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Social Media: You’re Probably Doing it Wrong

Posted by Sean Carton | December 12, 2014 | 10:10am

By now, it’s a pretty sure bet that we’d all agree that social media has become a key component of any organization’s marketing plan. This year alone marketers are expected to spend $7.52 billion on social media marketing initiatives, a number that’s projected to rocket up to $17.34 billion in the next five years. And while surveys may vary slightly when it comes to who’s using social media marketing, it’s probably pretty safe to say that between 92% and 100% of marketers are turning to social media as a new way to reach their customers and prospects.

But is it working? In the 2014 Social Media Marketing Industry Report, only 34% of the 2,800 marketers surveyed felt that their Facebook marketing was effective. The well-respected CMO Survey, conducted by the faculty of Duke’s Fuqua School of Marketing, found that social media performance was pretty bleak, with only 15% of the Chief Marketing Officers surveyed reporting that they could prove the ROI of their social media marketing efforts. Given these numbers, it’s probably no surprise that a recent Forbes survey found that 70% of CEOs think that their company is wasting money on marketing initiatives with social media initiatives probably making up a large part of that CEO marketing angst.

But for every social media superstar out there, we’d bet you a donut (available weekly at idfive, by the way!) that there are literally thousands of brands out there who are struggling to make social media work for them.

Of course, there are plenty of anecdotal examples of social media campaigns that have been hugely successful. Brands are getting results: just check out this list of the top social media campaigns of 2014 on mashable.com if you have any doubt. But for every social media superstar out there, we’d bet you a donut (available weekly at idfive, by the way!) that there are literally thousands of brands out there who are struggling to make social media work for them.

If we want to understand why social media isn’t working for many, perhaps it’s best to start by asking what it is that marketers are trying to do with social media. And while asking ten marketers this question will probably yield you twenty answers, the 2014 Social Media Marketing Industry Report found that the number one question was pretty simple: how do we as marketers use social media to engage with customers?

Seems like common sense, right? After all, isn’t the promise of social media that it’s going to help us engage with our customers and prospects in a way that’s never before been possible? Isn’t it right to ask that they just “Like” us or “Follow” us and maybe engage in a little bit of conversation now and again? We all know that if we can get them to interact with us, they’re ours, right?

Maybe. But maybe not. In order to answer that question, it’s probably important to first look at how consumers go about forming opinions about companies in general. If we can understand that, we surely can figure out how to use social media.

So what really matters to consumers? A recent study published by the Society for New Communications Research found that the top five influencers of consumer attitudes were:

Seems to make sense, right? We’ve all been there: we want quality, service and the opinions of other people who matter to us. It’s common sense.

Even in the offline environment, these same kinds of qualities seem to make a big difference. In a recent survey of consumers that looked at why they shop retail (rather than online), a big chunk of them said that what they were going into the store for was to get something that’s often difficult to get online: access to help and advice to knowledgeable sales people. Unfortunately, almost three quarters of them ended up frustrated because the sales people didn’t seem to know anything about the products, didn’t know what else was in the store and hadn’t the foggiest notion what was in stock.

If you’re still waking up from Black Friday nightmares this holiday season, you’d probably agree. There’s nothing worse than going into a store and expecting that you’re going to be able to get some real help from the people who work there only to find out that they don’t know anything and are unwilling to help you. Arrghhhh!

Unfortunately, even with all the lip service being paid to “customer engagement” and the power of “conversations” we’re having with customers and prospects online via social media, the online experience doesn’t usually seem to be much better. A study by Social Media Marketing University, earlier in 2014, found that companies basically suck when it comes to responding to complaints or even comments from customers…the very stuff that social media is supposed to be all about.

Examining the question about how brands responded to customer feedback in social media, the survey found that while 60% of the companies surveyed reported receiving customer complaints via Twitter, less than 20% responded immediately to this kind of customer input.

With this kind of disconnect, it’s no surprise that 25% of the companies surveyed in the study reported that they had lost revenue due to unfavorable “buzz” on social media.

The survey then asked consumers how they felt about these kinds of interactions and the results weren’t pretty. Seventy-two percent of consumers indicated that they expected quick responses to complaints voiced in social media, with an astonishing 60% reporting that they’d be likely to take “unpleasant action” if not responded to right away. With this kind of disconnect, it’s no surprise that 25% of the companies surveyed in the study reported that they had lost revenue due to unfavorable “buzz” on social media.

The problem with social media begins to look even bleaker if you study the new E-Expectations Report from Noel-Levitz. While this survey of over 1,000 students (and their families) concentrated on the college search process that high school students were going through, its findings seem to make a lot of sense in just about every industry…and provides some great glimpses into exactly what so many marketers are getting wrong when it comes to social media.

The first indication of what’s wrong comes from their finding that social media by colleges is the least influential of all online media when it comes to forming opinions. While 75% of the survey respondents reported that the web sites of the colleges they were looking at influenced their decision to attend, less than 20% indicated that Facebook had a positive impact.

Clearly they’re looking at social media. But why doesn’t the social media marketing being thrown at them have any impact?

On the surface, it gets even stranger when you look at how the people who responded to this survey “engaged” with social media. Approximately 37% of this year’s respondents reported “following” colleges that interested them on Twitter (up from 25% in 2013) and 51% reported that they’d visited a college’s Facebook page. Clearly they’re looking at social media. But why doesn’t the social media marketing being thrown at them have any impact?

One of the big reasons is that their willingness to engage is going down. While 55% of survey respondents reported “liking” a college in 2013, that number plummeted to 35% in 2014. Thirty-five percent (35%) reported doing “nothing.” When asked why they didn’t engage, most responded that they were afraid of clicking “like” because they didn’t want to share personal information with the colleges they were looking at…a pretty reasonable approach considering what goes out in social media today.

And herein lies the entire problem with social media marketing (and why many of us are doing it wrong): we want to engage with them, but they don’t want to engage with us.

Sorry. They’re just not that into you.

The entire theory of social media marketing is the idea that brands can engage with their customers. The reality (for the most part) is that they don’t want to. Sure, they expect us to engage with them when they complain or ask us something specifically, but they’re really not all that interested in an ongoing dialogue. Sorry. They’re just not that into you.

However, what they are into is each other. A recent study on Millennials and social media sharing by ShareThis found that social media sharing can have a huge influence on purchasing behavior when it comes from a peer. In fact, 70% of those surveyed reported that they’d made a purchase based on content shared by a peer via social media!

But it also turns out that what and where they’re sharing makes a difference. Entertainment content was much more likely to be shared on Facebook, while content related to business and finance was more likely to be shared on Twitter, as was sports. Shopping was completely the realm of Pinterest, which had a 238% higher “sharing” rate than Twitter or Facebook.

If you think about it, it starts to make a lot of sense. Entertainment content that doesn’t require a huge amount of timelines (music videos, film trailers, cat videos, etc.) and which can generate a lot of social conversations is what ends up being shared on Facebook. Timely content (business news, sports) that’s much more about “the facts” ends up on Twitter. And stuff we want to buy (or show off that we’ve bought or plan to buy) ends up on Pinterest where it can be shown off to the world.

But whichever way they’re sharing, one thing is clear: they want to talk to each other, not to you, the brand.

But whichever way they’re sharing, one thing is clear: they want to talk to each other, not to you, the brand. Things get shared because they serve a social purpose, not because they want to form a deeper relationship with the organizations, brands and companies that consumers come into contact with. The hard truth is this: they don’t want to be your “friend.”

This kind of behavior makes even more sense if you look at a recent paper published on the Pew Internet and American Life project that used network visualization to identify various patterns in Twitter networks. While the researchers identified six distinct conversational patterns, two in particular seemed to address specifically how consumers interact with organizations and brands:

In both cases, very little “conversation” or “engagement” was going on between the participants and the object of their admiration. In the “Brand Cluster’ networks, consumers discussed brands with each other in small communities. In the “Broadcast Network” structure the interactions were distinctly one-way, with one major hub in the center sending information out to followers (who interacted little with each other). Neither structure is what any of us would call a “conversation.”

So is social media marketing a lost cause? Not at all!

So is social media marketing a lost cause? Not at all! As we’ve seen, social media can have a huge influence on what people buy and what brands they like. But in order to make it work for you as a marketer, you have to accept one hardcore truth: consumers don’t want to talk to you until they want to talk to you. Trying to force the issue with ham-handed attempts at “engagement” isn’t going to work. But you’d better be ready to talk to them when they want to talk to you.

It’s not hard to do social media right. In fact, trying to hard to be “social” while neglecting the “media” might be the biggest problem. Here are seven things to think about when working out how to construct your next social media campaign:

It isn’t tough, but it appears that many of us have been doing social media all wrong. It is about conversations…just not with us (unless they want to).