Why Social Media Isn’t Working For Your Business, And How To Fix It

Recently, I had an interesting conversation with a new client who seemed convinced social media, specifically Facebook, was on the upswing as an effective channel for businesses to attract, market to and convert prospects.

We agreed to disagree.

“If you look at how social media is currently being used, even by marketers, I don’t think that reasoning is supported by facts,” I added. “Facebook, for example, is where everyone wants to go when they are in ‘friends-and-family-baby-pictures’ mode. It’s not the place people are going to when they desire to interact with brands. Even the marketers hawking their wares seem to realize this. I’m convinced social media isn’t driving sales. In fact, I think it was a bad idea for content marketers to even sell clients on the idea that social media moves the needle, especially given that, at best, it’s part of the overall ‘long game’ and is difficult to track conversions from.”

My words were born of a hunch, nuanced substantially over the last 10 to 12 months. For all the talk about social signals, real-time content marketing and the like, what many clients want to pay for are activities directly attributable to conversions.

In fact, many clients are beginning to hold a strong line: “I’m not convinced, if it doesn’t convert,” quipped one client.

It’s Social Media, Not Sell-To-Me Media

salesmenIf recent research is any indication, content marketers might have some explaining to do to many of their clients, especially those who were sold on the notion that social has a direct tie to sales. Data collected by Gallup’s new State of the American Consumer report, shows that “relatively few consumers consciously take into account what they learn from social media when making purchases.”

In fact, the majority of Americans say social media marketing has no effect at all on their purchasing decisions, which is a tough pill to swallow when you consider that U.S. companies spent a combined $5 billion on social media advertising in 2013.

“Although many companies run aggressive marketing campaigns on social media, 62% in the U.S. say Facebook and Twitter, among other sites, do not have any influence on their decisions to purchase products,” states the report.

Despite the millions of Americans using social media stalwarts Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn and Twitter, only 5% say social media has “a great deal of influence” on their purchasing decisions, while another 30% say the channels have “some influence.”

This study is based on the views of Americans only who were asked to self-report estimates of how much social media marketing campaigns affect their purchasing decisions. Though social media likely does have more influence than many of those polled consciously realize or admit, the data does highlight a startling disconnect between marketers’ perception and reality.

Some Surprising Figures:

  • 50% of the millennials say social media has at least some influence on their buying decisions. Yet they were also just as likely to say social media has no influence at all.
  • 75% of the folks born before 1946 say social media has no impact on whether they purchase a product or service.
  • 94% of social media users say the primary function of social media is to connect with family and friends.

The Reason Your Business Should Be Using Social Media

It’s easy to take in these details and think, “Boy, social media sure is a waste of resources.” Before you throw the baby out with the bath water, however, consider this: Might the real problem be how many content marketers and digital strategy firms came to view social as a crutch, seeing it as a novel strategy rather than just another channel of communication? (Watch brand strategist David Brier’s awesome video on the topic.)

This might have allowed us to oversell the channel even before we clearly understood its purpose.

Also, doesn’t the data indicate less of a problem with social than it does with those of us who pushed it onto clients?

Maybe the message, all along, should have been, “As an industry, we’re still sorting out the real, bottom-line impact of social media. However, we advise you to start using the platform, lest you get behind in the battle to grow your brand’s presence.”

In a recent Google Plus post, Avinash Kaushik weighed in on the Gallup report, adding what I think is the reasoned approach we should all be taking (and sharing with clients.)

“Between [Google Plus, Twitter and Facebook], I have half a million followers. From practice I have an understanding of the medium, and I believe it is of value. But not for pimping, and not for short-term impact of any kind. If your brand is inherently social, do social. If your marketing/relationship officer can give you a few years to see results, do social. Else, quit.”

As marketers, he said, we should “seek companies that will invest in social because the brand is social (or can evolve to be) and will measure your success over the long term.”

How Smart Brands Are Using Social Media

smart-strategyInstead of seeing the news as a deathblow to using social media as viable content marketing vehicle, it’s wise to look at the information as the opening of a door of opportunity.

No longer do we need to sell social media as a means of influencing search signals or driving leads. Even better, we no longer need to tremble in fear at the thought of a CMO asking “What’s the ROI on social?” or “How can we track leads from social?”

We can shoot straight and inform clients that the brand should be visible on social media to foster a connection with prospects and existing customers, in addition to growing the presence of the brand and using the channel as additional an arm of the company’s PR and customer service divisions.

Smart brands, especially several of the major airlines, have seen the light and are already using social in this manner.

Take American Airlines, for example. They’ve successfully weathered a bankruptcy, a corporate restructuring and a rebranding, but through it all have maintained one of the most active Twitter accounts of any major brand, smartly using social as an addendum to customer service–deftly handling complaints, solving commuters’ problem and growing a positive presence many thought impossible for an airline.

The secret? They recognized the potential for social media to grow brand awareness and support, then seized the opportunity to do social media better than their competitors. It’s working.

Hardly a day goes by that their Twitter feed isn’t littered with as many kudos as complaints. Even better, the brand isn’t afraid to show a little personality, either, sometimes playing along with a funny quip instead of ignoring it outright.

Making Social Media Work For Your Business

Even if you don’t have a multi-national brand, you can use the latest information to your business’s advantage. Here’s how to make social media work for your business:

  • Don’t Bite Off More Than You Can Chew: One of the worst mistakes you can make as a small or midsize business is trying to commit to every social media platform available to you. Your time is limited, so guard it wisely by selecting one or two social media platforms you’ve identified as having a sizable share of potential clients, then begin the process of interacting, engaging, answering questions and becoming a worthwhile community member. The goal is not to be heard; the goal is to be a valued resource to the community.
  • Develop A Time-Of-Engagement Rule And Stick To It: Nothing raises the ire of consumers like brands who pretend not to “hear” their complaints. The longer the time between their initial complaint and your response, the louder and more vociferous they become. Remember, the community is watching. Therefore, it’s imperative that you answer complaints in a timely manner. Work with your team to come up with a hard-and-fast rule for how soon complaints or comments are responded to.
  • Take Conversations Offline: When addressing complaints, the first rule is to be human, sensitive to the complaint no matter how frivolous it might seem at first. In the same breath, you must get them “off the air,” inviting them to contact you or someone at the company via email or private message (e.g., Twitter’s Direct Message, or DM). The longer the conversational is visible, the more likely it is to take a turn for the worst.
  • Focus on Audience Engagement Rather Than Audience Growth (at first): If nothing else, the Gallup research highlights the error of fixing the gaze of your business on faulty metrics like “Fans,” “Followers,” and “Likes.” Work organically through meaningful engagement and interaction. If there is a question you can answer, do so. If there are conversations you would benefit from being a part of, chime in. The more you emphasize meaningful engagement, the more you’ll be rewarded with worthwhile connections from your audience.
  • Be The Informational Resource Your Audience Needs (craves): There are no secrets to being a great marketer. But, if you’re looking to capitalize on a huge weakness in the content marketing space, seek to become the premier informational resource in your category via social media. When answering questions, provide more depth and relevance than the competition, and do so with frequency. And when you continue to see a question show up in social, create a content asset on your website that answers the question in “blow-them-away” fashion, then share it frequently across multiple channels and platforms. You’ll get noticed and, likely, rewarded with business down the road for your efforts.

The moral of the story is social media holds great potential for brands who choose to use it wisely and, most important, lose the sales-centered mindset. The door of opportunity is wide open for those who adopt this new line of thinking.

“Brands can win on social platforms if they understand why you are there,” writes Kaushik in a LinkedIn post. “If they provide you with entertainment, if they provide you with information you can share with your circles, and if they behave in an authentic manner they can earn a tiny smidgen of your love and attention (brand equity).”

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Did I totally miss it?

About Ronell Smith

I'm digital strategist and content geek who's passionate about helping businesses wade through the B.S. and get the results they desire. I rant often about user experience, PR, SEO, branding, product innovation or content marketing. Otherwise, I'm just a boring nerd who dreams about disruptive innovation, long-form feature writing, nuclear physics, entomology and sniper rifles.

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