Social media and marketing: Is the honeymoon over?

social mediaIt’s no secret that companies large and small have been putting significant energy into social media marketing and networking in recent years.

It’s happened for a variety of reasons – not least as a defensive strategy to keep from losing out over competitors who might be quicker to adopt social media strategies and leverage them for their business.

And yet …

Now that the businesses have a good half-decade of social media marketing under their belt, it’s pretty safe to say that social tactics aren’t very meaningful sales drivers.

That’s not just me talking.  It’s also Forrester Research, which as far back as 2011 and 2012 concluded this after analyzing the primary sales drivers for e-commerce.  Forrester found that less than 1% was driven by social media.

And in subsequent years, it’s gotten no better.

A case in point:  IBM Smarter Commerce, which tracks sales generated by 500 leading retail sites, has reported that Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube and Twitter combined represent less than 0.5% of the sales generated on Black Friday in the United States.

Those dismal results aren’t to say that social media doesn’t have its benefits.  Generating “buzz” and building social influence certainly have their place and value.

But considering what some businesses have put into social media in terms of their MarComm resources, a channel that contributes less than 1% of sales revenues seems like a pretty paltry result – and very likely a negative ROI, too.

Going forward, it would seem that more companies should pursue social media marketing less out of a fear of losing out to competitors, and more based on whether it proves itself as an effective marketing tactic for them.

Consider the points listed below.  They’ve been true all along, but they’re becoming even more apparent with the passage of time:

1.  Buying “likes” isn’t worth much beyond the most basic tactical “bragging rights” aspects, because “likes” have little intrinsic value and can’t be tied directly to an increased revenue stream.

2.  A great social media presence doesn’t trump having good products and service; even dynamite social media can’t camouflage shortcomings of this kind for long.

3.  Audiences tend to “discount” the value of content that comes directly from a company.  This means publishing compelling content that clears that hurdle requires more skill and expertise than many companies have been willing to allocate to social media content creation.

Calibrating the way they look at social media is the first step companies can take to establish the correct balance between social media marketing activities and expected results.  Instead of treating social media as the connection with customers, view it as a tool to connect with customers.

It’s really just a new link in the same chain of engagement that successful companies have forged with their customers for decades.  In working with my clients, I’ve seen this scenario play out the same basic way time and again; it matters very little what type of business or markets they serve.

What about you?  Have your social media experiences been similar to this — or different?  I welcome hearing your perspectives.

America’s Smallest Businesses Get Hands-On with Digital Marketing

DIYAs more MarComm activities increasingly migrate to the web and to social media platforms, small businesses are increasingly taking a DIY approach in their marketing programs.

That’s the major takeaway from a survey of nearly 2,600 small business owners conducted by Insight By Design for Webs, a subsidiary of Vistaprint.

For purposes of the study, small businesses were defined as those having 10 or fewer employees.  The results of the field survey, which was conducted in the spring of 2014, were published in Vistaprint’s 2014 Digital Usage Study.

vistaprint-logoTwo-thirds of the small business respondents reported that they are actively using digital products to market their businesses.  Of those who have websites for their business, nearly 60% of them created their own websites using DIY tools.

An even larger proportion — 80% — act as their own webmasters.

Small businesses consider customer acquisition and generating new customer leads as the most important reasons for maintaining a web presence.

In the social media realm, Facebook is the most popular platform for promoting small businesses — so said nearly 90% of the survey respondents who are active in social media marketing.

Facebook is viewed as not only a vehicle for building brand awareness and acquiring new customers, but also for building a network of followers and engaging with them over time.

The survey’s respondents reported that all of the other major social platforms lag far behind Facebook in importance:

  • Facebook: ~88% consider it to be a highly important social media channel for their business
  • LinkedIn: ~39%
  • Twitter: ~31%
  • Google+: ~22%
  • Pinterest: ~20%
  • YouTube: ~17%

In line with its perceived importance as a marketing channel, about two-thirds of businesses that have Facebook business profiles are also engaged with paid advertising campaigns on the social platform — or are considering doing so.

No question, small businesses have concluded that social media marketing is the best way for them to create brand awareness and expand their reach in a very low-cost yet effective manner.  So don’t look for any slowdown in the adoption of social strategies going forward.

Social Marketers Behaving Badly …

Social marketers behaving badlyEx-Cong. and New York City mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner hasn’t been the only one misbehaving on social media.

Chipotle Mexican Grill also gets a time-out to sit in the corner for its social media hi-jinks. 

It turns out that a supposed hacking of Chipotle’s Twitter account in mid-July was nothing more than a ploy to grab attention and gain more Twitter followers.

For those who haven’t heard, Chipotle’s Twitter stream appeared to have been hacked as a series of bizarre and nonsensical tweets were posted over the span of several hours – until the company claimed to have solved the problem.

As it turned out … the whole thing was completely manufactured – all of those crazy tweets published by the company itself.

A few days later, a Chipotle spokesperson came clean, admitting that the whole episode was actually a carefully orchestrated effort to gain more Twitter followers, in concert with the company’s 20th anniversary.

Did it work?  Evidently yes … because Chipotle had ~4,000 more Twitter followers at the end of the campaign than it did at the beginning.

But some marketing professionals were critical of the ploy.  Here are a few representative comments:

  • Chipotle is a brand about honesty and authenticity; faking a hack if off-brand.”  (Rick Liebling, Y&R Creative Culturalist)
  • “Most of these stunts … strike me as being pretty lazy.  It’s like making your CEO do a press conference drunk and then apologizing for it once he sobers up.”  (Ian Schafer, Deep Focus CEO)
  • Chipotle’s pico de gallo was more ‘weak sauce’ than ‘muy caliente.’”  (Saya Weissman, Digiday Editor)

On second thought, perhaps it’s not such a good idea to “mess with the market” when upside is a few additional social media contacts (that probably won’t stick around), and the downside is brand irritation or even humiliation.

After all, Chipotle’s net gain in Twitter followers represented an uptick of just 1.7%

That seems a bit paltry considering the potential blowback and reputation risk.

Social Media Communities: Digital Potemkin Villages?

Social media stats riddled with fake accounts and cipher profilesMarketers like to talk about the 90-9-1 rule of web engagement: For every 100 people who are online, one person creates content … 9 people comment on that content … and the remaining 90 may lurk and read, but never participate in any other way.

The more we learn about social media engagement, the more we’re seeing the same phenomenon at work. To wit, studies of social networks like Twitter, Facebook and Google+ are finding far fewer numbers of “real” and “active” users than the gross statistics would suggest.

Alarmingly, these evaluations are finding that as many as half of social media accounts could be fake, or are ones that contain no user profiles.

And if there isn’t a user profile, of what value is a social media account to marketers? After all, it’s the information in these user profiles that provides the data for targeted advertising and marketing campaigns.

Just how extensive is the problem?

Let’s start with Google+, one of the latest entrants into the social media sweepstakes. Kevin Kelly, an industry specialist, published author and former editor of Wired magazine, recently conducted an analysis of the ~560,000 people who have him in their Google+ “circles.”

Reviewing a random sample of these ~560,000 users, he found that the majority of them had not made a single post … had not posted their image … and/or had never made a single comment.

More specifically, here’s what Kelly found:

Only ~30% had ever posted anything
 ~6% were “spammers”
 Fully ~36% were “ghosts” … accounts lacking even a user profile

Evidently, Google+ is taking “ghostwriting” to new heights.

What about Twitter?

Several editors at Popular Mechanics magazine reported recently that only ~25% of their Twitter followers were “real.” About half were identified as fake users or spammers.

Twitter may be tweeting away … but how many people are actually listening and who’s actually engaging?

Who’s gaming the system here? Clearly, there are reasons why people are trying to show higher social media engagement than is actually occurring. Marketing campaigns love to cite metrics where the number of followers and “likes” is high. It’s great for bragging rights … and sometimes financially beneficial, too, when performance goals are met and monetary payouts triggered.

And today there are plenty of ways for people to find services that will jumpstart campaigns by garnering thousands of followers or “likes” … all for a tidy fee, of course.

It would be nice if the social media platforms would step up to the plate and show some transparency in what’s going on. It’s highly likely that these platforms have developed sophisticated ways to pinpoint which of their accounts are real … versus those that are contrived.

But will they be publishing their findings anytime soon? Don’t hold your breath.

Until marketers can get a better handle on the “real facts” behind the elevated engagement numbers being hyped, it’s best to view any such stats with a jaundiced eye.

Here’s a suggestion: Take any stats you might hear about page “likes,” viral video views and the like … and discount them by a massive percentage – say, by 50%. Then, you might be approaching the reality.

Over time, we’ll probably learn more about “authenticity” when it comes to tracking true activity and engagement in the social realm. Marketers would do well to demand it. It’s just not clear how soon it’ll happen.

Until then, keep your antenna up and apply caveats all over the place.