Are Social Media Cynics Correct?

The Ad Contrarian thinks that most of the hype around social media is false.

Is he right?

To recap his arguments:

  • Most people are not interested in having conversations about brands.
  • Those conversations are not meaningful drivers of sales.
  • Spending money on big social media initiatives is likely to backfire.

I broadly agree with his thesis here:

You can see this most clearly on Facebook. Facebook calls itself a social medium, but its advertising model is good old-fashioned paid advertising plastered all over the page. Compare the number of paid ads you see on your Facebook page with the number of “conversations about brands.”

YouTube calls itself a social medium but it sticks pre-roll (mostly recycled TV spots) everywhere it can.

The reason is clear: marketers are finding that they can get more value out of these websites by treating them as avenues for advertising, not conversations.

People have cared more about commerce privacy than many people have anticipated. People don’t want to have all their purchases shared. They also would rather talk about their friends than about brands, especially when those brands are day-to-day consumer products with established brand awareness like Pepsi and Budweiser.

Facebook’s dramatic curtailment of Pages, essentially turning it into an ad product, is an admission that users are not biting with respect to the great-social-media-revolution.

While you might be able to bribe people into liking pages or commenting on things, what tends to perform better is traditional advertising translated to a digital format.

Just because your magazine-style ad is on Instagram does not make it especially ‘social’ or different from a magazine ad, even if it has a calculated lo-fi look to it. Just because people are using a social media website’s ‘comment’ function on your ad does not make it terribly different from a real life verbal comment, although the former might be able to travel a little farther than the latter.

The sales pitch that you could ‘reach customers for free’ on social media increasingly rings hollow, as every platform curtails unpaid access to their services for businesses, and demands a cut through new paid advertising channels.

Social Media is Still Media

Where I think this can be misleading is in discounting what I call intent-based social media. ‘Intent’ is the key word in search marketing, and it’s really a key word in social marketing as well. You just have to ask yourself if the group of people that you’re marketing to have expressed an interest in your product category.

If the answer is ‘yes,’ then you should target them. If the answer is ‘no’ or ‘I don’t know,’ then you should avoid going after them unless you’re a major brand advertiser.

There are dedicated communities all around the internet that just discuss products. Going to these communities which have advertised their interest to evaluate products still works.

There are legitimate enthusiasts who do actually want to talk about your brand extensively. It’s just that your product can’t be a commodity, because commodity products are boring — there just isn’t much to discuss about them. Complicated products with high price points for their category are fun for people to talk about. Simple, cheap products are boring, and bad topics for discussion.

While these communities of enthusiasts are enabled by technology, they’re not caused by technology. Niche magazines and newsletters have existed for a long time. It’s now easier to find these groups than ever.

Amazon.com is built around user reviews of products, which includes verified purchaser badges to discourage fake reviews.

What these groups do is less to drive sales of your brand directly, but to act as evaluators for your marketing. If there is any discrepancy between what you promise and what you deliver, enthusiasts will tell their friends about the disconnect. They’re gatekeepers, in the same way that professional reviewers were (and still are in some markets) gatekeepers. If your marketing and advertising matches with the product, they will let you pass through to the larger market. If there’s a mismatch, they will run interference on you and drive up your costs, perhaps higher than the product is able to bear.

If they like your product, the customer will drive down your sales costs. If enough people don’t like it, they will drive them up.

This is the same as it’s always been, but technology makes it easier to survey and read customer opinion without going through the additional hassle of hiring specialized researchers.

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