In the world of business and private communications, social media is here to stay. But is it supplanting non-digital media for business marketing yet – and how can one accurately measure it? San Reddy discusses the dark side of digital marketing
Digital marketers – just like traditional ones – love to bandy about statistics to bolster their causes. We got so many tweets and retweets, so many likes, so many Facebook fans, they say. But what does it all mean beyond just impressive-sounding numbers, and how does it stack up against traditional media’s audience measurement?
The first thing to bear in mind is that digital – in other words, online- and mobile-based communications, and social media in particular – is a technology; it is the medium, not the message. It enables us to communicate, and fulfil our all-too-human need to connect with each other, in fabulous ways never seen or considered before. That we use technology to communicate is not new – we just use smartphones now instead of cleft sticks.
The major difference now is that social media allows a two-way conversation between companies and their audiences, where traditional media communication has always been rather one-way. Now, companies can engage with their customers in a more direct – more “social” – way, and almost instantly quickly get a sense of how they feel about products and services.
It’s a wonderful thing, promising all manner of positive interactions with the outside world. It also forces corporates to be a lot more responsible about how they present themselves to their publics, who are better-informed and less likely to be taken in by marketing eyewash.
But there’s a dark side to opening up the communication channels to everyone: it brings the “trolls” out of the woodwork, and allows them to do all kinds of malicious damage to individuals and brands. The fact that many celebrities – among them Ashton Kutcher, one of the biggest tweeters of all – are now swearing off Twitter because of such nasties, may be an indication of where things will eventually lead.
That new technologies allow us to forge new communications channels, is also not new. Think of when media consisted of newspapers only, how things must have been shaken up by that new-fangled thing called radio. And then television came along. And then telexes and faxes. And then email, cellphones and the Internet. Now smartphones and tablets are the technologies du jour.
Some of those earlier technologies have faded into obscurity, to be sure. Telex machines are the stuff of museums, and when last did any of us laboriously feed paper into a fax machine and dial up the recipient? But lots of non-digital technologies remain, and still thrive, in this digital age.
The critical thing is advertising. It is the lifeblood of traditional media, without which we would not have newspapers, commercial radio or television. Advertising decisions are founded on audience demographics. The great issue with social media now is how to replicate that, and measure success.
For traditional media, that’s fairly simple. The standards by which one determines readerships, listenerships and viewerships are universally accepted, and easily discerned through recognised bodies like our own SA Advertising Research Foundation. So advertisers generally have a very good idea of the audiences they are reaching, and are able to measure business outcomes.
The same can’t be said of social media campaigns – yet. While things such as likes and retweets certainly give one an indication of interest, and there are various tools available to analyse traffic patterns and trending, they give us no clues about who is participating, where they are, what their socio-economic demographics are, how active they are, and whether or not they’re buying the message (or product.) So we still haven’t got our heads around that all-important return on investment.
For example, Paris Hilton recently did a sponsored tweet – for a fee of $3 000 – for The Next Web’s 2012 conference, she generated 2 652 visits to its website over a week or so. On the face of it, that sounds great, and 75% were new visitors. However, 85% of them bounced; basically, they took a quick look and navigated away. If the other 15% bought tickets to the conference, then it would have been a cost-effective exercise. Even The Next Web concedes that a proper call-to-action on its website would have generated more traffic in a single day, and not cost it a cent.
And not even marketers themselves can tell how one measures return on investment, it would seem. An illuminating 2012 social media marketing industry survey by the Social Media Examiner, which polled more than 3 800 marketers, produced 10 leading questions they have – and top of the list (for the third year running!) was: how do I measure the effect of social media marketing on my business?
Sub-questions to this were identified as: what is the best way to measure the ROI of social media marketing? How do I track social media performance and make good business decisions? What are the best measurement tools? Are there any industry benchmarks against which to measure our practices?
Sadly, these questions remain unanswered in the report – but the takeaway here is, if even marketers don’t know how to accurately figure out the business value of social media campaigns for their clients, how will the rest of us make any headway?
Companies wishing to promote themselves are falling over each other in the headlong rush not to be left behind by Web 2.0 – principally, the social media revolution, because everyone else is doing it. But they often don’t ask whether or not employing social media is the best strategy for them, or interrogate return on investment potential.
They just want to go viral, often because they erroneously believe that social media allows them to collapse marketing, advertising and public relations together into one, cheap solution. They don’t realise that there is every possibility that it will them cost a bomb, it is labour-intensive to manage, it may end up giving them a huge reputational headache, and that “going viral” is actually rare and incredibly difficult to achieve.
In an interesting recent opinion article on www.memeburn.com, titled ‘Stop wasting time and money on bad social media marketing’, commentator David Graham raises a few pertinent red flags.
Firstly, he argues, bad information spreads quicker than good. He’s right: media have made great profits out of life’s disasters, and why? Because we love bad news. We also love to complain more than compliment – and that’s risky territory on social media.
Further, Graham says, companies launching social media campaigns should be aware that users are fickle, and will drop a social media platform as quickly as they embrace one. Facebook has ruled the roost since nobbling MySpace (remember that one?), and may have almost as many members as India’s population, but Google+ is catching up. Projections are that it will have 400-million users by year-end, more than half of Facebook’s tally. Is this the beginning of the end for Facebook – and where does it leave marketers who like Facebook likes?
Lastly, Graham admonishes us to “not ever believe the numbers” (his emphasis.) Wildly exaggerated statistics are often bought hook, line and sinker by companies – without any indication of how accurate, relevant or current they are. But until we have measurement tools on a par with those employed for traditional media, we really won’t know these things with any degree of accuracy.
When it comes down to it, any firms considering the social media route should first ask whether or not it will be useful to their business, and how returns can be reasonably quantified. They should weigh up the risks of a social media campaign, such as allowing those pernicious trolls the unfettered opportunity to trash their corporate name.
And they should consider the benefits to their business of social media, against those of traditional media; each has its pros and cons, after all. Or they can really be smart, and work out a way to integrate both into their campaign – and reach both those who tweet, and those who like a good, old-fashioned ink-and-paper read.
San Reddy is MD of marcusbrewster. This story was republished with the permission of marcusbrewster.