Is Social Media for Brands Pointless?

  • by , Op-Ed Contributor, September 2, 2014

What if there was a parallel universe with no Facebook, no Twitter, no hashtags at the end of TV commercials, no “tweet here for customer service” -- and that world worked just fine?

I love advertising people: our ambition, creativity and most of all, our focus on the future, as we experiment, pioneer and embrace the new. But sometimes, we become blinded by the shininess of the new toys.  We tend to be all or nothing, and we love hyperboles, whether it's that “everything has changed,” that “TV is dead,” or that “iBeacons will change everything.”

We would benefit from a more balanced approach. What is new is often great, but it’s not a zero sum game, and it doesn’t make time-tested methods useless. The newness of a technique isn’t that important to people in the real world--only your boss.

Social media hasn't come easily to most brands, but they’ve gotten there, they have their tens of thousands of Twitter followers, their Facebook page, and their content marketing strategy in place. They’ve done their “like to win” competitions, boosted engagement, and entered their case study films at Cannes. They may own rapid-response newsrooms, they may have a hashtag floating around, and they may be be doing customer service on social media.

But have they accomplished much? Or anything?

For all the talk of Oreo retweets, Pepsi refreshes, or Oscar selfies — I'd love to mention more, but those are all the “big” successes I can think of — I have not once come close to seeing a strong case study that shows the real world effect of such work for a sizable brand. I’ve seen plenty of small cafes who did well, or legal firms that won the Twitter lottery, and I’ve seen a billion examples of “boosting engagement” or “most liked in the competitive set,” but nothing that’s ever boosted sales or driven awareness or likeability. The things that actually matter. 

Most social media efforts seem to be in a quadrant marked as very cheap but pointless. Many people talk about its cost effectiveness, but that seems to miss the point. A typical Twitter account for a typical brand has around 90,000 followers, and of these, typically about 50% are real life people that use Twitter, and typically, a small percentage of these people may actually see a tweet. Which, as messages go, isn’t the most powerful bit of advertising known to man.

But I wonder if social media really is that cheap.

In order to do social media properly these days, dozens of people are assembled, newsrooms are built in an effort to be “always on.” We have legal staff on standby, we have crisis management people on speed dial because above all else, when you have an active Twitter feed, people now expect you to do stuff. A truck bearing your brand name crashes and you need a statement, an athlete you sponsor does something odd and you need a response. You’ve set up your own rope to hang yourself with. It’s harder not to comment when you’re clearly there and paying attention.

Then there are the millions of people who now see your account as a chance to air their frustrations, whether you’re a bank, an insurance company, a mobile operator, a retailer or one of the myriad of service industries; you’ve now created a forum where people can target their anger, and in the most public of forums. Whether you have an official customer service handle or not, you’ve given your angriest customers a microphone.You’ve given palm oil protesters a place to meet and share stories, and it’s got your name attached indelibly. 

We only hear of brands on Twitter when things go wrong. When people slate the populations of cities, when they make racist comments, celebrate war, back the wrong side of the gay rights movement, or go quiet.  The real secret to social media seems to be to mess up and cause offense. That is, if you want anyone to notice.

There can be exceptions -- if your brand stands for something very strong, if it’s beloved, if it’s small and you have no other ways to communicate key information to your customers, or maybe if you have something deeply interesting to say, or you have a great stream of the world's best content.

But for most brands, this isn’t cheap, it’s an opportunity cost and a distraction, so why not save the time and focus on simple things done right? The future of your brand comes from navigating these tricky times, and perhaps now is a good time to look further ahead and focus on the real issues--not how many followers you have.

5 comments about "Is Social Media for Brands Pointless?".
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  1. Gary Meyer from iClinic, September 2, 2014 at 11:37 a.m.

    Great points, Tom.

    I would probably add that giving angry customers a target to vent at is arguably better than each individual venting to his or her friends and followers. For example, I'd rather a customer complain on my client's Facebook page where we can easily see it and action it as opposed to them complaining directly to friends and family in their feed, often hidden behind privacy settings. 1) We get to see the complaint, and 2) only other fans of the page who happen to on that page will see the complaint. It's silo'd.

  2. Martin Pratt from Unidad Solutions for Marketing and Media, September 2, 2014 at 12:42 p.m.

    just wanted to add... remember #OldSpiceYoutube was heralded much....Old Spice Customized Youtube Video Responses and after 30 days Old Spice abandoned all those great fans and the social media accounts used in the campaign.

  3. Steve Goldner from DivorceForce, September 2, 2014 at 1:35 p.m.

    A key point that must be considered is "Social Media is NOT Social Marketing and Why It Matters" as defined at . Social media, by itself, might be pointless for brands, but social marketing done right is powerful.

  4. Tom Goodwin from Tomorrow, September 2, 2014 at 2:01 p.m.

    I think that's a great point Steve, but I also think we have to be careful about terms with social in them, brands have always been social, so what's different about "social marketing" and just "good marketing"?

  5. Ej Meany from IPC, September 2, 2014 at 3:08 p.m.

    Right, Tom, social media is a tool that can be used for marketing, good and bad. "You’ve set up your own rope to hang yourself with" is spot on. Best practices continue to evolve in these "tricky times." Perpetual transition! Wait let me hashtag that, #perpetualtransition

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