Last Saturday I sat down with an old friend from the advertising wars and had a three hour discussion on the future of advertising and marketing. After a very short time, it became clear that both of us were harbouring doubts about the true strength, power and utility of Social Media platforms as they relate to major companies trying to build their audiences and brand perceptions.
Let’s be clear here. I’m not talking about mom and pop businesses or individual consultants, or professionals of any sort and even a number of small businesses. In fact, I would postulate that Social Media is probably one of the most cost effective ways for them to build their brands and their perceptions. No, we are talking about large businesses whose extended marketing staff now includes social media gurus.
Social Media platforms have sprung up over the last decade or less like weeds on the digital landscape. And for marketing people in larger companies it started as a bit of a curiosity. So they started to open their doors to the social media “experts’, who sat them down and very confidently explained that this is where you absolutely have to be in order to make sure that your brand is truly engaging your customers. This was not positioned as an option, but as an absolute necessity. Of course there was no performance data, research studies or any other sort of empirical evidence to back this new necessity. But the thrill of the new combined with a true lack of knowledge about it caused a lot of companies to jump in with both feet.
Over time, this jumping in with both feet and the expense that it represented had to come from somewhere in the marketing and communications budget, and this was the beginning of the Great Diversion. When traditional agencies saw their budgets being cut to fund this adventure into the brave new digital world, they did what agencies always do…they started acquiring the companies and expertise they would need to make it profitable for them.
They had already had experience with the digital world, as many of them had annexed web design companies or started their own divisions when that revolution started. So this was nothing new.
Unlike many other forms of media, however what is different about Social Media is that, at the end of the day, it is very difficult to actually quantify results, unless, of course that is all you are doing in terms of marketing, or if you are just counting hits. But hits, as we have all learned, mean very little.
So this can put anyone who is proffering or brokering social media services in a bit of an awkward position, the disadvantages of which will sooner or later rear their ugly heads.
A couple of weeks ago another friend of mine gave me the lowdown on how this works from an agency perspective. The figures were astonishing…as this particular agency had managed to turn what appeared to be a very low performing Facebook page into a relatively large cash cow that accommodated a substantial number of hours for pretty much everybody on the account & creative teams, and of course their good old social media guru. On balance, the agency and likely every other agency that manages Social Media programs for their clients, was probably making more off the brand than they ever were before Social Media came along and so have become huge cheerleaders for it. All this despite the fact that there is still very little in the way of substantiation that the program was doing anything positive for their client’s brand or even attracting all that many visitors.
The reason this friend was talking to me in the first place is that the client, a national advertiser, has started to feel that there has to be a more cost effective way of maintaining their social media presence…so you could say, that in a way, a backlash has already begun.
Now, of course, there are national brands that have very strong social media programs that generate tons of traffic from which you can infer a level of customer appreciation…how much nobody can say.
And this brings us back to my original conversation. There has been a lot of talk lately about the erosion of consumer trust that has been created by advertising these days. Yet, by the same token, spending in television advertising has increased by double digit percentages and is projected to keep on going that way. And social media sites are all scrambling to increase advertising revenues so they can stay in business.
This says a couple of very key things. One is the ‘social’ side of social media is just that. And it’s my belief, as it is my friend’s, that people participating in social media are not doing that as consumers, but as people. And so far, the majority of attempts to engage them or give them an outstanding social media experience that will also strengthen the perception of the sponsoring brands hasn’t really succeeded to any appreciable extent or you would surely be hearing about it from the various media moguls themselves. You could argue that it may over time, but I could argue back that people don’t really change. The vast majority of people who come to social media come to further a personal or political agenda, be social (meet new people or renew old acquaintances), or promote their small business.
The second key thing is that big corporations can throw tons of money at Social Media, but at the end of the day, most of what they are left with is a) another showroom for their new products or b) a slightly better than a landing page way to promote. Either way, they still have to spend a considerable amount of money on media advertising to get people to show up in the first place. This is still pretty much virgin territory and it’s my belief there’s a long way to go before anybody really figures out how to push the right buttons consistently.
Now I understand that this is a highly debatable stance. But I am a big believer in “What goes around, comes around.” I believe in Social Media, but I don’t believe that it is the answer for a great many big businesses, especially those with retail networks to support. A lot of this fascination with Social Media has to do with the fact that business is so hungry for data on their customers that they have forgotten that marketing needs to appeal to both the heart and the brain.
This link, to an article of probably the smartest advertising guy on the planet, Sir John Hegarty, makes a very solid case for the necessity for marketers and advertising people to get back to being creative and start paying more attention to ideas as opposed to big data.
Because, in advertising, which is really all Social Media actually is, that’s how people are persuaded and that’s how brands are built and sustained.