Seven New Social Media Studies You Probably Won’t Hear About at SXSW

This week is the annual SXSW Interactive conference, where social media elite descend on Austin to party on Sixth Street, post selfies with people who have higher Klout scores and pick up the mad schwag liberally distributed by startups. A few may even wander into conference halls to see some presentations, although that is far from certain.

This will be my third year staying home, and while I will miss the chats and parties, I will not miss the general sense that SXSW is a missed opportunity for the social media industry. All the best and most experienced minds in the business gather in one spot, but few find themselves in sane, sober and expansive conversations because it is hard to focus on serious topics when one is screaming over an indie band or dashing from the Convention Center to South Commerce to West 6th for events.

Although SXSW Interactive has tended to feature more hype than criticism, perhaps 2015 will be the year when reality sets in. At last fall’s Social Shake-Up, I was pleasantly surprised at the candor at which people were discussing declining reach, difficult social metrics and social media marketing obstacles. It will be interesting to see whether the predominant buzz from this year’s SXSW is about social media marketing difficulties or the more typical chatter about the next hot new app.

If SXSW Interactive gets serious about substance over hype, here are seven recent studies that should be mentioned from stages in Austin. All challenge assumptions about the value of social media marketing and offer the sorts of data that should guide tough decisions about investments and strategies in the social channel this year:

  • Bounce Exchange find poor organic social acquisition and conversion:  In 2014, Bounce Exchange analyzed more than $1 billion of e-commerce revenue. Their research found that organic traffic from these companies’ social media channels accounted for only 1.2% of clients’ overall revenue. Moreover, conversion was 1.3%, less than half of their clients’ overall average. (Source)
  • The Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth finds fewer companies optimistic about tracking sales through social media: In interviews with executives at Inc. 500 firms, the UMASS study found a drop in companies tracking sales through social media, from 36% in 2013 to 32% in 2014. Even more telling, at a time when marketers are spending more on social media and should be improving their metrics, the number of executives who do not know if social is driving sales increased seven points, from 11% to 18% (and another 44% believe it accounts for less than one percent of sales).

    Finally, the UMASS study found that Inc. 500 executives are losing faith that social has the potential to increase sales in the next year–the percentage of executives who indicate social is the tactic with the most potential to drive sales dropped from 16% in 2013 to 13% in 2014. That puts social media well below online advertising, less than business directory listings and equal to traditional print/broadcast media. (Source)
  • Custora finds social drives small fraction of sales compared to organic search, PPC and email: Custora tracked 100 million anonymized shoppers, $40B in e-commerce revenue, and 100+ online retailers in January 2015. It found that social media delivers just 2% of ecommerce sales. This figure is 91% less than organic search, 88% less than CPC and 87% less than email. Custora’s data was no different over the holiday period. In its E-Commerce Pulse 2014 Recap, the company notes, “Similar to the trends last holiday season, and throughout 2014, social media (including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest) is still not driving a substantial share of e-commerce transactions. Through the holiday season (November – December 2014), social media drove only 1.9% of all e-commerce orders – a similar share to holiday 2013, when it drove 2.3%.” (Source and source)
  • Webmarketing123 finds that, when it comes to social media investment decisions, marketers are using assumptions rather than hard metrics:  A November 2014 study by Webmarketing123 found that that “many marketers still relied on ‘gut instinct’ when determining which channels to use for marketing campaigns, as the most-used weren’t always the most-measured.” The report called social media “one of the biggest pain points for respondents.” While 87% of B2B marketers used social media, just 17% were able to prove its ROI—that is the lowest percentage among channels used. As for B2C marketers, social is now the most commonly used channel, with 87% of B2Cs using social, but only 27% could calculate ROI. (Source)
  • MaritzCX finds that social media is not an influential information source for car buyers: MartizCX surveyed 60,000 people and found that social networks (Facebook, Google+ and Linked) were the 19th most influential information source when customers under the age of 35 research a new vehicle. While “Family/friend/word of mouth” ranked second at 18.8%, online social channels were much less significant, with “Chat rooms/blogs/forums” at 1.5%, online videos at 1.3%, social networks at 0.4% and Twitter (dead last) at 0.2%. Beating digital social channels at influencing car purchases are very traditional channels such as salespeople at dealerships (the top influencer at 21.5%), newspaper/magazine reviews (4.7%), TV ads (3.6%) and manufacturer’s brochures (2.8%). (Source)
  • The CMO Survey finds that marketers continue to use the least powerful social media metrics: It is amazing that the two most common social media metrics used by marketers this far into the social era are still Hits/Visits/Page Views and Number of Followers or Friends. We are well past thinking that top-of-the funnel metrics are a good way to measure any digital marketing tactic, much less social media. Less than a third of marketers evaluate social media based on conversion rates, and fewer than one in seven use customer acquisition cost.

    Even more concerning, there has been a decrease since 2010 in the number of marketers using bottom-of-funnel social media metrics such as Sales Levels, Revenue per Customer and Profits per Customer. Marketers are ignoring the most powerful metrics in order to focus on the ones that are easiest to collect (and to manipulate). (Source)
  • Marin Software finds social advertising significantly lags search and display: The Marin Software Performance Marketer’s Benchmark Report is expansive, covering over $6 billion worth of ad spend from advertisers and agencies with budgets in excess of $1 million annually on paid-search, display, social, and mobile. First the good news for social media: The clickthrough rate for social ads is better than for display ads–social CTR was double that of banners on desktop and 50% greater on smartphones. However, while social ad clickthrough may beat display, it still pales in comparison to search, which has a 425% better CTR on desktop and 383% greater on smartphones.

    Once the folks who click on those ads arrive on your site, social conversion rates are downright dismal. Compared to social ads, display advertising’s conversion rates are 255% greater on mobile and 900% more on smartphones. Social advertising conversions fare even worse against search ads; search ads deliver conversion rates 818% higher on desktops and 2100% greater on smartphones versus social ads.

    While social advertising offers the lowest cost per click (CPC), advertisers (at least those whose goal is conversion) are over-paying for social ads. Desktop social ads offer a CPC 82% less than desktop search ads but return a conversion rate 89% less than desktop search, making social advertising’s cost per conversion around 65% greater on desktop. On mobile, social advertising has a cost per click that is 80% less than search ads but experience conversion rates 95% less than search, resulting in a cost per conversion that is more than four times greater in social than search. (source)

Will data like this get attention, discussion and consideration at SXSW, or will this year’s conference continue its history of celebrating consumer adoption and the rare but unrepeatable successful case study? If SXSW attendees buzz about the growth of “dark social” and Audi’s Super Bowl Snapchat success rather than explore what we have learned from our experience on the social networks that have been around for eight years, then we will simply see brands repeat the same mistakes on Snapchat, LINE and WhatsApp that they made on Facebook and Twitter.

For those attending SXSW Interactive, my wish is that you have more challenging, sober and enlightening discussions than you do drinks and that you leave Austin with more hard data than promo items. 

The Mind-Boggling Lunacy of People Impressed with Esurance’s Super Bowl Campaign

I am deeply disappointed to see Esurance’s Super Bowl sweepstakes results widely celebrated. Six years into the social era, I thought we had reached a certain point of social media maturity where we realize that fans and followers are not leads and that relationships are built through shared values and meaningful interactions. I naively thought that we had turned a corner, with widespread understanding that winning in social media occurs by providing great experiences that build long-term relationships and not with campaigns that yield short-term spikes of activity. I was wrong.

You no doubt already know about the Esurance program (which some of you perhaps think is evidence of its success). Esurance bought the first post-Super Bowl ad spot and ran an ad featuring John Krasinski promoting a twitter sweepstakes. Since Esurance “saved” $1.5 million by buying the $2.5 million spot after the game rather than during the Super Bowl, one lucky winner who tweeted #EsuranceSave30 won that $1.5 million.

On Thursday, the brand released campaign figures, and at a glance they looked impressive. Esurance claims to have garnered 5.4 million uses of the #EsuranceSave30 hashtag and 2.6 billion social impressions on Twitter. I have some doubts as to the validity and interpretation of this data, but I will save those for an appendix at the end of this post, because my bigger concern is not about the accuracy of the data but whether this data ought to be celebrated as evidence of marketing or business success.

The attention heaped on Esurance’s campaign data is just another instance of bloggers, marketing media and social media professionals celebrating questionable programs based on inconsequential numbers. This has been going on for years; for example, four years ago, Einstein Bagels gave every new Facebook fan a free bagel, and thousands of blog posts and headlines were launched when the brand saw a 7,000% increase in Facebook fans in just three days; 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. The lesson from this (and a thousand other sweepstakes and giveaway programs that “bought” fans) is that fans and followers are not a business metric.

Those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it, and once again, there has been an onslaught of articles and blog posts lauding Esurance’s short-term metrics. Adweek embarrassingly called the Esurance outcome “mind-boggling,” as if it is surprising that a $1.5 million prize would result in millions of tweets. (It would have been more “mind boggling” if the program hadn’t!)  The Wall Street Journal breathlessly declared Esurance “won” the Super Bowl. And one agency called this campaign a “master class in expanding your audience.”

A $5 million campaign that yields 250,000 new Twitter followers is a “master class” in expanding audience? That represents a very pricey $20 per follower, not even considering that in the week since the Super Bowl, Esurance lost 15% of the new followers it gained. Besides, if fans and followers amounted to some sort of marketing or business asset, Blackberry, with 3.9 million followers, would be flying instead of knocking on death’s door; Dippin’ Dots would have announced record profits rather than declaring bankruptcy mere days after collecting its 5 millionth Facebook fan; and Pepsi, one of the top 30 brands in terms of Twitter followers, would be blowing away the market rather than under-performing the S&P500 by 50% since the brand joined Twitter in December 2008.

Why must the marketing industry continually relearn that fans and followers are not prospects, nor are they a reliable leading business indicator? The fans that are worth earning–the ones that follow or friend your brand not because of a freebie or sweeps but because they have experienced and loved your product or service–are lagging indicators.

No matter how many millions or billions of eyeballs or impressions were delivered, the Esurance campaign was flawed from the start. It encountered some of the typical issues we have seen with hashtag campaigns in the past, including offensive tweets people posted to enter, spammers and scammers jumping all over the Esurance hashtag and people now convinced the entire thing was rigged. But even aside from the inevitable mixed reaction that greets these sorts of campaigns, there are several issues that must be considered to critically evaluate the results from this and similar social sweepstakes:

Awareness is the right goal–for brands in a different place than Esurance

In most cases, awareness is a lousy goal. Kodak. Borders Books. Woolworth’s. Washington Mutual. Oldsmobile. Stop me when I get to a brand that did not enjoy near universal awareness and yet failed anyway. Saab. Pan Am. Palm. Tower Records. Plymouth. Have I gotten to a brand that you do not know yet? Blockbuster. Betamax. Circuit City. Hostess. Pontiac. Sharper Image. All are in the brand graveyard (although a few have risen from the ashes as a shadow of their former selves.)

Awareness can be a legitimate marketing goal under certain circumstances, such as for new products, upstart brands or brands that need to alter brand associations, but why would a brand with a nine-figure marketing budget that has been advertising in national media for a decade still need to invest in awareness? Esurance’s VP of Marketing is saying this program was all about awareness, but the brand already has strong awareness. According to JD Power, in 2009 it was the fifth most shopped auto insurance brand; in 2011 it had the sixth highest brand awareness among auto insurers; and Compete reported in 2011 that Esurance had the fourth-highest prospect and application shares among auto insurers. 

Esurance has some brand problems, but awareness is not one of them. For instance, it offers a full line of insurance products but is too frequently associated only with auto. The brand also has perception issues to address; a 2012 Millward Brown tracking study found that the perception of Esurance’s quality and value significantly lags that of its competitors. The brand is among the most recognized insurance brands but sits in the lowest quadrant in terms of both quality and value perception, so why is it investing in awareness campaigns?

I do not know the answer to that question, nor will you find an answer in the hundreds of blog posts and articles written in the past week about the Esurance campaign. No one thought to explore if this brand ought to be investing in multi-million-dollar campaigns to drive awareness. Bloggers and marketing writers merely gave knee-jerk praise to the #EsuranceSave30 numbers without considering Esurance’s unique marketing challenges or business needs.

Awareness can’t lead to trial and purchase without depth and breadth

Setting aside the question of whether Esurance should have been investing in awareness as a marketing goal, let’s instead consider if big-dollar sweepstakes actually deliver awareness that matters. The lack of understanding of awareness among marketers has been one of my pet peeves for two decades. Awareness isn’t unidimensional; brands cannot simply count impressions or measure whether or not people recognize its name.

For awareness to matter, it has to have depth and breadth. Depth is how deeply the awareness is held and whether the consumer can recall it aided or unaided. Breadth is about context–when does the brand come to mind, how positive are the associations, and what does the consumer recognize about the brand. Most social sweepstakes and giveaways are good for garnering narrow, shallow awareness–impressive-sounding numbers with no impact to the vital aspects of brand awareness.

What depth of awareness has Esurance created with this campaign? The brand utilized Twitter not to create dialog or engagement but as a means of entering a sweepstakes. Claiming that these impressions are meaningful to the brand would be akin to saying that someone photocopying their paper entry form and mailing it to friends creates valuable brand impressions.

And what breadth was created? The buzz today, if you look at Twitter, is focused on three topics–the success of the social campaign, that people are disappointed they did not win, and that some think the contest was rigged. What you do not see is a discussion of the value of insurance or why anyone should consider Esurance. There is no dialog about Esurance products or services. There is no breadth. It is not good enough to get people talking; you have to get them talking about something that changes brand perception or behaviors.

People will claim that perhaps this is the next step in the campaign–after collecting a bunch of new followers, the brand will shift the conversation. That argument ignores the way social media works and how consumers use it. The brand is already shedding many of its new followers, and the ones that remain are no more likely to pay attention to tweets about insurance products than the average consumer. We have seen it time and again with brands that collect fans and followers with cheap stunts and free stuff: the path through the marketing funnel from Twitter follower to customer is extremely weak.

To be fair, it is possible to run a sweepstakes that creates awareness with depth and breadth. My friend Ken Hittel shared a New York Life example. The brand ran a contest to give away 60 financial versions of The Game Of Life board game. By keeping the reward small and focusing not on distributing money but on a relevant promotional item, New York Life created deeper, broader awareness and kept the dialog going (for a tiny fraction of the cost of Esurance program).

If it’s too easy, that tells you something

Another one of the hints that there may be less to this story than the data indicates is this: The program was easy. Since the beginning of the social era, marketers have been trying to find simple ways to exploit social media for their advantage, but success in social media is not straightforward, nor should it be. If brands could honestly build interest, purchase intent and sales merely by dumping a bunch of cash into a hashtag sweeps, Twitter would be full of these sorts of promotions. Nothing worth doing comes easy, and any social program this shockingly easy to execute and repeat ought to raise doubts.

The funny thing is how easy it is to see this program for what it is if you remove the dazzle of the post-Super Bowl ad spot and the reflexive excitement over the big numbers. For example, what if tomorrow I offer to give away $500 to someone who posts #AugieRayRocks and follows my Twitter handle? You would not advise this tactic to me or anyone else, would you? This hypothetical program is obviously spammy and impractical, more inclined to collect useless followers who want to win cash than worthwhile followers interested in my content. So what makes Esurance’s campaign different? If anything, the huge wad of dough offered by Esurance only made their effort more interesting to less valuable prospects, the kind who haunt sweepstakes sites and spend hours every week entering random contests.

Esurance isn’t the first brand to buy fans with a giveaway or sweepstakes. Marketers have been trying this for years. Five years ago, in the early days of Twitter, UK hosting company Moonfruit launched what may be the first hashtag sweeps on Twitter, but traffic and engagement dropped like a stone the moment the program ended, and the company did not repeat it. Einstein gave away free bagels to increment Facebook friends; as we have previously noted, it did not drive demonstrable success and the brand never repeated the program. If brand success were as easy as giving away stuff on Twitter, we would all be doing it already.


Social media is not new any longer. We have seen enough brands fold with strong awareness and lots of fans to know that there are far more important metrics than awareness and follower count. We have observed enough sweeps and giveaways to know that the brands that ran them did not get the sort of results that encouraged them to continue using those tactics (or they would do so). It is long past time to stop shoveling shallow praise at shallow programs yielding shallow results.

I believe the social media marketing business is in for a rough couple of years as the value of branded content changes and marketers gain further understanding of how social does and does not fit for marketing goals. On Facebook, marketers face collapsing engagement and even greater challenges this year as the opportunity for earned media dwindles. Twitter is struggling to demonstrate it can deliver the goods both to marketers and investors. New social networks are being promoted as the next big thing, but thus far scale has been truly problematic. (Many marketers praised Tide for its creative use of Vine during the Super Bowl, but just one of the brand’s 19 videos earned more than 500 shares and most did not get shared even 100 times on Vine–an outcome that may thrill the corner boutique but not marketing leaders for a massive P&G brand.)

To have so much attention heaped on Esurance with so little care given to whether Twitter sweeps fit the brand’s needs, if Esurance can convert followers into customers at any reasonable scale and efficiency, or if the program will or can contribute to the bottom line is, in my opinion, an embarrassment to the industry. The amazing level of buzz demonstrates how quickly social media professionals grab onto any hint of success and how unwilling they are to deeply explore and challenge the ways social fits (or doesn’t) with marketing objectives.

I thought our industry was maturing, but once again I am reminded that too many marketers believe social is a medium to be exploited by brands and not a new way of thinking and acting that happens to brands.

Postscript: The validity and interpretation of the reported data:

I know this blog post is more than long enough already, but I wanted to explore the data and whether it jibes with what we know about Twitter. I would have included this analysis earlier, but I thought it would detract from the primary point I wanted to make; nonetheless, I think if we fire up our calculators and apply our experience, we can begin to uncover questions about the data shared for this program.

The figures imply each tweet was seen 481 times (2.6 billion social impressions divided by 5.4 million uses of the #EsuranceSave30 hashtag).  I’ve seen some data indicating the average Twitter user has 208 followers, but a recent and thorough analysis revealed that active Twitter accounts (those that have posted in the last 30 days) have a median of just 61 followers. Moreover, since many folks created new Twitter accounts just to enter, it is safe to assume the typical account tweeting #EsuranceSave30 had fewer than the median. As a result, it is very difficult to square the number of hashtag uses with the number of impressions reported.

Moreover, even if we set aside questions about the accuracy of the 2.6 billion figure, it is important to understand that Esurance is playing loose by calling these “impressions” and not “potential impressions.” No Twitter user can know how many of their followers see a given tweet–at any moment, most people are not signed on to Twitter and watching their tweet stream, so any single tweet is actually seen by a fraction of an account’s followers. No accurate data exists as to the percent of followers that read each tweet, but I have seen estimates in the five to ten percent range. If this program had 2.6 million potential impressions (computed with the assumption every follower of every account that tweeted saw every tweet) and if just 10% of those accounts’ followers actually saw the tweets, then actual impressions were closer to 260 million.

And, while we’re at it, let’s also point out the giant difference between reach (the number of unique people who saw the tweets) and impressions (the number of times tweets were seen by non-unqiue individuals). If the average person who saw an Esurance tweet saw three of them, then the reach of this program is one-third the impressions (actual, not potential). Considering all of the above, we can calculate the following based on hypothetical but reasonable assumptions:

  • 5.4 million hashtag uses x
  • 61 median followers x 
  • 10% of a tweeting account’s followers that actually seeing the tweet /
  • 3 impressions for each unique individual who saw a tweet = 
  • Reach of 11 million uniques

Still a big number but quite a bit different from 2.6 billion, wouldn’t you say?  This is the sort of analysis I would expect from mainstream media outlets like Adweek and Ad Age before they jump on the bandwagon and merely repeat the numbers they are fed by a brand.

Three Reasons the Marketing Department Will Give Up On Earned Media in 2014

Let’s start by giving credit where credit is due: Within many companies, there is no more consistently innovative organization than the Marketing Department. Fifteen years ago, while everyone else was deriding the information superhighway as some overhyped playground for nerds, it was the Marketing group in many companies that advocated for the World Wide Web and found the budget to create the first corporate websites. And six years ago, while most executives were chuckling over their kids’ obsession with MySpace and Facebook, it was likely the Marketing Department in your company that staked out the firms’ social profile on social networks.

But while Marketing Departments may have controlled the first iteration or two of their companies’ web sites, that time has now passed. Today, the Marketing Department has responsibility for driving traffic to the site and may control the corporate website’s look and feel, but it is very unlikely (if your company is of a certain size) to own the content, the business functionality or the underlying technologies such as web content management, search, hosting, web analytics and the like. In other words, today Marketing brings its traditional strengths and capabilities in reach, scale and acquisition to the web, while other parts of the organization bring their own strengths.

Today, it is common for the Marketing function to own companies’ social media accounts. In Spring, SmartBlog on Social Media asked “Who controls the social media efforts at your organization?” and over half the respondents noted their Marketing Department is responsible for social media. No other answer even came close–Public Relations was second with just 18% of the responses.

But in 2014, it is time for change. In the same way Marketing ceded control of corporate websites as the rest of the organization matured digitally, it is now time for Marketing to leave most aspects of social and earned media to others in the organization. That means that primary responsibility for social accounts, daily posting and organic content must shift out of marketing and to other departments, if this has not already occurred.

There are three reasons why this shift is occurring and will continue to do so in 2014:


Earned media, that golden promise of the social era, is dying. You don’t even need to examine data to know this–just look at the wave of whiny blog posts we have seen this year from marketers accusing Facebook of breaking promises. Apparently, marketers thought Facebook was going to be a place where basic consumer behavior changed: As more brands joined social media and increased their content marketing output, consumers who avoid ads in every other medium would suddenly welcome and engage with marketing content on Facebook.

Of course, that isn’t what happened–people sign into Facebook and other social networks to see what friends, family and peers are up to, not to get marketing content. On Facebook, as more brands paid for access to users’ news feeds, it was absolutely inevitable that brands would find it increasingly difficult to “earn” their way into fans’ news feeds organically. (And if you think I am demonstrating 20/20 hindsight, feel free to read my blog post from almost two years ago, “Did Facebook Just Kill Earned Media?”)

How difficult is it becoming to generate earned media on Facebook? Two recent studies demonstrate that engagement and penetration are sinking very quickly. Komfo found a 42% decrease in fan penetration from August to November, and an Ignite study revealed that in the week following Facebook’s December 2nd news feed tweak, brand page organic reach declined by 44% on average. Ignite notes, “Facebook once said that brand posts reach approximately 16% of their fans. That number is no longer achievable for many brands, and our analysis shows that roughly 2.5% is now more likely for standard posts on large pages.”

And if you think the earned media bloodletting is over, think again. The slow decline of earned media on Facebook will continue in 2014. Ad Age recently reported that Facebook is telling marketers, “We expect organic distribution of an individual page’s posts to gradually decline over time as we continually work to make sure people have a meaningful experience on the site.”

Make no mistake, the phenomenon of shrinking earned media is not just a Facebook issue. Facebook is on the cutting edge of social media because of its scale and longevity (not to mention investor expectations, with a market cap almost 50% greater than Twitter’s, LinkedIn’s and Yahoo’s combined), so it provides a peek into the future of all social media. As more brands pay for access and as social networks strive to monetize, brands’ earned media will get pushed aside.

Earned media is dead; long live paid media! Marketers should not mourn the loss of earned media but rejoice that their traditional skills and abilities are in ever higher demand. The need for paid media expertise in social media has never been higher and is going to continue growing. The Marketing Department is uniquely equipped to stay abreast of Facebook, Twitter and other social networks’ rapidly evolving ad programs, develop and test targets and creative, and measure advertising success. Marketing can focus on what it does best and leave the rest of social media to others.

Exception to the rule: While it is ever more difficult to gain access to consumers via earned media, this is not a universal problem for all categories. Entertainment, news and style brands continue to have opportunities to increase reach and engagement both in traditional social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as the newer breed of visual platforms such as Vine, Instagram, Pinterest and perhaps, if they can prove themselves to marketers, Snapchat and Whatsapp. Most other categories simply do not have the luxury of innate consumer interest, and trying to manufacture it where little exists only pushes brands to, well, let’s move on to reason number two…


As earning organic social media becomes more difficult, marketers get more desperate to break through, which elevates the risk for brands. No consumer hopes for a daily dialog with their brand of canned pasta, as evidenced by the fact Spaghettios has just 2,600 people “talking about the brand” despite having amassed 518,000 “fans.” Since no national brand can succeed with a marketing effort that has a reach of just 2,600 consumers (and since some Social Media Marketing Manager’s job depends on it), Spaghettios’ Marketing Department has to churn out daily content that struggles to get more attention than other brands. The more they produce and the harder they try, the greater the risks, so it is of little surprise that Spaghettios stumbled instead of soared. The brand’s recent Pearl Harbor Day post of a smiling brand logo waving the American flag was widely criticized and embarrassed the brand.

Spaghettios apologized and said its intent was to pay respect, but you and I both know that is not true. This was marketing content, and the goal in posting it was to achieve what marketers always want to achieve in social media–likes, comments and shares. The intent of the smiling cartoon Spaghettio was not to pay respect but to create brand engagement (and in that, at least, the brand succeeded).

Of course, I should not pick on the Campbell Soup brand when there is an almost limitless number of examples of social marketing missteps to choose from in 2013: The #AskJPM, #AskBG and #AskRKelly hashtag dustups; endless look-alike newsjacking after the royal baby’s birth; embarrassing campaigns to extort retweets in exchange for charitable dollars; failure to control social accounts from dismissed employees; pathetic fake account hacks to jack up follower counts; branded hashtags inserted into tweets about tragedies; accidentally racist posts; misguided humor about fatal airport crashes. Was that enough, or should I go on?

Okay, I will! Epicurious insensitively exploiting the Boston Marathon tragedy for social content. Kenneth Cole joking about war to sell footwear. Taco Bell turning fans into detractors by mistakenly sending thousands to restaurants that were not yet carrying a promised new product. Nokia failing to put a language filter in place, permitting someone to post “F### you” on its corporate account. (Yes, that “F” word!) The Onion calling a nine-year-old girl a c###. (Yes, that “C” word!)

In 2014, we will see still more brand blunders in social media, but there is a simple solution: Stop trying so hard! With shrinking opportunities to reach the kind of mass scale marketers want and need, consider the risks versus the potential modest rewards. If you do, many of you will shut off the lights on those special-event real-time marketing newsrooms–your brand is more likely to be criticized for spamming consumers’ conversations than be next year’s Oreo Blackout. Put an end to those tweet-this-or-we-won’t-save-a-starving-child campaigns, which consumers increasingly see as mercenary attempts to boost brand reach. Stop desperately asking people to “like this if you love Fridays.” Tactics like those may deliver some bumps in your social media analytics, but they are more likely to create negative sentiment than to boost consideration, purchase intent or loyalty at any reasonable scale.

Note that I said to stop trying so hard, not stop trying altogether. Brands certainly have a place in social media, but the time has come to focus not on what your marketing department wants but on what your customers want: Deals, information, education, customer service, co-creation and social functionality. In this list, the Marketing Department is best aligned to furnish just one type of content–promotions. The remainder of the content and services are better left to Public Relations, Customer Care, Product Management and Development and Channel Management.

The Marketing Department is an important provider of content for social channels, but that does not mean those social channels should be run by Marketing with the goal of producing marketing results. In the coming year, I anticipate we will see more Public Relations and Customer Care departments take over companies’ social accounts. This will decrease the chances for the kind of social missteps that embarrass brands. No PR or customer service department will ever post an image of a smiling Spaghettio waving a flag, newsjack a national event or fake an account hack. Those departments do not need to win a battle for hundreds of thousands of eyeballs in order to succeed, and they will not push the envelope until, inevitably, the envelope tears and creates a social PR mess.
Exception to the rule: If your brand does not offer the kind of customer experience that earns advocates, then attempting to earn organic attention at scale is difficult and risky. If, however, your company creates advocates with a great product or service experience, that bestows opportunities for social media marketing that is safer and more prone to success. Coca-Cola, USAA, Apple, Trader Joe’s and other successful brands don’t succeed in the real world because they have great social media; they succeed in social media because they offer a great experience in the real world.


No matter what your corporate social media scorecard may imply, all engagement is not created equal. Getting consumers to engage with your jokey posts or videos is not the same as making a brand impression, building purchase intent or driving sales. Too many brands continue to chase social media metrics while failing to measure how and if social media efforts drive business results. For every Dove “Real Beauty” or Secret “Let Her Jump” that delivers measurable marketing results, there are dozens of other social campaigns that fall far short.

It is easy to see the gap between social media success and business success by looking at Kmart’s 2013 efforts. Few brands were as talkable as Kmart this year. Thousands of blog posts and tweets trumpeted the brands’ success with funny viral videos like “Ship My Pants” (20 million views!), “Big Gas Savings” (6 million views!), “Show Your Joe” (16 million views!) and the new “Ship My Trowsers” (3 million views in a week!) Even though Kmart, which is owned by Sears, amassed twice as many views as top-rated primetime program NCIS has viewers, the retailer has continued its slow decline, with same-store sales falling 2.1% in the second quarter and an equal amount in the third quarter. As Mashable’s Todd Wasserman notes, “It’s hard to make a case that the ads did much for owner Sears’s bottom line.”

In the article on Mashable, Sears chief digital marketing officer says he judges success by “the amount of engagements in social media surrounding the brand.” It is long past time for digital and social media leaders to stop this kind of idiotic babble. Marketing that entertains or engages without driving measurable brand or business benefits is failed marketing. Television ad buyers don’t claim success based on gross rating points, and neither should digital and social marketers claim success can be counted in “likes” rather than dollars, new customers or brand equity (such as awareness and purchase intent).

Kmart is not the only brand we can study to see the tenuous relationship between social media success and business success. Late last year, Red Bull launched an amazing social campaign around Felix Baumgartner’s record-setting skydive. The YouTube video earned 35 million views and got everyone talking. Two months ago, uberVU evaluated Red Bull’s and Monster’s social media presence and declared Red Bull the winner. But while Red Bull may be winning the social media battle, it is losing the market share war. In recent years, Red Bull has been slowly bleeding market share to Monster, and the trend continued in 2013. In Monster’s third quarter earnings call, CEO Rodney Sacks announced that Monster’s year-over-year growth was greater than Red Bull’s and that Monster was close to overtaking Red Bull in US market share.

Two of the biggest social media marketing successes of the past fourteen months seem to be driving no demonstrable brand success. Maybe my Kmart and Red Bull examples seem unfair since, of course, social media is but one small factor in overall brand success or failure. After all, customers disappointed with past Kmart experiences won’t be enticed into stores with a funny video, and Red Bull may be leaking market share because competitors have better product innovation. If you buy this line of reasoning, then you are acknowledging my point–entertaining consumers with funny videos and knee-slapping posts do little to impact the bottom line when consumer perception of the brand is shaped by more powerful experiences with the product or service.

I see little evidence that entertaining consumers with social content imparts benefits to brands. Consumers are awash in entertainment options, and your brand cannot compete with the likes of Beyonce, PewDiePie, Cinema Sins, Rihanna or Reddit. Those channels and pages, and thousands of entertainment options like them, are unencumbered by the limitations faced by your brand, such as reputation considerations, brand fit, legal and regulatory concerns and, most of all, the need to drive purchase of goods and services. (Yes, Rihanna and Beyonce want you to buy their music, but in that case their entertainment is their product, while your brand is left producing diverting videos in the wild hope they will drive folks to purchase pistachios or bottled water.)

Exception to the rule: While big, established brands show little sign of being able to alter brand behavior with tweets and YouTube videos, small and unknown brands and individuals still have opportunities to leverage earned media to gain attention and achieve success. From Blendtec to Justin Bieber to GoldieBlox, upstart brands have demonstrated that the right content can build awareness and change minds.


There remain several ways marketers can succeed in social media, including paid media and using social networks to distribute promotions. In addition, brands that create advocates through superior customer experience can work to increase Word of Mouth. For many marketers, however, 2014 will be the year they must contend with the diminishing reach, increased risk and dubious business results of organic content and earned media. The earned media equation is changing, and marketers must ensure they don’t make the mistake of committing to a strategy that cannot deliver the audience, opportunities and results necessary.

The time is right for a reassessment of your brands’ cost-benefit equation with respect to marketing content in social media. If you are achieving significant organic scale and positive outcomes for a reasonable cost, keep up the good work. But if you are employing writers, videographers, photographers, illustrators and other creatives to develop social media content that is reaching too few customers and fails to deliver measureable results, then a change is in order.

There is no shame in acknowledging that earned media does not offer the marketing opportunities that we hoped for years ago as social media was developing. There is, however, shame in continuing to invest if the strategy is not producing results or in striving so hard for marketing success that the company is embarrassed with a social media misfire.

In 2014, I believe the time has come for a normalization of roles in social media. Your organization has professionals with decades of experience creating earned media, and they are not in Marketing but PR. Your organization also has professionals able to scale one-to-one relationships, answer customer questions and engage consumers individually, and they are found in Customer Care. These are the departments that can better manage corporate social accounts. More importantly, they can measure success on their own terms, with metrics based on responsiveness, reputation and satisfaction rather than on acquisition and sales.

The shift has already happened at many companies, but if the Marketing Department at your firm still “owns” the corporate social media accounts, it may be time for them to hand over the keys. Moreover, if your marketing function is ramping up a content marketing program at the same time earned media opportunities are vanishing, caution and careful consideration of costs and goals is advised. Marketing will always have a role on social networks, but the time has come to recognize that social media is not primarily a marketing channel but is better aligned to the longstanding responsibilities and capabilities of others throughout the organization.

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