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'Social media marketing' is completely useless – but it could be a lot better


By Samuel Scott, The Promotion Fix columnist

April 10, 2017 | 12 min read

It was going to be a glorious age. A pristine age. An age without advertising. Social media was going to kill everything from TV commercials to display advertisements. People were going to 'engage' and have 'conversations' with brands instead.

social media marketing

Too bad it was completely wrong.

Someone might want to tell that to Adidas chief executive Kasper Rorsted, who recently suggested that the company is dropping television ads in favour of pursuing digital "engagement".

Who do people follow on social media?

According to Socialbakers, here are the top US-based Facebook pages:

Facebook pages stats in United States

Count the brands.

The top UK-based Facebook pages:

Facebook pages stats in United Kingdom

Count the brands.

According to Twitaholic, here are the top Twitter accounts in the United States based on the number of followers specifically there:

The Top 100 Twitterholics Based on Followers in US

Count the brands.

The top Twitter accounts in the United Kingdom based on the number of followers specifically there: Top 100 Twitterholics UK

Who do people follow on social media? Celebrities, sports teams, politicians and political causes, and news sources. Not brands. For most companies, only a small percentage of current and potential customers will want to follow them on social media.

With whom do people interact on social media?

Here are two mental exercises. First, go and look at your past 20 actions on your personal Facebook and Twitter accounts. Better still, look at 50 or 100. What percentage involved the pages of brands, and what percentage involved friends, family members, that person you secretly like and other flesh-and-blood human beings?

Second, imagine yourself entering a supermarket. Ask random people – normal people, not marketers – if they want to “have a relationship” with any of the products in their shopping carts. They’ll probably punch you in the face for being a pervert. (Due credit: Ad Contrarian Bob Hoffman’s “Refrigerator Test” was the inspiration for this example.)

People use social media to catch up on the news, connect with friends and family and get updates on the things with which they have intense, personal connections such as their favorite celebrities and sports teams. The last thing that they think about is interacting with brands.

What is the reach and engagement rate of social media?

As of February 2016, the average organic post by a Facebook page is seen by only 11% of the company’s followers. According to a late 2015 Forrester report, only 0.22% of the Facebook followers of major brands “engage” with organic company posts. In other words, only 1 out of every 455 followers will see as well as 'engage' with an organic post by a major brand’s Facebook page.

(I put engage in quotes because no one really knows the value of online 'engagement'. If I am watching the latest episode of Westworld, then my undivided attention is on the programme. I am truly engaged. But if I scroll through my Facebook news feed and like random posts that I will forget seconds later, what is the real value of each 'engagement'?)

Remember: Those organic reach and engagement numbers also take into account only the small number of consumers who have already chosen to follow a brand. The numbers are even lower in the context of the entire market.

In the United Kingdom, one has to go to number 30 in Socialbakers' list of the Facebook pages with the most followers in the UK to reach the first brand: Coca-Cola.

While a Coca-Cola Great Britain spokesperson would not divulge the number of Britons who regularly drink Coke specifically, the official told me over email that 46 million people in the UK have a soft drink every day. Coca-Cola has been estimated to have a 50% market share in the global soft-drink market, so I will use that percentage in the following calculations

  • Coca-Cola, then, has roughly 23 million users in the UK.
  • Coca-Cola has 2.5 million Facebook followers in the UK.
  • Therefore, only 11% of Coca-Cola’s customers follow the company on Facebook.
  • Based on the data mentioned above, a given organic post by Coca-Cola will be seen by only 275,000 people (11% of the 2.5 million followers) and therefore only 1.20% of all customers.
  • The post will receive organic 'engagement' from only 5,500 people (0.22% of 2.5 million) and therefore only 0.02% of all customers.

A similar calculation found that Oreo’s famous Super Bowl tweet reached less than one percent of that product’s market.

The common response to these points is that it is valuable to target people who have actively chosen to follow a brand because they 'love' it. But most of the revenue of many brands comes from light, occasional users. I buy a small bottle of Coca-Cola Zero every day or two – just like countless other people – but I’m not going to follow the company’s Facebook page. I want no more “engagement” than simply to buy a bottle at the local kiosk every so often.

Seven years ago, Matt Dixon and Lara Ponomareff wrote almost exactly that in a Harvard Business Review article on the rise of self-service aptly entitled 'Why Your Customers Don’t Want to Talk to You':

“Maybe customers are shifting toward self service because they don’t want a relationship with companies. While this secular trend could be explained away as just a change in consumers’ channel preferences, skeptics might argue that customers never wanted the kind of relationship that companies have always hoped for, and that self service now allows customers the 'out' they’ve been looking for all along.”

How social media can actually be helpful

Social media will never 'create relationships' between brands and consumers. But there is another problem that is worse than marketers falling for that grand delusion. Bad marketers have been spamming the world with crap marketing.

Digital marketers often talk about social networks in the context of the hack-infested world of 'inbound marketing' in which people do whatever it takes – such as putting clickbait headlines on useless pieces of garbage 'content' – to maximise direct response social shares and website clicks, no matter what the long-term brand damage will be inflicted.

But social media has the potential to be so much more – if only marketers would think about it in the correct way.

People are never going to 'organically engage' with most brands. The solution is simply to treat social media platforms merely as new, additional channels over which marketers can choose to do traditional marketing activities. After all, no one ever said 'television marketing' or 'print marketing', so no one should say 'social media marketing'. It’s not a 'thing'. One does not 'do social media'.

It’s time to fix the promotion mix by recognising and then viewing social platforms for what they really are – additional mediums that can be used in brand advertising, direct response marketing, public relations, personal selling and sales promotions.

Using social media in the promotion mix

Brand advertising

Remember 'Back to the Future Day' in 2015? Lexus released an ad campaign on Facebook that featured its prototype hoverboard – a working hoverboard! – and received 14m views. That is not 'social media marketing' – it is doing brand advertising over social media channels.

Direct marketing

You know those ads that you see in on almost all social media networks – those 'suggested posts', sign-up forms, product advertisements and 'click to learn more' calls to action? That is not 'social media marketing' – it is doing direct-response marketing over social media channels.

Sales promotion

Pizza Hut Israel is one of the few brands that I do follow on Facebook – but only for the coupon that I see in my news feed every week. I’ll usually order Pizza Hut once every weekend. (I have a problem.) That is not 'social media marketing' – it is doing sales promotions over social media channels.

Personal selling

Salespeople love the telephone. But many of those conversations start elsewhere – and sometimes they begin on social media. That communication is not 'social media marketing' – it is doing personal selling over social media channels. (Note that I am talking about a flesh-and-blood person on social media. See the next point.)

Public relations

People hate when brands 'insert themselves into conversations' on social media. But people do talk to the real people who work for brands. Marketers can use social media when doing media relations, community relations and other PR work. That is not 'social media marketing' – it is doing public relations over social media channels.

In the future, there will be no 'social media jobs'

Traditional marketers often approach strategies in this manner:

1. Determine and prioritise the different activities within the promotion mix mentioned above based on the company’s goals and objectives.

2. Research the targeted audience segments and develop a specific media mix of channels over which to execute the campaigns.

Today, however, too many (digital-first or digital-only) marketers jump to 'social media' or even to specific platforms such as Facebook or Twitter without even bothering to determine if those channels should be used. If you ask, “What are we doing on social media?” before you even ask, “Should we be on social media?” then you’ve got a problem.

It’s called being channel-neutral. Anyone who says that a specific marketing channel is always important is selling something.

And that’s why there will be no 'social media jobs' in five years. Advertisers will do advertising over social media. Community relations people will do community relations over social media such as when they host Twitter chats. Publicists will do publicity campaigns over social media channels. Customer service representatives will do customer support over social media.

We need to separate marketing activities from marketing channels. Activities are done over channels. In five years, people will integrate social media channels into their existing activities at work just as print advertisers later had to learn how to do advertising over television.

Why? Imagine that a PR team wants to grow a community on Twitter. Which is easier to do:

  • Taking people who already do community relations within a given industry and then showing them how to use the Twitter platform?
  • Taking people who already know how to use Twitter and then showing them how to do community relations for a certain product category from scratch?

Add it up, it all spells “#duh.”

Want proof that so-called 'social media marketing' will disappear? Earlier this year, MediaPost named BBDO as the 'social media agency of the year' for 2016. After you parse the overly complex language of the announcement – as Hoffman noted at the time – it turns out that the agency won for simply running ad campaigns on Facebook.

MediaPost summarised with this statement: “The solution: Utilise Facebook not as a social network, but a ‘media channel.’”

In other words, an agency won a 'social media agency award' for simply doing advertising over that particular channel. The company got applause for treating a social media platform just like how a brand would consider television.

Still think that 'social media marketing' is a separate and distinctive 'thing' unto itself?

The Promotion Fix is a new, exclusive biweekly column for The Drum contributed by Samuel Scott, director of marketing and communications for AI-powered log analysis software platform and a global marketing speaker on integrated traditional and digital marketing. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Scott is based out of Tel Aviv, Israel.

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