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Tuesday, April 03, 2012

The Business of Social Media

Unless you've been in outer space the past ten years, you must know something about social media. Well, you must have at least heard about it. For my money, social media is nice, but no big thing, really. It's just doing what people have always done, except now they can do it faster because of technology.


In the pre-internet days, nothing traveled faster than bad news. No matter where you were in the world, it didn't take long to hear about catastrophes. The worse the disaster, the quicker you heard about it. Plague. War. Ships sinking. Airplanes crashing. Regressing through the years before the web, there was television, radio, newspapers. You get the idea. Go back far enough and eventually you get to bell ringing town criers shouting out the evening news as regularly as CNN, CBS, NBC and FOX do today -- only with less drama or special effects.


As a news/gossip pipeline, social media is great. Where else can one fan the flames so that millions of viewers can sit before their devices mesmerized by some stupid cat video? Where else can we so quickly confirm the death, arrest or latest sexual innuendo about some inconsequential celebrity? Whether your choice is Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest or another one of this week's digital darlings, social media is really little more than the old-fashioned party line of the Not So New Millennium, where everyone simultaneously jumps on the phone to spread the news about everyone else.


That's all fine and good. If it's entertainment you seek, by all means, have at it. In fact, if raising awareness for your cause is your thing, social media might be the right tool for you. But the minute you let marketing people into the party, things start to spoil faster than three day old flounders. And by the time they're done with it, social media will likely endure the same fate as so many other digital hula hoops.


Let me explain.


While there's no question social media links people together 24/7, it really only does it for social reasons. Keeping up with your boyfriend, your Uncle Ned, the Class of 2006 -- whatever -- is perfect for sites like Facebook, Vimeo and Picasa. But when marketing people try to leverage social media for business, the results aren't quite so good. Sure, you're going to hear a lot of advertising and marketing people hawk the virtues of social media, but if you look really, really closely at their claims, you'll see why it's called social media and not business media.


One of the first myths about social media is the benefits of linking people together. Yes, social media certainly does connect people, including those you thought you'd never have to hear from again. But it's a major mistake to assume linkage of people translates into actions of people, which is what I hear a lot from social media experts. Don't get me wrong, I'm a branding guy and getting more people to evangelize my brand is a good thing. On the other hand, having a million people "like" my brand's Facebook page doesn't add anything to the bottom line.


And that, in my humble opinion, can be a huge waste of resources.


Yes, it's flattering to get fifteen million views on YouTube, but until and unless you can convert those hits to sales, what's the point? Having a million viewers on Pinterest sounds really slick. But when the smoke clears, can you really connect the dots from views or downloads to increased sales?


Marketing people do all they can to distract from this discussion by employing terms like engagement and awareness. It makes them feel good, but not as good as when they get their clients' heads nodding in agreement, even though nobody can tell what, if anything, a social media campaign is doing for the brand. If you don't think that's a problem, recall a while back when Burger King launched its ill-fated "de-friending" campaign on Facebook. It was an unmitigated disaster that actually cost everyone business.


The truth is that marketing has devolved into a science of excuses, fraught with first world problems that have no real significance in the marketplace. Engagement? Really? Have we drifted so far from the purpose of business -- making money -- that entire campaigns can revolve around efforts which have no direct relationship to revenue generation? Is "an uptick in the public attitude of our brand" going to have any bearing on next quarter's sales?


I think not.


Look, I have nothing against social media. Used properly, for the right jobs, I think it's terrific for socially oriented issues. When I hear marketing people attempting to leverage social media for business purposes, though, I always ask the same question:


What kind of real, bottom line results can we expect from this?


To this day, I haven't heard an answer.


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