You probably found this headline annoying. At least, if you're like many marketing executives, who according to a recent survey now find "social media" to be the most annoying buzzword.
No surprise. After all, despite the hype, we can't even agree on the term's definition. The continuously debated Wikipedia entry, for example, includes everything from sticky slogans to public speaking. (And while this blog offers the "inside scoop" on social media, it's doubtful we'll see many entries on creating memorable jingles.)
But let's assume, for the sake of this post, that by "social media" we mean new online tools, such as Facebook and Twitter, that facilitate sharing personal information. Clearly we can all agree that these tools can help us grow brands and revenue. Right?
Perhaps. But from my perspective, the verdict's still out on the comparative cost-effectiveness of the approach. As someone obsessed with (and paid to measure and improve) marketing return on investment, I'm an admitted social media skeptic. Not a cynic, as I believe there's some value, much of it still being determined. But from research and experience, including analytics work with prominent brands, I believe that we as an industry hold too many assumptions, including:
- Social media can create a brand. I call this "be-like-Obama" syndrome, after exploding interest in social media following Barack's successful campaign for president. What many people forget is the amount of media exposure Obama had before anyone dreamed of social media technologies like Twitter. In fact, searches for "Barack Obama" exceeded searches for "Twitter" until about the first quarter of 2009. Did social media help Obama win? Sure. Did it establish the Obama brand, or even have more impact than endorsements from influential people like Oprah? Doubtful. And definitely unproven.
- Social media sharing is equivalent to real word of mouth. This is an implicit assumption, I believe, amongst many marketers. For example, it includes the idea that someone "fanning" or sharing a company's page on Facebook is equivalent to someone directly recommending that company to their friends. It also includes the idea that the number of fans or followers a company has on a social site correlates with the loyalty or buying behaviour of said fans or followers. The correlation is loose at best. Even within our own social circles, studies show that, despite having hundreds of friends on a social media site, we still tend to have the same number of real friends we have always had. So what does friending or fanning actually mean? The difference between fanning a company and recommending it directly to a friend is, I believe, like the difference between posting your personal interests on Facebook for random strangers to see and walking up to random strangers in the street to deliver the same information. We make distinctions.
Big social media users are big influencers and buyers. Make no mistake, most of the internet population (over 75%) uses social media sites. So those sites should be a great channel for influencing and driving buying decisions. But are they? The verdict's out, but I've yet to see convincing data from market research or client analytics. In fact, social media sites tend to perform poorly for directly driving engaged traffic and sales to client websites. Granted, social media return on investment may be harder to measure, and longer-term. But there's an implicit assumption that the biggest users of social media are also a brand's biggest buyers and influencers. For example, people commonly want to get more fans for their company's Facebook page (reminiscent of wanting more traffic, rather than the right traffic, for websites), the implicit assumption being that these fans have more worth than non-fans. In fact, the heaviest users of social sites, and hence those most likely to fan a page, are often just those with the most time. And while some of those with the most time are the biggest influencers and buyers, this correlation is speculative at best and, I would wager, often inverse. How much time do high-income and high-power demographic groups, like CEOs, spend on social media sites relative to other users?
Those are a few of the assumptions I commonly encounter, but there are no doubt many more. Overall, there's an assumption that social media return on investment has already been quantified, and that social media works equally well for all brands, categories and industries. In fact, while some surveys and studies are emerging, most of the data highlight correlation rather than causation.
So what are we to do? Let's approach social media as scientist marketers. We have our hypotheses and assumptions. Now we need to gather data, both en masse and for individual brands, to test them. We need to know relative return on investment between social media and other digital tactics.
Which leads to the question: What are your unproven assumptions about social media? Post them in the comments. And if you have proof, please post that for everyone to see as well.
Simon Smith is Chief Strategist with Commune Media, a company with a (sometimes curmudgeonly) focus on improving marketing return on investment through services including web analytics and search marketing. Despite his social media skepticism, you can find him on Twitter.