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January 3, 2017
Does Social Media Work?
As we embrace, understand, and utilize social media as a channel, we have to recognize that 12 years after Facebook came onto the scene, hype and wishful thinking are far ahead of the measurable reality. Social media adoption is a near-universal act of faith. But whether social media works to definitively deliver brand awareness, preference, sales, or loyalty is still up for debate, as is the role of social media in a 2016 marketing or media mix.

This is the observation of the intellectual property lawyers at Morrison and Foerster, authors of the Socially Aware blog and creators of a new infographic. According to partner John Delaney, “There’s a lot of turmoil and uncertainty right now around social media marketing. Although companies continue to spend more money on this channel as consumers increasingly rely on social media for their information, many of them are still trying to figure out best in class strategies and measurements.”

Citing stats on dramatically increased spending on social media and the infrastructure to support it, Mr. Delaney sees a mismatch between inputs and outputs. “Companies continue to increase their social media spend, [but] they do not do a particularly good job at engaging customers through social media, and they still struggle to determine the return on their investment.”

There are limitations and challenges inherent in harnessing or mobilizing social media to suit brand objectives. Although American B-to-C brands have embraced an average of seven social platforms, measurement, sales impact, and customer and loyalty are still largely unknown. 

Why? Consider these five unspoken truths.

Blizzard of Blah-Blah. There is a lot crap in social media. The prescient philosophers, pundits, prophets, and prognosticators are outnumbered 100 to 1 by people sharing ordinary, banal, and off-color thoughts. And while user-generated content (UGC) has become venerated, it’s more of an indicator that people want to speak up and participate than it is a rich source of information or insight. Social media is talk radio. A vocal minority drives the conversation while the majority watches and listens voyeuristically.

No Measurement Standard. Marketers don’t agree on what or how to measure the business impact of social media. We are eager to “engage,” though everyone has a different definition of the term and a different rationale for using it. So we count unique visitors and clicks. We track page views and time spent. We collect repeat visits, opt-ins, submissions, and reviews. We are testing new tools to follow users through the sales funnel. But we can’t clearly or definitively attribute purchases, beyond self-reported surveys, to social media and compare them with the fixed and variable costs of entry to establish believable or scalable ROI calculations.

Voice and Content Isn’t Easy. Brands confront challenges in finding their voice and discerning a point of entry into the conversation. Do you leap into the conversation or ease your way in quietly? Do you wait to be introduced or do you push your way in? Do you act on your own agenda or do you follow the threads you find?

Brands have a posture and a sensibility that shapes the way they communicate. Content is momentarily king, although many brands struggle with what to say, how to say it, how often, and to whom. And while anyone can throw up a Facebook page or open a Twitter account, hitting the right tone, the right frequency, and the right content is not a slam-dunk.

Labor Intensity. Somebody has to monitor the channels, devise the content, coordinate the offers, measure the traffic, gauge the sentiment, identify the openings, assess the competitive landscape, keep on top of technical developments, check with the lawyers, and align the whole shebang with the business objectives of the brand. This takes lots of people.

No Tactical Consensus. Social media could be a marketer’s Swiss Army knife — part reach medium, part frequency extender, part direct marketing tool, part coupon distributor, part early warning radar, part intelligence-gathering tool, part press release distributor, and part promotion platform. We know it’s big, but we don’t quite know what to do with it or how to use it for optimum affect in spite of increasingly sophisticated pitches from the social networks.

So we experiment, test-and-learn, tout all kinds of metrics, and convince our bosses to keep playing around with social media till we hit on something that makes a difference. Anyone who tells you otherwise is kidding him or herself. Seeing the speed bumps allow us to fit social media into an integrated marketing tool set that powers and grows brands. At the moment, the lawyers are right. The jury is still out.

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Danny Flamberg, EVP Managing Director of Digital Strategy and CRM at Publicis based in New York, has been building brands and building businesses for more than 30 years.Prior to joining Publicis, he led a successful global consulting group called Booster Rocket, as Managing Partner. Before becoming a consultant, he was Vice President of Global Marketing at SAP, SVP and Managing Director at Digitas in New York and Europe and President of Relationship Marketing at Amiratti Puris Lintas and Lowe Worldwide.
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