Why Do We Still 'Listen' To Social Media?

So the nation has spoken and the surprising result is -- you shouldn't listen to pollsters too intently. That applies at least twice as much for social media where, I don't know about you, but my feeds -- particularly Facebook -- have been a tirade of young professionals posting pro Labour slogans and pretty much bashing the Tories. Take a look at any stream and you would be forgiven for thinking there was no way the Conservative party could get more than a handful of MPs, let alone from a majority government.

And there is the problem in a nutshell. People are looking to social media for truths that aren't there. Labour was widely tipped as winning the Twitter battle -- and so, it would be logical to assume, was going to romp to victory. Facebook was said to have most mention of Tories -- but of course, that doesn't necessarily mean support, as the term is used as often as an insult as it is shorthand for a political party. The "Marketing Week" headline before the results were announced was typical. The result was unclear, but Labour was Twitter's "top dog."

So what does this tell us? Well, social media does have its uses, as long as you don't expect it to tell you the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It's a report sheet from a tiny minority who are often pretty vocal.

Take, say, the Twitter feed for McDonald's in the UK. They tried to tap into the election spirit with a hashtag campaign to vote gherkins in or out. Of the 150k followers they profess to have in this country, 20 engaged with the post. That's one in every 7,500 followers. Considering that digital display -- which has virtually given up on being expected to deliver engagement but rather general brand awareness -- will usually get you at least one click out a thousand impressions, that's pretty low, isn't it? I'm sure executives will talk about having a conversation with consumers using the channel. Not only would I point out that by speaking to 150,000 people but following 140, that's a pretty one-sided conversation, I'd also suggest that if there's a conversation being had there of any note, it's an incredibly quiet, low-key one.

The Conservatives have half a million followers on Facebook and Labour has a quarter of a million on Twitter in a country of nearly 60m people. And let's not forget that many of those people are not necessarily supporters -- they could be the polar opposite, keeping an eye on what the other party is up to. Social media can be pretty good at predicting voting outcomes on celebrity television shows, where people align themselves behind a hashtag but the language of politics is far harder to understand because a mention doesn't necessarily mean you support that party and engagement with the message can mean you actively oppose it.

So other than a few huge successes (need we mention Oreo at this stage?) brands are usually dealing with feedback on social media from a tiny percentage of people who claim to like them -- which is itself a tiny percentage of their true fan base, which is a tiny percentage of the wider population.

Hopefully, the headlines pointing out that Labour had won the social media battle and was on its way to beating the Conservative will give cause for some sober reflection.

Social media has its good points, but it has its limitations if you try to read too much into it, and there is no better example than today's election results. While the polling companies will get a lot of stick, I wonder how many brand marketers will apply the same logic to their social team. 

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