Why social media is a dangerous concept

There is a hidden danger in the term social media.  It is dangerous because its name implies it can deliver all the benefits of media, but now with the added engagement opportunities that come with being social.  Media gives us scale, social gives us engagement – put the two together and we can now do engagement at scale.  Fantastic!

There is a problem though.  Unlike conventional media, social media does not have scale built into it and we can often forget this relatively obvious fact.

The reason we forget about scale is that within traditional marketing, we are accustomed to the idea that media is a channel that we can use to reach our audiences (i.e. it delivers scale to our messages).  We therefore take its’ role for granted and focus instead on the creativity of the messages we want to put into the channel.  In social media, this is why there is so much talk about increasing engagement and creating ‘engaging content’ because we assume that the media side of social media will work to spread this engagement across our target audience.  For example, in “The Power of Like 2” survey from last year, ComScore reported  that consumers who were exposed to Starbucks’ branded earned media from a friend were 38 per cent more likely to make an in-store purchase than the study’s control group.  A 38 per cent increase in propensity to purchase – what an amazing demonstration of the power of social marketing, who wouldn’t want that?  However, we forget that for this to lead to an actual 38 per cent increase in propensity to purchase this effect has to work across all of your consumers.  I.e. we have to give this effect scale.

Now when the business of creating scale was as simple as buying media channels, this wasn’t an issue, but how easy is it to generate scale in social media?  Answer: it is not very easy and is frequently impossible.

Social media was never designed as a way of spreading messages to large numbers of people.  Facebook, for example, is not really a form of media, it is more like an infrastructure, such as a phone network.   It may have 1 billion people subscribed to it, but this doesn’t mean that it is a channel you can use to reach all these people.  Just as having a phone may give you the ability to reach everyone else who also has a phone, it doesn’t give you the ability to reach all of them at the same time.   In fact, the more engaging social media becomes, the less scale it delivers.  Think about it.  We all know that social media is essentially conversational and personalised.  But conversations only work with a small group of people: the more people you add to a conversation (the more scale you add to it), the less effective it becomes.

Likewise, there is the effect which I call the Great Digital Paradox.  The main promise that digital offers to marketing is targeting.  But the problem is, the more targeted you become, the less effective traditional marketing is.  This is because traditional marketing was designed for audiences, but if you take targeting to a certain point, you stop having an audience and simply have a group of individuals.

As I am always saying in my training courses; social media is the world of the individual, whereas traditional media is the world of the audience.  And the kind of relationship you have with an audience is very different from the relationship you have with individual members of an audience.

Social media only really works on the basis of speaking to small groups of people or individuals.  It hardly ever gives you the scale or reach we assume is associated with the term media.  At one level, marketing and media people are starting to realise this and their solution to this problem is to therefore try and maximise the reach and scale of their social media properties.  This is why we see the obsession with maximising Facebook likes or even creating advertising campaigns which are designed to drive people to Facebook.  It is also why we are seeing Facebook activity linked to incentives and promotions.  The three most ‘engaging’ Facebook posts in the UK in November, as measured by Socialbakers, were all ‘click Like and get a chance to win’ posts.  But as I have said before, just because competitions make the most effective Facebook posts doesn’t mean that the most effective use of Facebook is competitions.

This has some important implications: if we can’t rely on social media to give us scale, we have to totally re-think what sort of engagement we use it to create.  It has to be a form of engagement that creates hugely greater that the engagement we are accustomed to thinking about in traditional marketing.  It has to be social engagement.

Here is an example of the difference between social engagement and marketing engagement.  Let us look at loyalty. Within the marketing world loyalty is all about incentivised repeat purchase, whereas within the social world loyalty is all about friends who will stick by you through good times and bad possible at expense to themselves.  It is the same concept but at totally different ends of an engagement spectrum.  If a brand is going to operate in the social world it has to be able to play at the social end of the engagement spectrum.

How does a brand two this?  The answer lies in looking at how individuals are actually using social media and then aligning the brands behaviour or response against this.  There are really only three forms of dominant social media behaviour.

  • First, people are using it to talk to their friends – and this is an area that is virtually impenetrable to brands because people don’t want these conversations interrupted or over-looked.
  • Second, they are using it to find information or answer questions.
  • Third, they are using it to complain about something, or to try and change something (this could be to complain about and change a government, or complain about and change a product or service).

Brands need to map their strategy against these behaviours.  This means that brands have to forget about the idea of being friends with their consumers because this isn’t a realistic behaviour.  A consumer is never going to be a friend with a brand in the same way that they are friends with real people.  You can also forget about creating lots of engaging content because people don’t actually find this sufficiently engaging – what they really want is answers to questions; they want information, not content and they want this in real time.

The principle responsibility for any brand in the social space is to listen to their consumers and answer their questions.  These can be the questions directly addressed to a brand, or they can be the questions people are asking about the category the brand plays within.  IBM, for example, has a programme called ‘Listening for Leads’.  This involves having people listen to conversations where people are asking questions for which IBM provides an answer and then joining these conversations.  IBM has generated millions of dollars in sales from doing this.

Brands also need to recognise that that there is huge value in creating relationships with those consumers who have a particular interest in their brand and this interest may even stem from the fact that they don’t like what a brand is doing.  This will only ever be a very small group – less than 0.1 per cent of a total consumer audience and their value does not stem from them being a brand ambassador of influencer, their role is help the brand improve its product, service or even marketing.  The digital peripherals company, Logitech, has created a customer service community within which consumers can answer technical questions about the companies’ products.  Logitech has worked out that some of these individuals can save Logitech of tens of thousands of dollars each in call deflection costs.  You don’t have to involve many such individuals before you start to create real value and, of course, you don’t have to pay them anything.

This is the type of engagement that brands need to concentrate on within social media.  Brands need to realise that traditional media and marketing is a high-reach, low-engagement activity, whereas social media is a low-reach, high engagement activity.  Traditional marketing activities can be made more engaging but they will rarely be engaging enough to operate effectively within the low-reach environment of social media.  Within social media, you have to create experiences or contacts that generate hugely greater value, in order to justify the fact that you will only ever be able to create such contacts with very small groups of people at any one time.  Social media may be the word we all use, but we should realise that social infrastructure is what it really is.


If you like what I think, you may like what I do http://richardstacy.com/advanced-social-media-training/

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