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Social Media: Is Conventional Strategy All Wrong?

It was unsettling to read some surprising news about social media from Augie Ray, research director covering customer experience for marketing leaders at Gartner. According to Ray, “much of the social media dogma we take as gospel has been wrong from the start. As a result, brands are wasting good money to chase irrelevant or even damaging social media outcomes, and the required improvements are not minor adjustments.”

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Ray went on to state that “not only is reach failing but social has never succeeded in delivering reliable marketing scale, no matter how many case studies suggest otherwise.”

In a report entitled, “It’s Time to Separate the ‘Social’ From the ‘Media,” analyst firm Forrester echoed Ray’s sentiments by proclaiming “organic social media stopped working.” In its report, Forrester makes the case that “brand organic opportunities have disappeared and social media marketing has become entirely a paid game.” The research firm recommends that marketing leaders assign their social budgets not to the social team but to the media team because “social ads aren’t social; they’re just ads.” 

Ray notes that the Forrester report includes a simple fact too many content marketers have ignored in 2015: “If you can’t get a message to your audience, you can’t very well market to them.” As an example, it states that Facebook’s reach for top brands’ posts was just two percent of their fans in 2014, and predicted that number will only decrease further.

Also cited as among social media’s other downfallsit fails to deliver trust. For B2B marketers like those in health and healthcare IT, the ratings are not good: B2B buyers rated social media posts among the least important for establishing credibility. And, just 15 percent of consumers trust social posts by companies or brands.

So – is Ray right in concluding that “social media marketing has become a house of cards”?  That “entire corporate social media strategies are crafted on baseless assumptions that presume brands can reach prospects and customers in social networks”?  Has social media’s eulogy been written?

Not exactly. 

Ray proposes that social media professionals start from scratch by studying the data, creating new and realistic proof points and producing more effective social media strategies. Some facts:

People take social media seriously and so should business.

The numbers for social are impressive:

  • 1.5 billion people use Facebook.
  • 316 million use Twitter.
  • 300 million use Instagram.
  • 200 million are on Snapchat.

And, social media behavior is still growing, with the average usage time rising from 1.66 hours/day in 2013 to 1.72 hours in 2015.

What these and other data points are telling us, says Ray, is that social media is important to consumers, and brands should find ways to meet consumers’ needs and expectations in the channel. But, while numbers like those cited above usually tempt marketers into believing social media is a fertile content marketing opportunity, this is not the case. Consumers work hard to block and ignore brand messaging because they do not trust brand content. He states that “brands win when they get people talking to each other, not about the brand’s content but about the actual customer experience.”

How can marketers overcome this social media dilemma? Ray recommends the following: 

  • First, create and measure a new definition of word-of-mouth (WOM). An individual who recommends your brand based on their actual customer experience “is gold.”  But, it is important to recognize that not all customer interactions are equal. Brands must generate the WOM that matters. Fake WOM gets people to click “like” on something a brand posted; real WOM gets people to tell others why they should trust, try and buy your product or service.
  • Change what is measured. Start measuring what matters – changes in customer loyalty or consideration, positive and authentic WOM, inbound traffic that converts, quality lead acquisition and customer satisfaction.
  • Reconsider what department should lead your social media efforts. Social media strategies designed to improve customer satisfaction, reputation, loyalty and retention are goals most associated with the Public Relations and Customer Care departments rather than Marketing.
  • Objectively assess the return your brand generates with content marketing in social channels and eliminate what is not working. Today, if you are not validating positive return on marketing content posted to social channels, you certainly will not do so in the future, either. Ray states that marketers continue to act as if content marketing is destined to work and they have simply failed to find the right content marketing strategy, but data indicates otherwise. Content is essential and has a place in marketing strategies, but it is important to rebalance the investment the brand is making to match the return it receives and can expect.
  • Stop talking to consumers and telling them what you want them to hear. Instead, start listening to them and responding with what they want and need. Brands that win in the social era will not be better at storytelling but in using social media to hear, help, educate, encourage, empower, connect and respond to their customers and prospects as individuals.
  • Get people talking to each other. Now is the time to stop trying to spark engagement using funny, clever, hip, edgy or inspirational content, and acting as if authentic peer-to-peer engagement can be bought by paying influencers to tweet about your brand. Instead, find ways to get people talking to each other about their real experiences with your company and its offerings. Engage happy customers and help them share their experiences. Connect people to each other in meaningful ways. 

Ray’s challenge to marketers is this: if your brand never posted another piece of marketing content to Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, how would you demonstrate your firm’s values in social channels? If you could no longer rely on brand journalists, paid influencers and social designers to create content for social channels, what one-to-one, responsive, collaborative, integrated, authentic and meaningful strategies would your brand execute? “The true secret sauce of social media has never been and will never be to get people to share your brand’s latest viral video or inspirational quote on Instagram. [It’s about] brands that get people talking to each other about their differentiated products, customer experience, values, innovation or community commitment rather than about their clever social media posts.”