The survey published last week by Forrester and GSI Commerce seems to have put the cat among the social networking pigeons.  Now that our great new toy is proven to contribute no more than 2% to sales, all manner of doubts over the effectiveness of social marketing are finally being voiced.  Is the next big thing turning out to have been The Emperor’s New Clothes?

I’ve just spent the best part of a year creating a business unit that relied partly on social media, but throughout I found I was resisting pressure from my client to make social media the main strand of the strategy.  I’m sure that I am not alone in this experience.  After all, there are a lot of bright young things in consultancies with really funky names whose livelihood depends on them convincing folks that social marketing is all a business needs these days.  While common sense would tell you that many of the claims made for social don’t add up, it has seemed for a while that the momentum of the social media movement intimidated doubters into silence.  What Forrester has done is given these reluctant doubters license to tell it as they saw it all along.

Actually, I’m a believer in social media, but I’m a believer in all media so that’s no big deal.  What I don’t belive is that any medium is a panacea.  Social media like any other only work as an element of a bigger formula and, like all the other tools in our box, have to be managed.  In fact, if you want to get the best out of social media, you’ll find that they are actually quite labour intensive, so you should approach with caution.

You’ll also note that I have been trying to avoid referring to social media as “it”.  Social media come in many guises, so it’s definitely a case of “them” and its unlikely you’ll need them all.  The trick is to choose those that work for you and incorporate them with things like trad advertising, DM, PR, search, promotions, buzz, roaching and anything else that makes sense and play around with the formula until you find the mix that delivers the biggest return on the smallest investment.

For example FaceBook, may not be particularly effective in a BtoC strategy, but, if you are looking for a BtoB tool its going to be even less of a bargain.  After all, it makes no sense to try to strike up a business conversation with someone in a purely social forum, that’s not why they are there.  Forrster’s analysis tells us that on-line advertising and SEO are far more effective, but SEO only makes sense if a worthwhile number of prospects are using a manageable number of search terms.  In a recent project of mine there were dozens of search terms and key-words being used, each so infrequently that even if we could have resourced the SEO required to handle them all, it wouldn’t have produced a viable result.

The resourcing conundrum strikes again when a BtoC marketer hits social marketing pay-dirt.  I was recently involved with a restaurant chain that simply couldn’t manage a fraction of their mentions on Twitter and Face Book.  This meant that the numbers used to justify their social marketing strategy in the first place were meaningless. Marketing #101 – don’t invest in creating opportunities (and therefore expectations) that you can’t respond to.  Not only is it wasteful and therefore inefficient, but it pisses people off!

There’s no doubt that like many other business tools that have emerged over the years, Social Marketing has been over-hyped.  This is partly because some of the people doing the hyping don’t really understand it, or in fact marketing generally.  Social is a great idea and the tools that it embraces all undoubtedly have their uses, but that doesn’t mean that you have to take them all on board.  In fact, it may not be for you at all and it certainly isn’t a panacea.  Like any other medium, social will only work as a part of an integrated marketing strategy.

What Forrester have done is introduce a much-needed and timely element of realism to the situation.  Now we all have license to question the social media evangelists and I am sure social marketing will find its place among the many other tools that skilled and experienced marketers can combine into effective, integrated strategies.

Michael Weaver
May 5, 2011

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