Brands Gain New Respect for Social Media But Must Realize it Can Also Conceal

If there is any bright side to the recent United Airlines fiasco, it’s that marketers are now more aware of the power of consumer-to-consumer sharing through social media to make or break their businesses. According to a recent New York Times article, “United and Pepsi Affairs Force Brands to Respect Social Media,” social media has now captured the serious attention of the highest levels of corporations, providing them “with unprecedented access to consumers while also exposing them to new risks.”



This is an important step forward and confirms what marketers have known for some time but their C-suite counterparts may have been skeptical of — that social influence plays a critical role in helping propel brands forward via positive brand advocacy, or amplifying mistakes and causing severe damage.

However, it’s critical for these same top executives to understand that social media is only a part of the social influence equation. Equally, if not more important, are the conversations that take place in living rooms, at the office water cooler, and on the sidelines of children’s sports games—and those conversations only occasionally resemble what’s happening in social media. 

Social media complements, but it doesn’t mirror face-to-face conversations. Consumers rely on both for different reasons, and so should brands. Word of mouth drives at least as much sales for companies as social media, if not more.And what may come as a surprise to many, there is virtually no correlation between what gets talked about on social media and what gets talked about in offline conversation. That’s the finding of extensive new research that was recently released looking conversations about more than 500 brands in 2016. While there is a very modest correlation between growth and tenor of a brand’s conversation in social media and in real life, such correlations are too infrequent to be relied upon. Correlations are near zero when it comes to other important metrics such as whether conversations about a brand is positive versus negative. This means that a brand could be talked about positively online but completely bashed during offline conversations.

But doesn’t social media have much more potential to impact on consumer decision-making, you might ask? In a word, no. 

In the same research, we linked social media and word of mouth to the brands’ sales data and discovered that online and offline consumer conversations have near-equal weight. What’s more is that the two single biggest predictors of sales (out of eight offline and online metrics that were part of the statistical model) are offline volume and offline sentiment. Marketers who ignore them do so at their own peril. 

Let’s take an example one of the brands that featured in the Times story. It leads with Jason Marker, the new CEO of the company that owns Carl’s Jr., requesting a real-time social media monitoring system. That’s smart but insufficient. In a recent ranking of social performance of more than 25 QSR restaurant brands, Carl’s ranked at the very the bottom. While the tool will tell Marker part of the story, the word-of-mouth performance of Carl’s is even lower than its social media performance, so it’s not a good idea to ignore it. To help drive improved performance, Marker should be asking how are they are doing in social media and in the real-world discussions about their brand if he really wants to understand what will move the sales needle.

Online and offline conversations occur in two vastly different ecosystems, as different as ocean from desert, and tropical from temperate. Marketers can best drive business performance if they can find success in both ecosystems, but they will need careful preparation. Only a marketer prepared with a good map, a smart strategy, and the right gear can expect to thrive in both the online and offline ecosystems.

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