2020 turned out to be the first year the Big Three swept up more than half of all ad dollars spent in the United States, according to an analysis by ad agency GroupM

… And in online advertising specifically, the Big Three’s share jumped from an already dominant ~80% in 2019 to nearly 90% in 2020. Ad industry veteran Tim Armstrong (formerly in executive positions at AOL and Google), puts it succinctly:

“[The] companies that are data science-driven get stronger and faster with a tailwind of usage — and COVID was a hurricane.”

The coronavirus environment proved to be fertile ground for the Big Three even in areas previously inhospitable to them — including such categories as store promotions, catalogues and couponing.

As the nation emerges from the COVID environment in the coming months, one wonders if the newly dominant position of the Big Three will retrench in any meaningful way.  Speaking personally, I wouldn’t bet money on it.  But what are your thoughts?

Tissue issue: Explaining the curious connection between the coronavirus pandemic and toilet paper shortages.

How did the pandemic drive consumers to purchase reams and reams of toilet paper?

Just after coronavirus cases started appearing in Europe and North America, two things began to happen.  One was restrictions on people’s movements — soon leading to lockdowns nearly everywhere.

The other was a run on toilet paper that seemed to go on for months and months.

While other necessities suffered temporary product shortages as well, toilet paper in particular seemed to be affected the most. And as its disappearance from the store shelves became widely reported, the shortage began to take on near mythic proportions.

Photos of barren shelves were plastered all over the news and shared on social media – even giving the rise to a flourishing resale market in which the price of TP skyrocketed.  

It’s little wonder that at the same time, thefts of toilet paper began to be reported across the globe.

Surveys conducted among consumers in North America and Europe found more than a few people admitting that they had begun hoarding toilet paper – more than 17% of North Americans and nearly 14% of Europeans acknowledging so.

Just what is the correlation between a health crisis like COVID-19 and the sudden unavailability of a product like TP, of all things?

It’s the kind of question that no doubt intrigues researchers in the field of consumer behavior.  In January, a team of five analysts in Spain published a review of the available research on the topic.  Their reporting suggests that several factors were likely at work – some more significant than others.  Here is a synopsis of what they reported:

Potential Factor #1:  Diarrhea

As coronavirus cases began to rise, more people were experiencing increased gastrointestinal symptoms and diarrhea — either induced by stress or by the COVID-19 itself.  However, medical studies suggest that only about 13% of people who contract COVID have significant diarrhea as one of the symptoms or side effects.  That 13% is actually a relatively low proportion of COVID patients, and therefore can’t explain much of the global surge in toilet paper purchases.  Verdict:  Unlikely factor.

Potential Factor #2:  Actual Product Shortages

A more likely explanation for the run on toilet paper is that the product was merely one of numerous necessities that consumers went out to purchase in abundance as lockdowns began to take effect around the world.  But whereas items like canned foods were able to be more readily restocked, toilet paper wasn’t.  In this scenario, supply chains weren’t prepared for the sudden the shift in demand from commercial-quality to residential-quality toilet paper, paper towels and such.  As a result, it took longer for production to retool and meet the increased demand.  Verdict:  Somewhat more likely factor.

Potential Factor #3:  Fear — Magnified by the Media

As the news media began to report on empty shelves, toilet paper buying patterns that had initially been in line with those seen for other sought-after goods now reached frenzied proportions.  The “FOMO factor” (fear of missing out) increased bulk buying and hoarding behaviors even more.

Adding to the fevered environment was an additional factor, as explained by Dr. Brian Cook, who is a member of the Disaster Risk Reduction initiative at Australia’s University of Melbourne:

“Stocking up on toilet paper is … a relatively cheap action, and people like to think that they are ‘doing something’ when they feel at risk.”

The TP buying craze has been seen before.  Toilet paper shortages were recorded during the political crisis in Venezuela in 2013 … following the terror attacks on the Twin Towers in New York City 2001 … and even as far back as the 1973 OPEC oil crisis.

I guess the bottom line is this: When the sh*t hits the fan, it’s the toilet paper that wipes out …

In its legal altercation with poultry processor Wayne Farms, LinkedIn gets its wings clipped.

Ignoring complaints of a fake LinkedIn profile turned out to be a costly miscalculation.

We hear a lot about fake Facebook profiles and fake Twitter accounts.  We don’t hear so much about fake LinkedIn accounts – but they can be just as problematic. 

In fact, it may be that the potential financial implications of faux LinkedIn accounts are sometimes more consequential.  The revelation last week that LinkedIn has settled a lawsuit brought by Wayne Farms, a multi-billion dollar poultry company with 13 U.S. processing facilities, helps paint the picture.

The facts of the case are interesting.  In the summer of 2020, a sales manager for Wayne Farms noticed that someone had created a fake LinkedIn profile of him.  The sales manager also determined pretty quickly that the faux persona was using the profile to reach out to customers and set up deals. 

More specifically, the imposter was attempting to engage one customer in the United States and another in Italy in phony product purchase transactions.

As David Brezina, a Chicago-based attorney representing Wayne Farms, explained, “LinkedIn was used to make more credible some scams that were basically to buy a container load of product.  It was a great deal – but you had to submit 20% down.” 

“The fraudster was looking to collect $5,000 or $10,000 from potential customers of my client upfront,” Brezina continued.  “LinkedIn was a valuable tool to make the scam more credible.”

What did LinkedIn do to address the problem?  It took the correct action – at first.  Contacted by the Wayne Farms sales manager about the fake profile, the social platform took down the offending account.

But barely a month later another fake profile of the same sales manager reappeared on LinkedIn.  Wayne Farms promptly submitted two notifications to LinkedIn asking for the account to be removed once again.

This time around, LinkedIn’s response was … crickets. 

It was only after Wayne Farms filed a federal lawsuit against LinkedIn in early December, seeking compensatory damages for trademark counterfeiting, federal trademark infringement and reputational harm, that the fake profile was removed.

David Brezina (Ladas & Parry LLP)

Regarding LinkedIn’s failure to act in the second occurrence, Brezina pointed out, “You need to be responsible; you need to have procedures where if fraud is being committed … victims can contact you.” 

In this case, LinkedIn chose to ignore such entreaties – or the request got hung up in its internal bureaucracy.  Either way, it turned out to be a costly blunder for the social platform.  This past week, LinkedIn settled the Wayne Farms lawsuit out of court.  Financial terms of the settlement are confidential, but you can be sure that the costs involved are more than merely symbolic.

Interestingly, during the discovery phase of the lawsuit, LinkedIn let it be known that it restricted more than two million fake accounts in just a six-month period last year, so this isn’t an isolated occurrence.

But what it also means is that users of LinkedIn need to be as vigilant in policing that platform as they are with any other social media outlet.  That revelation came as a bit of a surprise to me, frankly.

What about you?  Have you or someone you know ever been the victim of any monkey business or questionable activity pertaining to your LinkedIn profile?  If so, please share your experiences with other readers here.

Virtual Meetings: Will the COVID-19 virus accelerate a trend?

One of the big repercussions of the Coronavirus scare has been to shift most companies into a world where significant numbers of their employees are working from home. Whereas working remotely might have been an occasional thing for many of these workers in the past, now it’s the daily reality.

What’s more, personal visits to customers and attendance at meetings or events have been severely curtailed.

This “new reality” may well be with us for the coming months – not merely weeks as some reporting has indicated. But more fundamentally, what does it mean for the long-term?

I think it’s very possible that we’re entering a new era of how companies work and interact with their customers that’s permanent more than it is temporary. The move towards working remotely had been advancing (slowly) over the years, but COVID-19 is the catalyst that will accelerate the trend.

Over the coming weeks, companies are going to become pretty adept at figuring out how to work successfully without the routine of in-person meetings. Moving even small meetings to virtual-only events is the short-term reality that’s going to turn into a long-term one.

When it comes to client service strategies, these new approaches will gain a secure foothold not just because they’re necessary in the current crisis, but because they’ll prove themselves to work well and to be more cost-efficient than the old ways of doing business. Along the same lines, professional conferences in every sector are being postponed or cancelled – or rolled into online-only events.  This means that “big news” about product launches, market trends and data reporting are going to be communicated in ways that don’t involve a “big meeting.”

Social media and paid media will likely play larger roles in broadcasting the major announcements that are usually reserved for the year’s biggest meeting events. Harnessing techniques like animation, infographics and recorded presentations will happen much more than in the past, in order to turn information that used to be shared “in real life” into compelling and engaging web content.

The same dynamics are in play for formerly in-person sales visits. The “forced isolation” of social distancing will necessitate presentations and product demos being done via online meetings during the coming weeks and months. Once the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, in-person sales meetings at the customer’s place of business will return – but can we realistically expect that they will go back to the levels that they were before?

Likely not, as companies begin to realize that “we can do this” when it comes to conducting business effectively while communicating remotely. What may be lost in in-person meeting dynamics is more than made up for in the convenience and cost savings that “virtual” sales meetings can provide.

What do you think? Looking back, will we recognize the Coronavirus threat as the catalyst that changed the “business as usual” of how we conduct business meetings?  Or will today’s “new normal” have returned to the “old normal” of life before the pandemic?  Please share your thoughts with other readers here.

The New World of PR

Companies work to find their place in the changing ecosystem — some more effectively than others.

For those of us who have been active  in the marketing communications industry over the past few decades, there’s been a sea change in how the industry operates — not least in the realm of PR and media relations.

One of the underlying reasons for this change is the dramatic shift that’s happened in the field of journalism. Traditional media companies which have long relied on professional reporters and editorial contributors have been dealing with a range of existential threats.  Print circulation has sagged while audiences have fragmented over a plethora of digital content publishers — most of which offer news and information free of charge.

At the same time, publishers’ revenues from advertising have plummeted as the media inventory has expanded to encompass the new digital content publishers.  The bottom-line impact of these twin developments is that it has become much more difficult for traditional media companies to employ the same number of staff reporters; indeed, many publishers have shrunk their newsrooms while relying increasingly on independent contributors and freelancers to fill in the gaps.

But the situation gets even more complicated thanks to the evolution of digital media and the explosive growth of self-publishing platforms. The reality is that there’s a new class of authors who are increasingly publishing from their own platforms, without being involved with any of the major media outlets.

In such a world, the notion of PR departments simply keeping in close touch with a limited number of key journalists as the most effective way of gaining earned media coverage seems almost quaint.

And it gets even more problematic when considering how much easier it is for businesses to prepare and disseminate PR news. At their best, PR pitches rely on the same tools as marketing in general: profiling the audience; personalizing the news pitch, and so forth.

The problem is, according to the U.S. Bureau of Census, there are now more than six PR pros for every journalist. This means that more PR news releases than ever are hitting the inboxes of far fewer journalists and reporters.

Is it any wonder that PR news released by companies is so often being ignored?

According to a recent survey of ~1,000 journalists by PR Newswire, the following aspects of PR pitches are the most annoying to reporters and journalists:

  • Too much overt “marketing” in the pitch
  • Lack of relevant or useful content
  • Unclear or misleading subject lines on e-emails
  • Insufficient news detail

On the other hand, some aspects help in a PR pitch, including:

  • High-resolution photography
  • Video clips
  • Infographics

In today’s PR landscape, obtaining earned media is more difficult than ever. These days, not only do you need a great story to tell, you need to craft the perfect narrative. And even then, you might never get the news covered by a so-called “Tier 1” publication.

But missing out on Tier 1 coverage isn’t necessarily the kiss of death. Sometimes the lower tier represents the best targeted audience to receive news from companies. Moreover, by employing low-cost self-publishing tools, a decent social media strategy plus some basic search engine optimization, it’s actually possible to build an audience and garner as many well-targeted readers as those elusive Tier 1 pubs might be able to deliver.

In the new world of PR, the “tried and true” avenues to earned media coverage aren’t getting the job done.  But there are more routes than ever to get the news out instead of having to channel your efforts to go through the gate-keepers of yore.

Facial Recognition Faceoff

Facebook has been resisting outside efforts to rein in its “faceprints” facial recognition initiative – and mostly losing.

I’ve blogged before about the concerns many people have about facial recognition technology, and the troubling implications of the technology being misused in the wrong hands.

Facebook would claim to be the “right hands” rather than wrong ones when it comes to the database of “faceprints” it’s been compiling over the past decade or so. But its initiative has run afoul of an Illinois biometric privacy law passed in 2008.

The Illinois measure, which prohibits companies from collecting or storing people’s biometric data without their consent, is one of the strongest pieces of legislation of its kind in that it also allows individual consumers to sue for damages – to the tune of up to $5,000 per violation.

And that’s precisely what’s happened.  A class-action suite was filed in 2015 by a group of Illinois residents, alleging that Facebook has violated the Illinois privacy law through its photo-tagging function which draws on a trove of “faceprint” photos to recognize faces and suggest their names when they appear in photos uploaded by friends on Facebook.

Facebook has vigorously resisted efforts to rein in its faceprint initiative, arguing that any such lawsuits should be dismissed because users haven’t actually been injured by any alleged violations of the state law.

That stance has been rejected – first in U.S. district court and then in the court of appeals. Undaunted, Facebook appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court which turned down the appeal in late January.

Rebuffed at all legal levels, Facebook has now decided to settle the suit for a reported $550 million, including payments of ~$200 each to claimants in the Illinois class-action suit.

Facebook has lost, but the whole notion of facial recognition technology could well be like playing a game of whack-a-mole. As it turns out, another firm has developed similar functionality and is busily selling facial recognition data to police departments across North America.  According to a recent investigative article publishing in The New York Times, a company called Clearview AI has mined billions of photos from Twitter, Facebook and other social platforms.  (Clearview is now being sued in Illinois for allegedly violating the same biometric privacy law that was at the center of the Facebook suit.)

And indeed, the efforts to rein in facial recognition activities may be a little too little, a little too late: According to a recent report from Business Insider, the faces of more than half of all adults in America have already been logged into police or government databases.

… Which brings us to a parallel response that appears to be gaining traction: figuring out ways to fool facial recognition software.  A number of entrepreneurs are developing intriguing methods to beat facial recognition software.  Among them are:

  • Clothing designers have begun to target weaknesses in the ability of facial recognition software to process overlapping or unusual shapes, as well as deciphering multiple similar images appearing in close proximity. One such example is a pair of goggles fitted with near-infrared LEDs that interfere with the ability to scan facial features.
  • Headscarves decorated with different faces “confuse” the software by overloading it with excessive amounts of data in the form of numerous facial features.
  • So-called “adversarial patches” – a graphic print that can be added to clothing – exploit the vulnerabilities in facial recognition scanning by making a person “virtually invisible for automatic surveillance cameras,” according to creators Simen Thys, Wiebe Van Ranst and Toon Goedemé.

Will the two-front attack on facial recognition technology from the legal as well as technology standpoint succeed in putting the facial recognition genie back in the bottle? It’s debatable.  But it’s certainly making things more of a challenge for the Facebooks and Clearviews of the world.

A Marketer’s Resolution for the New Year

Note: Those of you who are regular readers of my marketing and culture blog have noticed that it “went dark” for a period of time over the past month or so.  The twin developments of health issues plus a death in the family (my mother, at the age of 96-and-a-half years), meant that I needed to be focused on recuperation and also estate matters.  But I’m back … and hopefully back to my regular schedule of posting.

For my final blog post of 2019, it comes in the form of a resolution for us marketers. It’s to finally acknowledge how little “upside potential” there actually is for social media to build or maintain a brand presence … and instead to place renewed focus on tactics that’ll actually deliver a more measurable ROI.

Most of my business clients have put a degree of effort into social media over the years – some with more focus and fortitude than others. But whether the campaigns have been “full speed ahead” or only half-hearted, invariably the end-result seems to be the same:  a sales needle that hardly moves, if at all.

Moreover, social media takes a deceptively significant amount of effort for that little bit of payoff. Companies that put in the effort devote human capital and in some cases substantive dollar resources to tap outside support, but frequently the results aren’t any more impactful than for our clients who merrily go on ignoring social medial platforms, year after year.  At least when looking at bottom-line sales.

Plus, in our highly sensitized world, these days it seems that when social media actually has an impact, more often than not it’s a negative one.  Too often it’s the sorry end-result of some sort of faux pas where even the best-laid plans for departmental or legal review aren’t carried out fully and the brand gets into trouble. (Sometimes that happens even with all of the checks and balances in place and being carried out religiously.)

So for 2020, we marketers could well be better off acknowledging how thin the promise of social media actually is.  We should ignore the siren calls of “likes” and “engagement” and stop chasing the phantom pot of gold at the end of the phantom rainbow. Chances are, your company’s bottom line will look just as strong, even as you focus more of your time and budget on marketing activities that’ll actually make a positive difference.

What are your thoughts on social media for brands? Please share them with other readers here.

Like synthetic fabrics, synthetic media has its good and bad attributes.

Decades ago, people had a choice of cloth fibers like cotton, wool and silk. Each of these natural cloths had positive attributes … as well as negative ones, too.

Cotton is comfortable to wear, but wrinkles when washed. Wool is great for the cold weather months, but needs to be dry-cleaned.  Too, moths and other insects love to burrow their way through woolen clothing, making many an item made from wool ready for the trash far too soon.

Silk? It has all the detriments of cotton and wool without any of the positives — except that it looks rich and expensive if one wishes to put on airs or otherwise “make a statement.”

Beginning in the 1940s, polyesters and other synthetic fibers were introduced, giving rise to all sorts of new clothing items that touted a variety of positive attributes: They washed up fine, didn’t need ironing, and kept their shape over time.

Never mind the fact that the clothing didn’t breathe, and made more than a few people stink to the heavens after wearing a synthetic cloth shirt for barely an hour on a hot summer day.

Along these same lines, today we have synthetic media. It’s essentially how people and machines are collaborating to create media that is algorithmically created (or modified).

In its earliest incarnations, synthetic media was a blend of “real” and “faux” components. Think of a newscast with your favorite, very real anchor person … but the background, screens and graphics are computer-generated.

But things have gone much further than that in recent times. Text, photography and videos are being created by software with such precision and seeming authenticity that it’s nearly impossible to determine what content is “real” versus what has been “synthesized.”

On the plus side, content can be automatically translated and delivered in multiple languages to different audiences spanning the world, bringing more news and information to more people simultaneously. But what if the avatar (host) could be customized to be more “familiar” to different audiences — and therefore more engaging and believable to them?

There’s a flipside to all of this innovation. So-called “deepfakes” (a recent term that took no time at all to be added to the major dictionary databases) harness digital technology to superimpose faces onto video clips in ways that are so realistic, they appear to be totally authentic.

Considering the advances in the technology, one can only imagine the plethora of “news” items that will be unleashed into cyberspace and on social media platforms in the coming months and years. Most likely, they’ll have the effect of making more than a few people suspicious of all news and information — regardless of the source.

Which brings us back to synthetic fabrics. They’re with us and always will be; there’s no turning back from them.  But people have learned how to use them for what makes sense, and eschew the rest.  We need to figure out how to do the same with synthetic media.