The answer is ‘Mostly, yes’, according to Mark Ritson, associate professor of marketing and branding expert at Melbourne Business School. See below.
This video has been doing the rounds recently – or, at least, I noticed it tweeted by Brandwatch’s Will McInnes yesterday – and, because of my frighteningly short attention span nowadays (probably down to social media), I noticed it was over 30 minutes long and shelved it.
Then I thought “No Brendan, don’t let social media fry your brain.” And watched it. And it’s brilliant. If you’re in any way involved with marketing, PR, social media or communications generally, I highly recommend you set aside half an hour and watch it.
In some ways it’s heinous. A few years ago I’d have said ridiculous. Almost blasphemous. His premise is that social media is a waste of time for brands. But today, I think he’s right. I kept finding myself nodding my head in agreement. What he says, when looking at social media from an academic and macro perspective, is what I’ve been thinking and seeing at the coal face for the past few years.
Now, he goes to great lengths to say that he doesn’t think all social media is bad. Quite the opposite, he thinks it’s great for individuals and is truly a revolution in communications that is here to stay. But therein lies the problem. Social media is about people, not brands. So an individual’s success does not translate into brand success.
I found this out the hard way. When I started blogging, I got a lot of interest. I had hundreds of subscribers. So naturally my position was “Well if I can do this, and I’m just one guy typing away in a room somewhere, imagine how well an entire company would do.” This didn’t happen, because social media is about people, not brands.
Ritson really holds no punches. He points out the paucity of marketing budgets allocated to social (around 5%). He takes the potential TV and radio audience sizes for top brands – often in the millions – and compares that to the reach on offer from social media – the thousands or even hundreds – to show how, time after time, social media is a fraction of the traditional media. “Get used to that decimal point because you’re going to see it a lot”, he says. And you do. When he’s generous, he rounds up to 1%. There’s a murmur of surprise from the audience when he graphically demonstrates the contrast between social and traditional reach. I’ve done something similar: one character in this post is red, representing social media. Compared to all the other characters in this post, it’s about the same ratio.
Interestingly, only last night I watched BBC news comparing the fortunes of our main political parties in terms of their Facebook Likes and Twitter followers. Again, thousands, versus the millions of voters in our country.
I’ve seen this too. I’ve looked at referral traffic in Google Analytics for websites. The biggest referral is typically organic search, at least 50%. Then you’ll get direct referral, at a few percentage points below organic. Social referrals are around 3% at most. Is this really worth your time as a marketer?
However, as well as critiquing social media for brands he admits that there are still uses for social media. Again, I agree. He points out that social can benefit sales/tech support, and I’ve seen social media used successfully for this: check out the Facebook pages of most consumer tech brands and you’ll see a well-oiled support operation, with quick turnaround of queries. He also admits that research can benefit, and again I’ve built my own systems for pulling down data and figuring out what people are saying about brands, and what sort of message penetration they’re achieving.
I’d still say that there is some value in using social media for brands, despite the limitations. If you can run a slick, tight operation, where you make the most of your content and you genuinely have – I’m going to that word – passion for what you do, then you can start carving out a share of voice against your competitors without breaking your back. And there’s always room for building up a social profile that benefits your company, especially if you’re self-employed like me. Provided you keep social media in perspective (remember that 5% budget), and use it for marketing AND support AND research, then it can justify itself as a tool. Just.