Bursting the social media bubble

June 2018

About 3 years ago when I was carrying out an interim marketing director position for a relatively small FMCG food company, their commercial director gleefully gave me a book entitled ‘social media is bullshit’. His motivation for the gift – and he’d purchased enough copies to furnish all of the board of directors – was largely driven by opposition to the MD’s almost obsessive love for all-things social media, and specifically that much of our marketing effort should be focused on it. The commercial director wanted my support, though even ahead of the gifted book he already pretty much had it.

The book in question, first published in 2012, is written by B. J. Mendelson – a US-based journalist and writer. Fair to say that brevity isn’t one of the author’s strong points, though, and unsurprisingly given the title, it essentially concludes that, as a marketing tool, social media just doesn’t cut it and never will. Indeed, he’s positively scathing about the channel.

More recently just back in April and as you’ll have no doubt seen in the news, Tim Martin of Wetherspoon announced that he was dropping all of the pub chain’s social media accounts, and cited a number of reasons but not least that managing the pages was a distraction to what his management teams should be doing – serving customers. There was much debate in the marketing world around whether or not this was the right decision, but I was clear on my position: he did the right thing. Of course the other side of the argument was that he could have employed an agency to run the multiple accounts, but then that rather misses the point of social media. But more than that, there just wouldn’t have been the return on investment to justify such a move. Indeed, as Professor Mark Ritson brilliantly summed-up when he wrote about the same subject “If you stack up the number of followers brands communicate with on social media and then compare it to their actual customer base it represents a channel of low, single-digit potential. Social media is, for all intents and purposes, social – designed for people and not brands. Digital advertising makes a lot of sense because we can ride on the coat tails of this social interaction, but people connecting with brands organically on social media was BS from the beginning.”

Ritson’s point about digital advertising is also one I fully agree with, and, for example, I’ve used Facebook’s advertising platform for some of my clients and to reasonable success.

But before I give the impression that I’ve turned against organic social media as a marketing tool, let me clearly state that I haven’t. What I am saying is a) that, in very broad terms, its value is much less than paid social, b) it’s been massively hyped to a level in the marketing tools and tactics armoury which it simply doesn’t deserve, but c) for certain brands, in certain markets, to deliver certain marketing strategies, it unquestionably has a role to play.

To help illustrate my last point, it is somewhat ironic – though very deliberate – that I’m going to use a social media company’s Facebook account as a shining example. The social media company, which carries out consultancy and training, is owned and run by a chap I know quite well, and fair to say that he’s the most knowledgeable person I’ve come across on the planet when it comes to the channel. Indeed, I occasionally work with him and he’s carried out some excellent training for some of my clients. So I did some very basic analysis which covered 8 posts he put up over the course of 4 weeks on his company’s Facebook page, and can report:

· 3 of the posts had no likes, no shares and no comments

· None of the posts had any shares or comments

· 3 posts had 2 likes

· 2 posts had 1 like

· The few likes that were gained came from his own team members

I then compared the results to his own personal page which largely has posts about his work, and without boring you with the numbers I can summarise them by saying: loads of likes, some shares and plenty of comments. We can conclude from this very basic piece of research and analysis:

A. Even for a social media company who’ll know every trick in the book to get engagement, in a B2B marketing sense having a Facebook page has largely turned out to be a complete waste of time and effort (indeed, it could even be argued that having one is somewhat counter-productive to such a business as his . . . ). Though that isn’t to say it is for all companies operating in B2B markets – and I’ve given an example further down.

B. In a ‘social’ sense – so the clue’s in the word – the business owner was able to gain considerable engagement with not dissimilar content on his own page.

But of course, the value of social media for business and specifically Facebook isn’t just about marketing, and for some companies operating in some markets it can also be a very useful customer service channel – and often whether or not you want it to be, because for many consumers it’s their go-to choice.

So where does all this leave us? Much of my consultancy work is now for SMEs, so it’s for companies of this size that I’ll focus five key points of advice:

1. In a purely marketing sense, social media platforms are simply tools that you can use at a tactical level as part of delivering certain marketing strategies (some strategies will require no social media at all), and whether you use organic, paid or a combination of the two. So start with a marketing strategy – not a list of social media platforms you might not need.

2. In a broader sense, you can have a social media strategy which might also include its use a customer service channel and even research tool for NPD.

3. Before deciding which social media platforms to use, carefully consider a) what’s appropriate to the markets you operate in, and b) what you’re actually going to use it for (so points 1 and 2 above). As part of this assessment, it’s worth digging deep because some platforms are actively used by relatively niche industries. For example, architects use Pinterest – which rather makes sense when you think about it.

4. Ensure that the time and money (and time itself is of course money for any business owner) that you put into social media is proportionate to the value you get back. And as part of this, measure results properly – e.g. if you’re looking to generate traffic from your chosen social media platforms to an ecommerce offer, then set up goals in Google Analytics to see what level of sales you’re actually achieving.

5. If your business is largely about you (as mine would be) then it’s typically better to have the account in your name – but of course make the content about what you do, as is the case with my social media friend above. This is why LinkedIn is so successful for individuals (accepting it’s a social network not social media) rather than companies.

So whilst the title of the book I started talking about isn’t entirely one I agree with, there’s certainly a big element of truth in it – and to the point that the on-going social media bubble needs bursting.

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