The Silver Bullet? Not!

Silver BulletBusinesses everywhere are searching with ever-increasing frenzy for the wonder drug that’s going to help their businesses do more sales. A few years ago it was search engine optimization. Today it’s social media marketing.  My take on this is to do your company a favor and save your money because using social media as a pathway to sales is almost certainly not going to work to the degree you want.  What? Heresy you say?

You see, while social media can be a valuable marketing tool, it’s not magic, it is not a miracle, and it cannot and won’t replace everything that came before it. By itself, social media doesn’t work well.  I realize what I’m saying is not likely to be well-received, especially with the hundreds of people who have set themselves up as social media experts over the last year. I can understand why people think social media will cure everything, but I challenge anybody reading this to produce a real success story that has led to an actual increase in sales.

Just take a look at the top brands on Facebook (www.fanpagelist.com/category/brands) to see which brands people Like and Follow on Facebook and Twitter respectively. It’s hard not to be amazed.  The #20 brand (Skittles) has more fans than there are people who live in Texas! Yup…Texas. Wow!  Who needs paid media when you can reach a mass audience for free?   Surely that’s an opportunity just too good to miss, right? Surely it makes sense to place a chunk of your limited and stretched marketing budget on a social media expert who promises to get your message out there so that the profits will roll in. Right?

Well, hold on for a reality check. One significant fact is that most of the top social brands continue to invest heavily in traditional media.  Coke is near the top of the top brands on Facebook with more than 70 million followers. WalMart has over 30 million.  The route to social media success, it seems, runs through traditional channels.  Even the exceptions like YouTube and Starbucks are worth looking at. They obviously didn’t grow into superstar brands using Facebook and Twitter but rather use social media to capitalize on brand equity they have already built-up.  In fact, when Google started getting serious competition, they started running TV ads.  When there’s a product launch, a sale or just about any other occasion where you need to reach a mass audience quickly and effectively, there’s still no substitute for paid media…and the dot com’s know it.

Social media is a long, hard row to hoe. There’s no quick success and very few programs break through. Ask any company in the country and they’ll tell you they have some kind of social media program in place. Some of the more active companies write a few blog posts a week; reply to comments and questions on a daily basis; and update their Twitter and Facebook feeds repeatedly. A tiny, tiny proportion of them are having anything that resembles significant impact. Fact is, Coca-Cola says it can find no correlation between “buzz” on Twitter and actual unit sales. Auto manufacturer Nissan admits it has no idea if social media helps it shift cars. MasterCard can’t tie its social investment to revenues. In fact, there remains little evidence social media does anything to boost brands’ bottom lines.

Our firm’s experience has been pretty much the same.  Although LinkedIn groups were helpful in the beginning, Facebook and Twitter were almost useless for the first year.  It took awhile to build a following and learn how to develop it before we saw any benefits that justified the effort.

Oh, and let’s not forget about that group of mysterious online people out there that supposedly hold all the cards … the “Influentials.”  Tap into them and they’ll disperse your message to the masses, or so some would have us believe. The fact is that in-depth research into the matter finds this whole idea completely baseless. Brands like Apple, Harley Davidson and Trader Joes, for instance, have been able to build an army of passionate followers without an “influencers” strategy.

That doesn’t mean that influence doesn’t exist.  It does.  TV show host Oprah Winfrey  is very influential as doctors are when it comes to health issues, clergy for spiritual issues and so on.  However, there’s nothing mysterious about them.  Marketers have long used celebrity endorsements, trade marketing and community outreach where appropriate.  The truth is that brands are not built by influential people, but by influential ideas. The problem is that so called “influencers” aren’t that much more influential than anybody else.  Don’t take my word for this. Go online and do your own research and see for yourself.

Again, social media by itself is not a great way to build a brand.  You’re just inserting yourself into an ocean of jumbled voices and are unlikely to stand out. Marketers like to complain about the clutter in traditional media, but in social media it’s so much more cluttered.

So then why use social media at all?  The reason is that it is an impactful vehicle for empowering advocacy and we know that’s extremely important for brand health and profitability.  Social media, if done right, can capitalize on what brand equity your company has already built up.

So when I hear social media “experts” who make outrageous claims, who state misleading research, who use everything from stories to rumors to masquerade as facts, whose bias renders them short of perspective, and who completely dismiss the power of ‘traditional’ advertising… they’re ONLY, ONLY, voicing their opinion and not “showing me the beef.”

While social media is a vitally important component of an overall effort, it’s no replacement for sound marketing principles.

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One Response to The Silver Bullet? Not!

  1. Carl Cassidy says:

    With more than 30 years in Consumer Package Goods Marketing Including both domestic and International experience as the VP of International Marketing for a $6 billion dollar global consumer packaged goods company, I couldn’t agree with you more. I am currently the President of a Canadian Marketing and Communication agency, and like you, have had the same experience in dealing with the flavour of the month, namely social media, the so called “latest and least expensive short cut to increased sales and profits”.

    I would posit that it’s human nature to embrace a practice that every one is “sold on”, after all, as the old saying went back when personal business computers were in their infancy, ” you can’t be fired for buying IBM”. A lot of what I see now is a mindless case of monkey see monkey do reinforced by anecdotal case histories based on conjecture but no hard evidence.

    The biggest problem I have is convincing clients that Social Media is only one approach that should be explored when setting out their strategy, not the only one. Social Media is a tactic by the way that is not only hard to track, but virtually impossible to prove in respect to its efficacy. I have yet to see any real measurable evidence tracking to actual sales and I contend it’s impossible to prove Social Media’s value based on return on capital analysis.

    Carl Cassidy
    President
    Impaq Marketing & Communications Inc.

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