Social Media Marketing is Broken

“I am going to Germany for seven months,” announced my friend on Facebook, and her confused, concerned and excited friends erupted with a dozen urgent questions. An hour later came the explanation: “It was a cancer awareness meme. Sorry to have put bad info out there.” Well, I feel so much more aware about cancer now, don’t you?

This is just the latest example of how social media marketing has become (or always was) broken–a chase for memes for memes’ sake. Social media marketing is an insular and largely meaningless game where the perceived winner is not the brand that gains awareness, consideration or purchase intent but the one with the most retweets and likes.

The problem rests not with social media but with marketers. I blame marketers for focusing on quick fixes and easy metrics rather than appreciating that–as always–brands gain customers’ trust, usage and loyalty through hard work and not button clicks.

The problem isn’t only in social media, of course. Too many marketers have been lazy, focusing more on saying different things about the brand in paid media rather than helping the brand to be different in meaningful ways. These marketers continue to invest in lookalike ads, hoping the right headline or creative imagery will catapult the brand forward, ignoring the preponderance of evidence that validates people are drawn to brands for deeper reasons.

For example, the 30 companies featured in the book “Firms of Endearment,” selected because they are driven by purpose rather than quarterly earnings, grew their stock by 21.06% annually compared to 3.3% for the S&P. These “firms of endearment” advertise, but not like everyone else. Take Patagonia–while other retailers were using Cyber Monday ads and emails to pump discounts, Patagonia used the same channels to tell its customers “Don’t Buy This Jacket.” Patagonia won not by telling customers “Pick me! Pick me! I’ve got the best discounts!” but by encouraging customers to “buy less and to reflect before you spend a dime on this jacket or anything else.”

IKEA, another “firm of endearment,” is again demonstrating why it belongs on the list. IKEA could’ve had a sweepstakes for a Fado lamp or given away a virtual Klobo loveseat for Farmville farmers; instead, the company listened to the people who launched their own fan page entitled, “I wanna have a sleepover in IKEA.” VoilĂ , a perfect combination of PR, social media and fan-building loyalty program with a 100-person sleepover in an IKEA store.

In social media, marketers suffer from the classic problem of failing to understand cause and effect: “Starbucks is a social media success with 26 million fans on Facebook, so all I need to do is gain fans by giving things away in Cityville and I’ll be a success, too!” I am not suggesting Starbucks hasn’t done some savvy marketing in social media (more on this later), but Starbucks does not succeed because they have Facebook fans, they have Facebook fans because they succeed at providing a product and experience with which people connect.

Seek social media marketing case studies and you will find a typical assortment of tired marketing promotion tricks ported into the social media era–brands that gained new “fans” by giving away a freebie or offering a sweepstakes. These tactics have been around for decades, so why is it we see them featured in so many social media case studies but so few brand marketing case studies? Because experienced marketers know these tactics do not (for the most part) work.

Freebies and sweepstakes accomplish very specific things–they help launch a new product, promote a new product feature, penetrate a new market or secure display space on retailers’ shelves. They may raise trial and awareness, but they do not deliver repeat usage, loyalty and advocacy, the very building blocks of social media success.

If most freebies and sweepstakes are a mismatch for social media, why do social media marketers use them so much? The argument seems to be that providing an incentive to Facebook users to try your fan page is a first step toward building Facebook relationships, but that sort of thinking ignores how Facebook works. Thanks to Facebook’s Edgerank, adding a bunch of disinterested “fans” who hide or ignore your posts does not help but rather hurts your brand’s chances for success on Facebook. Running a real-world sweepstakes so that 3% of the participants become customers may or may not be a smart marketing investment, but running a Facebook sweepstakes so that 3% of the participants become engaged members of your fan page is a brand-killing play every time.

Is it possible to succeed with a freebie or sweepstakes in social media? Yes, if you focus on two things–the thing you offer has to encourage people to engage with the brand in a meaningful way and the audience on which you focus must be not the largest but the right audience. For most brands, offering an in-game freebie to Cityville’s 43 million users makes as much sense as offering a new chess piece that devastates opponents’ pieces in an entire rank of the board. Chess players of the world will take it; they will use it to enhance their chess game; but does it make them consider or buy your insurance or peanut butter brand? No, because it fails to provide meaningful brand engagement to the right audience.

I mentioned Starbucks earlier, so let’s explore how this “firm of endearment” succeeds with freebies, ads and sweepstakes. It gives away free Wi-Fi in stores and offers free content for customers–meaningful brand interactions to the right customers. Starbucks used Promoted Tweets to serve ads to people who search for “coffee” and “Starbucks” to let them know about the free drinks available for those who use reusable cups–meaningful brand interactions to the right customers. And Starbucks has given away samples of a new coffee available in the aisles of grocery stores, not just to anyone but only to Twitterers who influence others and who tweet frequently about coffee–meaningful brand interactions to the right customers.

If I see one more headline about a brand that adds 100,000 new fans in a day because of a sweepstakes or freebie, I am going to throw my laptop out a window. I’m just tired of it. Not only is it frustrating to see so much attention lavished on poor social media marketing, it also is time consuming to constantly explain to others why there is no easy (and truly beneficial) way to add hundreds of thousands of fans to our own fan page, despite evidence to the contrary.

It is time social media marketers abandon the easy metrics and focus on the ones that matter. It’s the NFL postseason and I’m a Packer fan, so I cannot resist the analogy: In the 2010 season, six quarterbacks threw for more yards than Aaron Rodgers did. Nine completed more passes than Aaron Rodgers did. Five threw for more touchdowns than Aaron Rodgers did. Seven even won more games. But Aaron Rodgers led his team to a Super Bowl victory.

Stop counting yards and start focusing on how your brand truly wins in social media. If most social media marketers shifted their attention to metrics and strategies that matter more, social media marketing would matter more.

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