I know this looks like the title of a post you might expect to see in 2005, but it’s not. It’s more like a wake up call for brands in 2011. The state of social media is in the midst of a transition that is making a lot of the existing tactics, strategies, and approaches to social media marketing & community management less potent at best and damaging to your social presence at worst.
If you Google “social media strategy” you will see two flavors of posts rise to the top of your search: posts that stress taking a customer-centric approach to social, and posts that boast shortcuts or strategies to gaining likes, followers, and fans. The former is very healthy for social media. A customer-centric approach to social (and marketing for that matter) puts the emphasis on satisfying ever-changing user behavior and preferences which should be at the heart of engagement regardless of the business goal(see graphic below)
The Social Media Bubble Is Bursting
The issue that brands are dealing with has to do with the latter. Over the past few years social media grew rapidly and people were excited about the new tools for connecting, discovering, and self-advertising (to be defined in a future post). Facebook experienced 40% growth last year and 90% growth the year before while at the same time demographics of the major social networks broadened and brands invested in building a social presence. This all lead to liberally “Liking” “Friending” and “Following” about every brand that streamed through their newsfeed or was recommended by the network via their social graph.
The fast growth of social networks lead to behaviors not unlike what we saw with the dotcom bubble or the housing bubble. People swarm to a new opportunity, not really sure what their doing. Despite putting little thought or care into their investment the growth rewards what we later realize is poor execution until one day growth slows, returns diminish, and suddenly the value you’re banking on getting from your investment isn’t there and you have to rethink everything.
Ok that’s a little dramatic, but I think it’s a valid point. Just as we saw irresponsible lending in housing which was packaged and sold as premium derivatives to banks and investors, we’ve seen the “packaging” of tactics from social media “gurus” and sold as businesses and brands as cutting edge tactics. When brands don’t know any better than to measure their KPIs with followers, fans, and likes these tactics seem to pick up steam. But these tactics were validated during a time of high growth in social networks. They won’t work for much longer, if they are still working at all.
Although social networks are still growing, that growth is clearly plateauing. This year, Facebook is on track to grow just 13% – a fraction of the growth it experienced even last year. Twitter is experiencing an even more dramatic shift. After almost 300% growth two years ago, Twitter will grow just 26% this year.
Why the slow down?
The most obvious reason for the plateauing is saturation. After all, Facebook has over 700 million users and Twitter has reached the 200 million mark (half of which are active). But users are also experience some social network fatigue. More of us are rethinking how careful we are about bringing people into our social networks. Brands that aren’t adding value to our experience in the way we expect it are being quickly “unliked” or “unfollowed”. Newly carved out roles as social media marketers and online community managers are finding it more and more difficult to meet KPIs that include “Fans”, “Followers”, and “Friends”. Ironically, this is driving more of us to lean even harder on those tactics for increasing Facebook “Likes” through superficial campaigns an so on which will attract people for a short period only to be lost as those followers do some spring cleaning on their social accounts later.
How do I fix it?
Something I’ve learned over the past several months is not to get distracted by social media’s perceived potential to be another marketing channel. The appeal of social to many marketers is similar to the appeal that pyramid schemes has. We dream up campaigns that we believe will catch on like wildfire. Afterall, if just one person likes us, and the convince two people to like what they like, and those people convince two people to continue the pattern… Have we heard this before?
The ability of social networks is not the right focus when considering how to design campaigns through social. Instead, we have to focus on the soul of what social networks really are. Social networks may have changed our behavior and hour habits, but it hasn’t changed what drives our behavior in general. As humans we have an innate desire to connect, discover, and self-advertise.
- Connect – social networks allow us to engage with people that have similar interests, add scale to how we stay in touch with friends and family.
- Discover – we learn our news through our news feed, and join in conversation around shared content,we stumble through web content and news based on our predefined interests, and voyeuristically page through hundreds of pictures of new acquaintances and old friends.
- Self-advertise – We are increasingly more careful about the content we share not based on what we like, but what it says about who we are. In short, people share things with their network that convey what they want other people to believe they are (not the same as reflecting what they actually are or believe). I think this phenomenon relates to the idea that the act of observing or measuring something fundamentally changes what’s being observed. There has been countless surveys that ask internet users what content they consume online. Almost none of them will mention adult content, but we know from Google that something like 80% of all searches are for adult content.
The next time you’re architecting a campaign that you will plug through social to add scale ask yourself a couple questions:
- What are the business objective the campaign is meant to satisfy? Is Social really the right venue for it?
- How can I share this in a way that adds value to the community?
If you decide one or all of your social outposts are a good fit for a campaign, you will need o tailor the campaign in a way that adds value to the community. This means sharing in a way that is consistent with the norms and adds the kind of value a person expects from your brand. If it damages the sense of community you are building you do more damage than good in the long term.
If you are designing a social campaign with the intent of adding value to your community and you convinced your boss to put some budget behind it I suggest considering the “soul of social” that I mentioned before and filter your ideas through the lense of ROI. Here’s a couple criteria to test your idea against:
Who’s my target audience?
- Does this target influencers, advocates, or a broader audience?
- Where does this audience want to be engaged?
- What networks are most appropriate for seeding the message behind this campaign?
Does it align with the “social media soul”?
- Does your idea enhance a persons ability to connect, discover, or self advertise?
- If so, will I repeatedly perform the action desired?
- Does performing the action add value to my experience in my social network?
Does it satisfy business goals?
- What is the business objective this aligns with? Can I track this back to leads, sales, consideration, awareness?
- Does it satisfy existing KPIs for our program? How will this impact advocacy, SOV, and conversions?