Monday, April 15, 2013

The Rapidly Diminishing Authenticity of Social Media Marketing

Join me in a journey back to a simpler time; a time of innocence, hope and more than a little naivety. I'm talking, of course, about 2008. Facebook has 100 million users, a mere 200,000 people access Twitter each week, no brands are doing anything more than experimenting with the nascent social medium and virtually no one is employed full time in the field of social media marketing.

Those of us who are predicting the future are writing about the power of this medium to create greater authenticity, to build trust and to surface genuine advocacy. Success will not be won, we emphatically declare, by the brand with the largest advertising budget but the brand that earns authentic relationships and activates authentic Word of Mouth based on trust, transparency and a commitment to do right by the customer. Brands that collect authentic fans and engage in authentic conversations will thrive while those that cheat to accumulate worthless fans and trivial conversations will suffer when consumers learn of the brands' inauthentic exploitation of the social medium.

Authentic, authentic, authentic--social media may hold many surprises as it matures, but by God, we know the future will be authentic!

Since then, social media has matured--we got that much correct--with consumers adopting social media in droves, making it a big business. Forrester reports that marketers will spend close to $3 billion this year on social media marketing, and with that kind of money comes a great deal of immediate corporate expectations. Authentically create fans? To hell with that, we want lots of "fans" and want them now. Who cares if they actually are fans (the kind that do not need to be bracketed within quotation marks)?

In the war for fans, authenticity was the first casualty, and the weapons deployed were sweepstakes, giveaways, contests and social game freebies. Einstein Bagels gave every new Facebook fan a free bagel, and it garnered a 7,000% increase in Facebook fans in just three days; perhaps a few of these folks were already fans--in the true sense of the word--but the vast majority had no affinity for the brand and were simply bought with a $1.10 bagel. Gerber deployed a baby photo contest in which those who wanted to vote for a friend's or relative's baby were required to become fans of the brand, regardless of whether they ever purchased a product from or had any relationship with Gerber. And Farmers Insurance gave away a freebie to Farmville players and set "the Guinness World Record for most 'likes' in a 24-hour period." (Does anyone else feel a bit queasy realizing there is a Guinness World Record for collecting "fans" that have absolutely no relationship with the brand? I wonder if Bernie Madoff gets his name included in the Guinness book for tricking the largest number of people with a Ponzi scheme.)

Weren't Facebook "fans" supposed to be authentic fans? According to the social media gurus, people who fanned a brand would be signalling their authentic affinity for it, and this genuine expression of brand love would ripple through trusted relationships in social networks, multiplying awareness and purchase intent from one consumer to the next to the next. This is not what happened for most brands, because most brands did not start with the most important thing: Fans with authentic affinity

No one benefited from the fact marketers used inauthentic means to amass meaningless fans. Although people could have gotten true value out of knowing which brands their friends love, today none of us can tell if our friends' likes were motivated by true brand advocacy or a Mafia Wars freebie. Marketers lost, as well. Thanks to EdgeRank, Facebook's algorithm to keep users' news feeds as interesting and sticky as possible, brands that accumulated disinterested fans failed to break through to most users' news feeds, and thus few "fans" ever see, much less engage with, brand status updates. The result is easy to see throughout Facebook--fan pages with huge fan counts but small ratios of them "talking about" the brands. Inauthentic fans cannot drive authentic engagement.

In desperate need of engagement to break through to fans' news feeds, many brands are opting to game Facebook's EdgeRank rather than build meaningful dialog--more inauthentic tactics piled upon inauthentic tactics. Why take the long, hard, authentic route of engaging people in a conversation about your product, service, brand or mission (or the things your customers really care about) when you can gather likes, replies and shares by posting pictures of puppy dogs or "Keep Calm" posters?

It is difficult, for example, to get people talking about insurance, risk and financial security, so Progressive's Flo rarely even tries; instead, she shares things like a picture of an ear of corn on a unicycle. (Oh, that Flo--it's a unicorn!) Other brands beg people to "like" if they believe one thing or "share" if they believe another. In my opinion, the nadir of inauthentic and desperate engagement tactics came when Blackberry challenged fans to "write out 'BlackBerry' one letter at a time in the comments box, without interruptions," resulting in almost 19,000 one-letter replies with "B," "L," "A," "C"... well, you get the idea.

Brands were supposed to build trusted networks with valuable content, and instead they have turned into carnival midway barkers, simultaneously shouting at passing customers hoping to catch the attention of one or two gullible enough to be hustled. Like us! Share this! Comment!

Thanks to the Condescending Corporate Fan Page for these examples.

How does any of this pass for authentic engagement that reflects authentic brand relationships? The better question is how can this sort of vapid, pandering "engagement" build brands? Are you encouraged to check out a brand, research its products or consider a purchase because one of your friends announced he or she is on "team Peanut Butter" by liking a post by GE Appliances? "OMG, my friend is on team Peanut Butter--I should buy a GE refrigerator," said no one ever.

Social media was supposed to strip away the meaningless clutter of the mass media era, exposing true brand affinity and advocacy; instead, social media marketing strategies have encouraged brands to post any meaningless thing in pursuit of a comment, like or share. The irony is that none of this actually helps brands--just as inauthentic fans cannot create authentic engagement, neither can inauthentic engagement build authentic brand value. Asking people to spell your brand name one letter a time or share your picture of a vegetable on a unicorn doesn't spark awareness, consideration, preference or usage.

For example, Einstein's freebie giveaway garnered hundreds of thousands of bought fans, but it did not prevent the company from stumbling. Today the brand has three quarters of a million fans and just 500 people "talking about" them. Moreover, six months after the Facebook stunt, Einstein reported disappointing revenue with same-store sales down more than a percent, and two years later, the company had the lowest earnings growth in its industry. So many "fans," so few fans.

For another example, Blackberry can get tens of thousands of people to type the letter "B" in a reply, but it cannot successfully launch the phone it desperately needs to succeed. In the United States, the new Z10 phone "started poorly and weakened significantly" after that. Look at its Facebook page, and Blackberry looks like a winner with 26 million fans; look at its stock performance, and you will see a company that has lost almost 90% of its market cap since the advent of the social era.

It turns out that, much like in every other marketing channel, it is possible to buy impressions but you cannot buy success in social media. Authenticity is not dead, you just have to look a little harder to find it in social media nowadays. You can find authenticity:

  • On Ford's Facebook page: Every post on brand. Every engagement focused on customers and enthusiasts. Not a single attempt to trick people in liking a post if they love tires or share a post if they think rear view mirrors are the bomb. Ford is a brand that conveys passion, focus, respect for customers and confidence in social media, and as a result, social media is credited with helping to build the brand and successfully launch products.
  • On Home Depot's Facebook page--and on its community, its blog, or the many online forums in which it participates:  Home Depot has earned praise and enhanced its business by putting its greatest asset--its experienced employees--to work answering consumer questions in the social networks where consumers are. The company does not dictate either the dialog or where consumers should interact with Home Depot but deploys resources and responds to consumer questions in the channels where customers are active.
  • On the Duck Tape Facebook page:  While the brand's 14,000 people "talking about" is disappointing given its fan count (of five million), you still have to hand it to a brand of adhesive tape for getting 14,000 people talking. I frequently hear from people who feel their brands have little interesting to say, and Duck Tape shows how creativity and crowdsourced ideas can help even a boring brand earn authentic engagement.
  • On the USAA Facebook page: My former employer continues to demonstrate how to mix highly-engaging content with serious information to educate consumers and build brand loyalty. The brand is not beyond posting a photo of smiling child wearing fatigues to celebrate the Month of the Military Child (and earning 10,000 likes for doing so), but other posts in the days before and after help fans learn how to switch accounts to USAA, furnish education on financial planning for a PCS (Permanent Change of Station in military speak) and address questions on flood insurance. 
It may be the exception and not the rule, but there are brands behaving authentically in social media. They collect the right fans, spark worthwhile dialog and--most importantly--authentically build business value in social media. They are not the brands that get a million fans in 24 hours, nor are they the ones pandering for likes and shares. 

The brands that succeed in social media do not take short cuts; they put their nose to the grindstone, focus on their customers and build their social footprints slowly but steadily. Authenticity cannot be bought, nor is it earned with a click of the "like" button. Authentic relationships and authentic conversations matter, and those are still earned the old-fashioned way--with care, shared values and hard work. 


Ike said...


Liz said...

Another excellent post, Augie! I've advocated for the authentic route every step of the way in my new position at Great Lakes. We may be slow growing (although we expect a bump with some large scale outreach in the near future), but every single person who has liked or followed us has done so of their own volition, without any bribe from us.

I can't promise we'll never run a sweepstakes, but if we do the prize will be a benefit that only our customers are eligible for, in an attempt to continue accumulating authentic likes and follows.

Augie Ray said...

Thanks Ike and Liz!

Liz, I think a sweepstakes can be run authentically, but it has to be tightly targeted to the right folks. Even USAA has done some Facebook ads to help them boost their fan count, but they're only targeting the sorts of people who would really care and want to friend the brand!

Anonymous said...

I wish more marketers and brands would realize your (excellent) closing point: "The brands that succeed in social media do not take short cuts." I feel so much that people simply want to get to get to "success," whatever that may mean to them, in the shortest time possible, when really, success takes so much more - heart, dedication, passion, time, commitment, and GOOD CONTENT!

Augie Ray said...

Kaitlin, I have nothing to add to your comment--when you're right, you're right!

Thanks for the dialog!

Max Christian Hansen said...

I love that this is so much more than a rant. There's plenty to rant about, but amid all the noise, it's good to be reminded that there are companies and brands staying true and playing it straight.

Augie Ray said...

Thanks, Max. I appreciate that. I try hard not to rant, although it's an easy trap to fall into!

Chris S. Cornell said...

Great column.

I think the biggest problem businesses and organizations have is that they lose sight of their goals. They start believing that the GOAL is to get more 'likes,' more people "talking about' their page, and more comments. Then they proceed to chase these measuring sticks with no concern for the underlying foundation of their social media efforts.

Keep up the good work!

Augie Ray said...

Thank Chris. I love your comment, but I wonder if many organizations don't "lose sight" of their goals or whether they just set the wrong goals from the start. For those that do not deeply understand social media (or, for that matter, the way the human mind works), it is easy to set vapid goals--ratings points and fans, rather than changes in awareness, consideration, intent and the like.

I think the problem in business nowadays is that leaders settle for the wrong metrics and the easy metrics rather than the right metrics.

Thanks for the input!

Terry said...

As always spot on - too many brands are sucked into the measurement game - fans/likes/comments etc. Too few brands are thinking about who they want like to engage with and why those people would want to have that engagement.

I have no problem with digital brand marketing and for some brands that is precisely what they are doing but for the majority of brands that is not a valid strategy and they need to see the futility of that.

Augie Ray said...

Thanks Terry. I think we need to see more case studies for how engaging smaller groups of actual customers and advocates pays more dividends than accumulating large groups of unengaged fans. It should be self-evident, but apparently it isn't!

Carri Bugbee said...

Great post Augie. I have a few thoughts about it.

First, it seems like your points here are largely directed towards usage of Facebook. The problem with authenticity on FB is that it is now nearly impossible to garner an organic following or ignite true interests in fans—by design. FB evolved from an organic goldmine to a mostly pay-to-play platform. Since brands (and their agencies) already invested a ton of time and money into FB, they will naturally escalate those activities rather than walk away. Running silly contests and sweepstakes is one approach that’s easy to implement, and most importantly delivers FAST “results.” Organic growth and authenticity takes awhile to build—and is harder to justify to corporate overlords who have no idea how this stuff works.

Second, now that nearly every marketer in the world is a social media marketer (whether they have any expertise or not), MANY are making recommendations with little investment into notions of authenticity or community building. They weren’t in the trenches with us in 2008 trying to figure out a brave, new brand world. They were writing print ads and ignoring social media—until they could no longer. Now they’re creating FB ads without a thought about how you might approach marketing via a social network in an entirely different way.

I encounter this ALL THE TIME from pals who have worked in advertising forever. They think social media is SO EASY. And this is because they don’t even know what they don’t know.

Finally, most people aren’t born researchers and don’t want to reinvent the way they work every few months. But you and I both know that is a requirement to be successful in this space. No question about it. Most people want to get a “system” down and implement it over and over without having to think that hard about it again. Plus, that’s how most business models works. Nobody budgets for the research and learning curve required to do something vastly different—particularly on an ongoing basis.

I’m waiting for the day when a big brand admits “You know, FB just doesn’t do it for us. We won’t leave the platform. We’ll be there to answer questions and conduct customer service, but we’re not sinking a lot of money into it anymore as a marketing channel.” There will be a collective gasp, but then everyone else will start saying “Whew…we thought it was just us!” I suspect that may already be happening quietly.

Sorry for the long-winded response. I didn’t even get to those other social media channels. ;-)

Sati18 said...

Interesting article and agree that companies need to focus on generating genuine fans and actually providing a service to their customers (actually though that is the basic principle of customer services whatever your medium... IMO) BUT, one key aspect that i think is often ignored in articles relating to social media as a marketing tool is the onus and responsibility of the users/fans/customer. At the end of the day, if they didnt like something they thought was shit just because they thought they might get something free out of it, if they didn't share these utterly pathetic and transparant memes or posts literally begging for likes, then companies would actually be force to produce value or exit the arena. I think if people sell themselves that cheaply, then they have no right to expect that they are worth a higher price and a greater effort.

Augie Ray said...


Thanks for the comment (and sorry for the delay in responding.)

While I did focus on Facebook, I think much the same impact can be found on the other social networks. On Twitter, we count followers as if they matter, but most people once they reach hundreds of followers stop paying any attention to their tweet stream. At that point, the question for brands isn't how many followers they have but whether they make it into the lists to which Twitter users pay attention. Twitter may not have Edge Rank, but brand collecting disinterested followers on Twitter are no better off than they are collecting disinterested fans on Facebook.

I very much agree that marketers who have come to social more recently do not understand it's history or its unique aspects. That said, I tried to make this blog post about business results and not simply the morality of authenticity. (I am writing a follow up piece on ethics.) I think NOT knowing how social works is a big deal, and it results in bad social media strategies and poor results. (Which is why companies need to hire people like you and I!) :)

Thanks for the comment!

Augie Ray said...


This is an interesting topic--to what extent do consumers bear responsibility for liking brands in return for a free bagel or Farmville giveaway? I see your point, but I am not sure we can lay blame at the feet of individuals when it is the marketers who are launching and promoting the programs. It would be nice if we all took more responsibility for the things we "like" on Facebook, but when faced with a prize or a freebie, most people will eagerly exchange a "like." (After all, if they don't interact with the brand, the brand disappears from their news feed, so there is almost literally no cost to this action!)