Losing faith in social media

by Tom Albrighton 25 May 2011 Digital and social, Popular

Oh no I’ve said too much
I haven’t said enough
REM, lyrics to ‘Losing my Religion’

I recently wrote a guest post for Econsultancy entitled ‘Are we in a social media bubble?’, which suggested that social media was overvalued, both by investors and by marketers.

It was interesting to see the reaction. As you’d expect at Econsultancy, many people didn’t agree with me – but a good number did.

Some commenters described the article as ‘jumbled’ and ‘full of holes’, which was hardly surprising, since it was written on a difficult subject, at the very limit of my knowledge.

Others, including some professional social media marketers, offered balanced, reasonable replies. That was gracious of them, since on one level my post was a mischievous trollbomb designed to get a reaction – albeit one that I put a lot of effort into.

What I didn’t get, however, was a flurry of links to authoritative case studies demonstrating killer ROI or a deluge of sales from social media. When I was researching, I was worried that I was missing something – after all, could the social media gospel really be built on such a thin foundation of proof? Well, turns out it can.

The map is not the territory

Recently, I’ve been reading How to do better creative work by Steve Harrison, a brilliant former copywriter and creative director who worked with Drayton Bird and David Ogilvy. He ascribes the start of digital/social hype to the concept of permission marketing, popularised by Seth Godin.

Permission marketing hinges on the idea that customers want transaction, control and interactivity in their buying experiences – that they want a ‘conversation’ with brands. This seductive, powerful idea has become the central belief of digital marketers, particularly those working in social media. ‘Everything has changed’ is an oft-heard refrain – indeed, it’s being wheeled out all over again in regard to mobile.

However, permission marketing is just that: an idea rather than an observable real-world phenomenon. It’s a theory, or perhaps a rationalisation, that reconciles marketers’ existing goals with emergent consumer behaviour. It’s something we believe in because we want it to be true.

Intellectual glue

Rather than catering to an express desire to interact with brands, social media marketing tries to take people’s love of interaction and redirect it for commercial ends. The concepts of permission, interaction and engagement provide the intellectual ‘glue’ that bind marketing and social media together.

Dig around, and you’ll find remarkably little concrete proof that social media drives sales. Engagement, yes; cash money, no. As I noted in my Econsultancy post, a lot of the well-worn examples, like Dell, don’t look so pretty when you get up close. Try to cut through the brand-waffle to something concrete, and you’ll often find there’s nothing there. Hence the lack of evidential challenge to my post.

Hence, also, the weak pro-social media argument that ‘your customers are there, so you need to be there too’. Not ‘your customers are buying products like yours through social media, right now’. As yet, the most convincing argument we have is that brands have got to find a way to invade the social space somehow. But just because they want to doesn’t mean they can.

Of course, it may be that it takes time for social-media benefit to filter through from brand equity to sales. But time’s getting on. Where is Godot?

Gimme some truth

In my Econsultancy post, I drew an analogy between the subprime bubble and the social media boom.

Like all analogies, it illuminated some parts of the issue while obscuring others. Metaphors must be used with care, or you end up in a world of abstraction, seeing parallels that aren’t there.

What is certain about social media? Opinions are subjective and self-serving. Statistics are selective. But our own experience is always real, if only to ourselves.

So here are some of my own experiences of social media and the wider digital realm.

  • I am 39 years old, with a young child and a reasonable disposable income but very little spare time. That puts me squarely in the target market for a host of brands.
  • There are a handful of brands I really like – Apple, North Face, PlayStation. I have zero interest in engaging or interacting with them. I have desultorily friended them on Facebook, where I invariably skip over their updates. Life is too short.
  • I have played one branded online game in my life (created by O2). I won some SMS credits that I had 24 hours to use. I would never spend time on any such online promotion again, and if one of my friends suggested I did do, I would feel embarrassed for them.
  • I follow around 2000 people on Twitter. None are brands. I do not follow back anyone, business or individual, with a commercial or self-promotional message in their last three tweets. I have clicked on a sponsored trending topic once, and never will again.
  • Twitter has played a part, but not been instrumental, in gaining me two or three pieces of work from new contacts. In each case, I think it was this blog, plus my experience, that sealed the deal, rather than my social presence. (For me, the major commercial benefit of Twitter has been in publicising blog posts, which encourages links, which improves SEO, which drives traffic, which generates leads.)
  • At the time of writing, I have posted 8681 tweets. At one minute per tweet, that’s 18 eight-hour days spent on Twitter (and that discounts reading time). Since I tweet in work time, that represents many thousands of pounds in opportunity cost ‘spent’ on Twitter. The work gained from Twitter doesn’t outweigh that cost – nowhere near.

I’m absolutely not saying that my experiences are representative. I’m just saying they’re real. And, in fact, I suspect they’re more representative than a lot of social media pros would like to admit.

Why am I saying all this? To make the point that I can’t square my own experience with the party line on social media. Increasingly, I find it hard to espouse a vision of social media where people ‘out there’ are supposed to act in ways that I simply can’t identify with. It’s hard to give clients advice that I feel, from my own experience, just isn’t right.

Are you keeping the faith?

Tags: , , , , ,