A Bombshell Forrester Finding? Brands are Wasting Time and Money on Facebook and Twitter

Forrester logo

This past week, marketing research firm Forrester published a new analytical report titled “Social Relationship Strategies that Work.”

The bottom-line conclusion of this report is that brand marketers are generally wasting their time and money focusing on social platforms that don’t provide either the extensive reach or the proper context for valuable interactions with customers and prospects.

In particular, Forrester’s research has determined that Facebook and Twitter posts from top brands are reaching only about 2% of their followers.

Engagement is far worse than even that:  A miniscule 0.07% of followers are actually interacting with those posts.

Much has been made of Facebook’s recent decision to reduce free-traffic posts on newsfeeds in favor of promoted (paid) posts.  But Forrester’s figures suggest that the lack of engagement on social platforms is about far more than just the reduction in non-promoted posts.

Nate Elliott Forrester
Nate Elliott

Nate Elliott, a Forrester vice president and principal analyst, believes that brand managers need to make major changes in how they’re going about marketing in the social sphere.  He notes:

“It’s clear that Facebook and Twitter don’t offer the relationships that marketing leaders crave.  Yet most brands still use these sites as the centerpiece of their social efforts, thereby wasting significant financial, technological and human resources on social networks that don’t deliver value.”

With Twitter and Facebook being such spectacular duds when it comes to social platforms, what does Forrester recommend that brand marketers do instead?

One option is to develop proprietary “branded communities” where fans can hang out in zones where brands can be their own traffic cops, instead of relying on a giant social platform to do the work (or not do the work) for them.

e-mailEven better is to return to greater reliance on an old standby tactic: e-mail marketing.

If this seems like “back to the future,” Forrester’s Elliott reminds us how e-mail can work quite elegantly as the centerpiece of a brand’s social marketing effort:

“Your e-mails get delivered more than 90% of the time, while your Facebook posts get delivered 2% of the time — and no one’s looking over your shoulder telling you what you can and can’t say in your e-mails.  If you have to choose between adding a subscriber to your e-mail list and gaining a new Facebook fan, go for e-mail every time.”

I can’t say that I disagree with Nate Elliott’s position.

Now it’s time to hear from the rest of you marketing professionals.  How successful have you been in building engagement on social platforms like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn?  Have your efforts in social paid off as well as in your e-mail marketing initiatives?  Let us know.

Twitter: The social platform that’s less important today than it was yesterday.

Twitter losing lusterTwitter hasn’t mattered to very many people for a very long time.

Of course, for some it hasn’t mattered even from its inception. But when we start reading about Twitter’s most avid users and how they’ve begun to drift away from using the social platform like they’ve done in the past … you know that more than just the atmospherics are changing.

A case in point about this evolution is an article that was published in late April by The Atlantic titled “A Eulogy for Twitter.

The article’s authors, Adrienne LaFrance and Robinson Meyer, begin their piece by writing:

“We’ve been trying to figure out the moment Twitter turned, retracing tweets to see whether there was something specific that soured the platform.  

“Something is wrong on Twitter. And people are noticing. Or at least, the kind of people we hang around with on Twitter are noticing … audience-obsessed, curious, newsy … The thing is, its users are less active than they once were. Twitter says these changes reflect a more streamlined experience, but we have a different theory: Twitter is entering its twilight.”

Those are strong words. But the authors back up their assertions by noting that while people may still be using Twitter, many of them are no longer “hanging out” there. And that’s because there’s less “there there” to sustain once highly-engaged Twitter users.

The perceptions of Twitter’s value have been changing because of three key precepts which are now being proven out as “fictions,” according to LaFrance and Meyer.

What are those “fictions”?

  • The belief that other people in the “Twitterverse” are actually paying attention — or at least that a decent portion of one’s followers are seeing the tweets. 
  • The belief that competent and compelling tweeting will increase a person’s Twitter follower base. 
  • The confidence of knowing that there is a useful potential audience beyond current followers, so that the time and energy spent on the platform will pay dividends. 

None of these premises has turned out to be correct in the long-haul. Instead, the following stark realities fly in the face of all the hope (or hype):

  • Twitter is positively stuffed with “spam” accounts. In fact, the median number of followers for a Twitter account is … exactly one. Even if a few of those accounts are actually “legit,” of what value are they to anyone? 
  • Twitter’s year-over-year growth rate has fallen significantly since 2011.

And here’s another clear indication of how Twitter has morphed into something quite different from its original character. Today, Twitter is more likely to be merely a place to promote content published someplace else in cyberspace, simply providing quick links over to that content.

Whereas in the past, journalists and celebs and others were posting statements and opinions — and replying to or retweeting the posts of others — now it’s more likely to be canned promotion and little more.

… Which sets up a downward spiral, because followers aren’t seeing anything particularly new or interesting that they’re not already encountering elsewhere. So interest wanes … leading to reduced participation … leading to even less consideration of Twitter’s “worth” as a social platform.

This phenomenon of “professionalized accounts” means little more than being a bulletin board of scheduled tweets and broadcast links, resulting in collective yawns all over the place.

Of course, there’s one aspect of Twitter than continues its joyride unabated: hate speech and profanity. But that’s the sort of content many people would just as soon avoid encountering.

LaFrance and Meyer conclude that the world may have “outgrown” Twitter. They’re not happy by that turn of events, writing:

“For a platform that was once so special, it would be sad and a little condescending to conclude that Twitter is simply something we’ve outgrown. After all, the platform has always been shaped by the people who congregate there. So if it’s no longer any fun, surely we’re at least partly to blame.”

The authors go on to note:

“Twitter has done for social publishing what AOL did for e-mail. But nobody has AOL accounts anymore … [Today,] Twitter feels closed off — choked — in a way that makes us want to explore somewhere else for a while.”

It may not be time for Twitter’s eulogy. But there are many who don’t see much of a second act for the social platform, either.

By the way … where are those “somewhere elses” in social media that LaFrance and Meyer allude to? Try Snapchat, Instagram … even LinkedIn.  That’s where the interesting action is happening these days.

Social Branding: Reality-Check Time

social brandingWith all of the attention marketers have been paying to social media, it’s always helpful to look and re-look at information that gives us clues as to how customers are actually interfacing with brands in the social sphere.

Statistics published in a just-released report titled Digital Brand Interactions Survey, based on research conducted by web content management company Kentico Software, gives us a reality check on just how [non-]essential social media actually is in the greater branding picture.

The Kentico research queried approximately 300 American consumers age 18 or older via an online survey administered in February 2014.  Let’s start with the most basic finding:  the degree to which consumers “like” or “follow” brands on social networks such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram:

  • No brands followed on social media:  ~40%
  • 1 to 10 brands followed:  ~39%
  • 11 to 20 brands followed:  ~7%
  • 21 to 30 brands followed:  ~6%

Considering how many different brands the typical consumer encounters in his or her daily life (dozens? … hundreds?), following ten or fewer brands on social media represents only a very small proportion of them.

Yet that’s exactly where four in five consumers are when it comes to social branding.

So … how do companies get into that rarefied group of brands that are, in fact, followed by consumers?  Here’s what the Kentico survey discovered:

  • Already interested in the brand and wanted to stay informed:  ~40%
  • Followed on social media to receive special offers:  ~39%
  • Followed because of a recommendation from a friend or family member:  ~12%
  • Didn’t really know the brand before, but wanted to learn more about it:  ~8%

These results suggest that the notion that social branding is an easy way to attract new customers may be flawed.  Instead, social branding is better-suited to deepening brand engagement with existing customers.

Money talks as well (discounts or other special offers) – and be sure to offer them often.

kentico logoIn another piece of evidence that points to social branding’s relatively weak ability to drive incremental sales … Kentico found that ~72% of its survey respondents “never” or “hardly ever” purchase a product after hearing about it on a social network.

An equal percentage of respondents have “never” or “hardly ever” had brand encounters online that altered their already-existing perception of those brands.

So it would seem that much of the “heat” generated by social branding may be adding up to very little “light.”

On the other hand, there is also some good news for brands in the social realm:  The incidence of people “unliking” or “unfollowing” brands is quite low:  Only about 5% of the survey respondents reported such actions.

When that does happen, it’s often because a brand has been publishing too many social posts – or the content of the posts themselves is uninteresting.

The biggest takeaway notion from the Kentico research is to remind us to maintain a degree of skepticism about the impact of social branding – and to understand that in most cases, social media activities are going to remain the “ornaments” on the marketing tree rather than be the “tree” itself.

In fact, that’s probably the case even more now — as consumers become bombarded with ever-more marketing messages from ever-more brands with every passing day.

The corporate resource commitment to social media: Plenty of talk … but how much action?

Social media staffing prospects for 2013 are no better than they were in 2012.With social media activity seemingly bursting at the seams, it’s also risen near the top of many marketing departments’ punch lists of tactics to reach, engage with and influence their customers and prospects.

But when it comes to putting serious resources behind that effort, how much of a commitment is really there?

A recent Ragan Communications/NASDAQ OMX Corporate Solutions survey suggests that the commitment to social media may be a lot of “talk” … and a lot less “walk.”

The November 2012 survey of ~2,700 social media professionals found that two-thirds of the respondents perform their social media tasks above and beyond their regular marketing duties:

  • Social media tasks are on top of current responsibilities: ~65% of respondents
  • Have established a team for social media activities: ~27%
  • Use an in-house team along with an outside social media agency or planner: ~5%
  • Outsource all social media efforts: ~3%

For the distinct minority of companies that have seen fit to devote some degree of dedicated personnel to their social media program, nearly 85% of them have created teams of three people or fewer … and in more than 40% of the cases, it’s just a single individual instead of a team.

What departments within companies are involved in social media activities?  No surprise here:  It’s the usual suspects (marketing and public relations) with a variety of other departments having their toe in the water as well:

  • Marketing: ~70% of departments are involved in social media activities
  • Public relations: ~69%
  • Corporate communications: ~49%
  • Advertising: ~26%
  • Customer service: ~19%
  • Information technology: ~17%
  • Legal personnel: ~14%

As to whether we’re on the cusp of something much bigger in terms of resourcing social media activities, this isn’t evident much at all from the future plans of the businesses surveyed by Ragan.

Let’s begin with budgets. Excluding salaries and benefits, half of the companies surveyed have social media budgets of $10,000 or less – and one-quarter have essentially no dollars at all earmarked for social media:

  • Annual social media budget $1,000 or less: ~23% of respondents
  • $1,000 to $5,000: ~14%
  • $5,000 to $10,000: ~13%
  • $10,000 – $50,000: ~22%
  • $50,000+: ~26%

When asked whether companies had expanded their social media personnel assignments during 2012, fewer than one-third of the respondents answered affirmatively.

… And the trend doesn’t look much different for 2013, with more than three-fourths of the respondents reporting that there aren’t any plans to hire additional social media practitioners this year.

What about interns, that fallback position for cheap and easy labor?

Fewer than one-fourth of the respondents reported that interns are employed by their companies for social media tasks. Most others believe that using typically inexperienced interns for the potentially sensitive customer engagement aspects of social media is a “non-starter,” as they consider those sensitivities to be a disqualifying factor.

And in the cases where interns do help out in social media efforts, the vast majority of their activity is confined to Facebook and Twitter, as compared to LinkedIn, blogging,creating online “thought leadership” articles and the like.

How satisfied are companies with how they’re doing in the social media realm? According to this study, there’s rampant dissatisfaction with the degree to which companies feel able to measure the impact of social media on their sales and their businesses.

The tracking mechanisms put in place by companies range the gamut, but it’s not clear how convinced practitioners are that the information is accurate or actionable.

  • Track interaction and engagement (e.g., followers, fans, likes): ~86% of respondents
  • Track web traffic: ~74%
  • Track brand reputation: ~58%
  • Track customer service and customer satisfaction: ~41%
  • Track new lead generation: ~40%
  • Track new sales revenues: ~31%

The vast bulk of tracking activity happens using in-house mechanisms or free measurement tools (~59% use those), although the paid measurement tools offered by HootSuite and Radian6 do have their share of users.

The takeaway from the Ragan/NASDAQ research is this:  Company staffing and resource allocations have a ways to go to catch up with all the talk about social media.

Chances are, those resources will be easier to allocate once proof of social media’s payback potential can be shown.  But that might take substantially more time to prove than some people would like.

As if to underscore this notion, statistics compiled by IBM researchers covering the past holiday season found that less than 1% of all online purchases on Black Friday emanated from Facebook.  The percentage of purchases from Twitter was even lower — undetectable, in fact.

And similarly paltry results were charted for the rest of the 2012 holiday season.

As long as social media marketing continues to contribute such pitiful sales revenues, get used to seeing scant social media budgets and near-zero increases in dedicated human resources.

As direct marketing specialist and raconteur Denny Hatch has so pointedly remarked:

“Social media marketing is an oxymoron.  You cannot monetize a giant cocktail party.”

What do you think?  Is Mr. Hatch onto something … or is he just reaching for dramatic effect?  Share your own thoughts if you’d like.

Does Gartner’s “Hype Cycle” Chart Apply to Social Media?

Hype Cycle Chart (Gartner, Inc.)That’s what author and digital marketing specialist Jeff Molander seems to think. In fact, it’s the topic of an article he wrote recently in Target Marketing magazine titled “What Game Changer? Moving past the Social Media Revolution that Never Was.”

As can be seen in the diagram at right, the Gartner “Hype Cycle” model begins with a technology trigger that generates a groundswell of interest and expectations, which is then followed by a crash when the early expectations fail to pan out.

Things do move forward again – much more slowly – as the sober reflection on early disappointments helps temper expectations to more realistic levels, characterized by Gartner as a “plateau of productivity.”

It is Mr. Molander’s contention that the characterization of social media as a “game-changing” phenomenon has been so overstated and sensationalized, most companies today are probably working against their own best interests in how they’re dealing with it.  Which is to say, not using it properly as a selling tool.

Here’s how Mr. Molander puts it: “The difference between fooling around with social media and selling with it relies on the use of time-tested direct response practices – not new tools and techniques.”

Those basic practices include:

  • Solving customers’ problems
  • Provoke customer responses that connect to the sales funnel
  • Discovering customers’ needs as they evolve … then using this knowledge to improve the response rate

The companies that are successful in selling goods and services via social media are promoting interactions in ways that answer questions and solve problems.

Of course, there is absolutely nothing new or novel about this: “Solving customer challenges” has always been an effective way to cultivate AIDA (awareness, interest, desire and action).

It also continues to be the best way to move customers toward making a purchase.

What social media can do is make the process easier to accomplish, due to social’s interactive nature. Approached in the proper way – and done with regularity – facilitating digital Q&A interactions will help leverage and drive sales.

I think Mr. Molander’s point of view is correct. Using social media as a platform for sales isn’t about some kind of “secret formula” for content creation or figuring out the ideal time to publish a Twitter tweet or blog post. It’s about using the “new” platforms to facilitate “old” sales concepts.

You know – the ones that work.

Reasons Why the Facebook IPO Bombed

Facebook IPO failureShare prices of Facebook stock have been distinctly underwhelming since the first day of trading — to the tune of ~30% off its original offer price. And everyone seems to have an explanation as to why.

I’m partial to a list of reasons put out by Dan Janal, president of PRLeadPlus.com and author of the business book Reporters Are Looking for You.

Mr. Janal has come up with a dozen reasons for the Facebook IPO failure. The ones that struck me as most compelling are these:

  • The public is not as dumb as Wall Street thinks. Chalk it up to too many other dot.com “can’t miss” opportunities that whiffed big-time.
  • Who has excess money to throw around? Small investors are struggling with underwater mortgages and mountainous debt … so how do they have extra funds to throw at an IPO? Get real. (And the institutional investors stayed away because they were clearly “in the know” about how unrealistic Facebook’s IPO share pricing really was.)
  • Who goes on Facebook to actually buy things? Precious few, that’s who. And if buyers aren’t on Facebook … then advertisers won’t be there either. And with that, there goes a big part of Facebook’s business rationale down the toilet. (GM backed out of its Facebook advertising program – very publicly – just days before the IPO. That timing suggests they were trying to tell the market something!)
  • Friends aren’t really “friends.” Indeed, many Facebook friends are more like acquaintances, which is a lot less compelling when it comes to word-of-mouth influencing. (LinkedIn connections are far more “honest” in terms of being “all about business.”) When Facebook contends that friend networks will influence more buyers, investors look at their own friend networks … and they don’t buy the hype.
  • There’s a huge gulf between Facebook “friendships” and actual “engagement.” And if friends don’t engage, a big piece of what makes the Facebook power matrix potentially so potent falls away.

Mr. Janal maintains that the characteristics that make the Facebook platform what it is aren’t the same ones that’ll launch “a million new millionaires.”

Sure, the early investors who acquired stock options early in the game came out big winners. But precious little of that largesse turns out to be in the cards for the rest of the investors.

Bombs away.

“Fanning out” when it comes to brands and social media engagement.

Social media may well be taking the famous 90-9-1 principle of online engagement … and bringing it to new lows.

It’s hard not to come to this conclusion when reviewing the results of research conducted by the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science. This Australian-based University think-tank studied the actual engagement levels of people who have “liked” the top 200 brands on Facebook by considering the degree to which fans actually shared posts or commented on the brand.

Over a six-week period of study, Ehrenberg-Bass found that fewer than one half of one percent of the brand fans actually “engaged” in any way at all.

The conclusion? It turns out that social media fan bases and actual engagement are two very different things.

Categories that do somewhat better in “engagement” are ones like alcohol, cars and electronics. But interestingly enough, the study also found that the so-called “passion” brands – such as Harley-Davidson, Porsche or Nike – don’t perform much better than “regular” brands: 0.66% engagement versus 0.35%.

In its report conclusions, Ehrenburg-Bass questions whether the Herculean efforts being made by some brands to “bribe” their way to thousands of “fans” and “likes” is really worth the cost in terms of the added product discounts, coupons and other goodies that are being proffered to entice consumers to become brand fans.

When you boil it down, the Ehrenburg-Bass research confirms yet again a basic truism about branding: Much as we would love to think otherwise, the marketplace isn’t nearly as enamored with our brands and products as we think they should be.

To us, the branding so important. To them … it’s just one big shrug of the shoulders.

The Google+ Social Network: Net Plus or Net Minus?

Google Plus, Google+What’s the latest with Google+? The big splash predicted when the new social platform hit the web has been more of a ripple instead.

Underscoring this, recent news reports have suggested that Google basically missed the boat on social media … and that rival Facebook is far too well-established to face anything more than just token competition going forward.

It’s true that many people find the prospects of building and engaging in yet another social media channel a wearying thought, to say the least. There are, after all, only so many hours in the day.

But Google doesn’t want to cede the social media marketplace to Facebook without a fight. That’s understandable, considering the billions of dollars in potential advertising revenues that come from being able to serve ad messages to people who are connected to others who “like” a product or service.

The results charted to date on Facebook confirm that displaying friend “likes” adds an extra measure of credibility to advertising. That’s manifested in a clickthrough rate that’s three times what’s typical for other advertisements on the social platform.

The launch of Google+ this past summer hasn’t resulted in huge user adoption, that much is clear. The Google+ social platform has managed to nab ~40 million users, which isn’t a shabby number in and of itself. But it pales in comparison to the more than 800 million active users on Facebook.

But despite this less-than-stellar performance, we see clues as to where Google is going with its social platform. That’s because Google’s equivalent of the “like” button – the “+1” notation that shows up on Google’s search engine results pages – goes further than simply communicating the news to those in someone’s own Google+ network. Google is also mapping that information through to its Gmail account base.

Google’s Gmail service has hundreds of millions of users, and those who use the site regularly have accumulated dozens or hundreds of contacts. So when a user clicks +1, Google can show that result not just to the user’s social friends on Google+, but also to his or her contacts in Gmail.

[For those who cry “foul” on privacy grounds, Google maintains that clicking the “+1” button is a public action and therefore not subject to privacy considerations.]

The jury’s still out on what the social map will look like in a couple years. There’s little doubt Facebook will still be the biggest guy on the block. The question is, to what extent will Google have taken the 600 pound gorilla down a notch? Stay tuned …

Dealing with a Deluge of Marketing Data

Marketing analytics in the era of social mediaBelieve it or not, there was a time not so long ago when marketing professionals actually complained about a lack of data when it came to determining the success of sales, advertising or promotional initiatives.

Clearly, those days are long past. With the inexorable rise of digital and social media, many marketing managers now believe they can’t analyze and react to the sheer volumes of data that are now available.

That view comes through loud and clear in IBM’s Global Chief Marketing Officer Study, released in October 2011. In this large survey, IBM interviewed nearly 1,750 CMOs across nearly 20 industries in more than 50 countries … and ~70% of them revealed that they felt incapable of analyzing and responding to all of the data available to them.

For example, only about one in four CMOs in the survey reported that they are tracking blog content.

On the other hand, only ~36% reported that they still focus primarily on traditional sources of marketing information. Even so, ~80% continue to use certain forms of traditional management techniques to measure their success, such as competitive benchmarking and market research surveys.

As the newest activity – and perhaps the thorniest to measure – social media is a particular struggle, according to these CMOs. While just over 55% believe that social platforms represent a “key engagement channel,” an equal percentage say they’re not prepared to be held accountable for social media ROI.

Calculating the return on investment for acquiring Facebook fans, YouTube followers or LinkedIn company connections is really challenging, these respondents report. Instead, metrics that are typically tracked are new account signups, exits and cross-selling activity. For now at least, the commitment is to engage customers using social platforms without agonizing over ROI factors.

Thankfully, the hard-dollar advertising costs of using social platforms are modest … even though marketing departments must devote significant personnel resources to support the effort properly.

Monitoring social discussions, product reviews and other anecdotal information — and then compiling the data into actionable reports — requires daily focus and attention. But those actions are key to triggering timely alerts if something is amiss or there’s a change in the competitive picture.

What’s the prognosis for marketing data in the future? (Much) more of the same. For companies, the deluge – if not the fun – is just beginning.

Oh, S#\@*!! Facebook’s Not for Prudes

Profanity on Facebook:  More than you might imagine.In the “anything goes” world of social media, it stands to reason that the language we find there isn’t exactly reserved for polite company.

And now we have some quantifiable data that confirms those suspicions. Reppler, a Palo Alto, CA-based social media monitoring service, recently scanned some 30,000 Facebook members’ walls … and what they found wassn’t exactly the language of choirboys.

Here are two interesting stats from what Reppler discovered:

 Nearly half of the Facebook walls contain some form of profanity.

 Four out of five users with profanity on their Facebook wall have at least one comment or post from a friend that contains profanity.

What’s the most common profane terms used? Not surprisingly, the “f-word” comes out on top. That’s followed by various derivations of the word the French know as merde. Runner-up among the top three is the “b-word.”

It’s important to note that people don’t have complete control over the language their Facebook friends use. But the prevalence of profanity on Facebook walls comes at a time when many employers are increasingly looking at the online presence of their prospective hires and noting the degree of professionalism – or lack thereof – that they see.

And there’s a related issue that’s becoming increasingly significant as well. With more companies and brands creating Facebook pages and other social networking sites, monitoring the discussion that takes place on them takes on even more importance.

It’s critical for brands not to offend even a small percentage of their customers. But with the general “race to the bottom” in what’s deemed acceptable language, there are real differences in what some people think is legitimate expression … and what others would consider to be gross indecency.

These differences are a factor of not only of age, but of acculturation.

Third-party tools from Reppler and others that automatically flag certain language or phrases can alleviate some of the problem, but there’s really no substitute for good, old-fashioned site monitoring. Which is why so many companies are finding the whole social media thing to be pretty labor-intensive, when done properly.