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October 6, 2010
Seven Unspoken Truths About Social Media

As we grope our way forward to embrace, understand, and use social media as an efficient marketing channel, we have to recognize that hype and wishful thinking are far ahead of the reality. Our emerging social graph is new, morphs regularly, remains subject to the stampede of public opinion, and is mostly out of our control. Experimenting with social media is an act of faith; grabbing the tiger by tail and hoping to both hold on and learn something interesting along the way.

And yet we can’t kid ourselves. There are limitations and challenges inherent in harnessing or mobilizing social media to suit brand objectives. Among them are the seven unspoken truths that most of us have encountered, but few discuss openly. Recognizing the early limitations of the medium can help us better understand how and where social media fits in the marketer’s toolbox.

It’s a blizzard of blah  

There is a lot crap in social media. The prescient philosophers, pundits, prophets, and prognosticators are outnumbered 100 to one by people sharing ordinary, banal, and off-color thoughts. The rapid embrace of the channel is much more impressive than the production of content. While user-generated content has become venerated by some, it's more of an indicator that people want to speak up and participate than it is a rich source of useful information or insight. In fact, social media operates a lot like talk radio. A vocal and aggressive minority can set the agenda and drive the conversation while the overwhelmingly majority sits back and listens voyeuristically.

Pictures matter most

Videos, photos, and images account for a huge amount of input and usage in social media. It’s as if people are telling us that pictures matter more than words. The time spent uploading and viewing video in the social graph far outpaces any other activity. Maybe our consumers, tired of endless blab, feel that seeing is believing.

Sentiment is anyone’s guess

A variety of tools have been created to gauge sentiment in social media. Most use screen scrapers and compare what they find with databases of positive and negative terms. Most use algorithms based on word proximity to decide if comments are for or against you. (If your brand name is within five words of the word “sucks,” it’s considered a negative comment.)

This is a primitive form of data mining. I haven’t seen a tool capable of learning effectively or capable of discerning idioms and the nuances of language sufficient to make real judgments. This machine sentiment usually is expressed as a bell curve. There are a small number of clearly positive or negative things about your brand, and the vast majority, the big lump in the middle of the curve, is labeled neutral. The net effect is you basically have no real or verifiable idea what the majority thinks or says about you or your brand unless you dig into the verbatims and create your own protocols to grade, sort, and weigh the mass of conversations yourself.

Finding a voice isn’t easy

Brands seeking to leverage social media confront challenges in finding their voice and discerning a point of entry into the conversation. Do you leap into the conversation, or do you 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?

While many brands have developed a brand personality, its not clear if the first or the third person is the appropriate way to communicate with fans or if the words that define the brand personality can be brought to life consistently in an always-on forum. Brands have a posture and a sensibility that shapes the way they communicate, though social media is filled with informality, argot, idioms, and protocols that will be unfamiliar, possibly uncomfortable, and fraught with corporate legal implications. 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.

Social media is labor intensive

Somebody has to monitor the channels, devise the content, coordinate the offers, sync campaigns with IT and operations, measure the traffic, gauge the sentiment, identify the openings, assess the competitive landscape, keep on top of technical developments, and align the whole shebang with the communications plans and business objectives of the brand. This takes people and lots of them. While client marketers are devoting half an FTE or one whole person to social marketing activities, agencies, PR firms, and consultants are deploying legions of young professionals and interns to keep pace with the volume of activity and the changing dynamics of the channels.

Privacy matters more than we think.

Not everyone is comfortable living their lives out loud online. Facebook’s multiple, notable privacy gaffes have surfaced a broad array of concerns that run much deeper than is acknowledged. If we did an audit, we’d find several social networks are lax when it comes to privacy settings, policy, and forethought. So while many marketers are excited by the possibilities for segmentation, customer intimacy, and the prospect of intense one-to-one personal communication with customers and prospects, just as many marketers fear a privacy backlash that could prompt ham-fisted government regulations or wide-reaching consumer class action lawsuits.

Marketing applications are not clear

If more than 500 million people are using social media, it makes sense for marketers to follow. However, unlike other media, social media hasn’t found its role yet in the marketing or media arsenal. Social media could become a marketer’s Swiss Army knife -- part reach medium, part frequency extender, part direct marketing tool, part coupon distribution mechanism, part early warning radar, part intelligence gathering tool, part press release distributor, and/or part promotion platform.

We know it’s big, but we don’t quite know what to do with yet or how to use it for optimum effect. We are eager to engage, though everyone has a different definition of what the term means and why the term matters. At the moment, we are content to experiment, test, learn, share results with one other, and convince our bosses to keep playing around with social media until we hit on something that makes a difference either in sales or in customer satisfaction.

The campaigns being run now are the overture to a much longer, richer, and more directed social symphony. Anyone who tells you otherwise is kidding himself or herself and you. Seeing the speed bumps clearly will help us grasp the communications and cultural implications of these digitally enabled networks and allow us to fit them into the tool set that powers and grows brands.

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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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