Friday, 23 March 2012

Social media doesn't always work

When Facebook took social media to the masses (MySpace didn't quite pull it off), we saw a proliferation of social media "gurus" and "consultants" cropping up.  Chat to these guys and they will convince you that your business will close down within the next year if it doesn't have its own Facebook page and Twitter account.  Sure, the purpose of having a social media presence is to engage customers (present and potential) and hopefully direct them to your store or to any special deal you may have.  It's about the bottom line in the end, as always, and social media is supposed to be a new way to fuel that bottom line.

However, just having a page for your business and putting up cute updates and links isn't going to do the trick.  You need to remember the primary purpose people use social media for: to connect with other people and share stuff they're interested in.  Social media gurus will advise you to post lots updates and links on your business page.  They don't care whether you are a law consultancy, tech business or DIY store - social media will bring forth riches for all according to these guys.  Like fund managers, their favourite alibi when the reception to your page is poor is "it requires a long term, persistent approach.  You must keep your page active with updates and links."  In simple English that means keep posting stuff and hope that people follow you.

Nothing amazes us any longer
The idea of posting regularly is to "engage" whatever followers you do have and hope that they share what you post with their friends.  The problem with that nowadays is that no information is that amazing, shocking or useful any longer, because it's all freely available and we've heard it all before.  What do you do each time you see an "amazing" piece of trivia or tip on your newsfeed?  You simply raise an eyebrow for a second in acknowledgement then continue to scroll down.  At best you click the Like button.  Two minutes you would have forgotten what you read as you are now looking through your friend's Dubai holiday photos.

Kindly look at the Pinterest screenshot I recently took:

What you see in this screenshot is the sum total of Pinterest's activity on Facebook as at 10 March 2012.  That's it: two posts.  For these two relatively inconsequential updates Pinterest have a following of 1.5 million people as at the 10th of March 2012.  They joined Facebook very recently and they don't urge anybody to Follow us on Twitter/Facebook either.  People just came to them.

Big names like Starbucks and Red Bull were established and desirable brands before the advent of social media and consequently have large followings mainly because people searched for them on Facebook/Twitter.  Pinterest has so many followers without even trying because the buzz surrounding them at the moment is driving people to search for them too.  In the instances of the abovementioned companies, social media has helped them to enhance their online presence and can indeed be called an effective marketing platform for them.

On the other hand you have organisations trying desperately to engage their followers and even going so far as asking followers to share their posts.  They employ someone to answer each and every person's query/rant on their page.  Retailer Incredible Connection, the largest seller of hardware and software in South Africa, is such a case:

I don't know how well your eyes can squint, but on their wall above Incredible Connection first apologise to someone who referred to their staff as "idiots."  Then they try to help a lady find a charger for her MacBook.  Is this trying too hard?  I know, I know, this shows that a big retailer like Incredible Connection are willing to engage customers individually and that in turn shows how much they "care."  I'm aware consumers like to see this sort of thing but today I'm looking at this from a business perspective.  Incredible Connection have just passed 5,000 followers in spite of endless posts, customer responses and competitions they put up.  They are following the advice of the social media gurus, but for a multinational company little more than 5,000 followers after years of posting is paltry.

Here's what we can glean from these simple case studies:

• Social media is not a silver bullet that will guarantee more customers...or even followers on your page.

• Cute or even informative updates are not enough.  People will not follow your business if they aren't interested in what you do outside of social media.  Red Bull and Starbucks are intriguing brands.  Incredible Connection is an electronics retailer - they sell products other people make - hardly intriguing.  People have to be captivated by the idea of what you are and what you provide for you to garner a big following.  Taking a mundane or anonymous brand and hoping for Facebook to work its magic on such a brand is just that: hope.

• Certain sectors like online media (e.g. Tech Crunch, Mashable etc), fashion labels and e-commerce can leverage more from social media than sectors like retail or manufacturing.

Amateur marketers tend to hype up anything that's in vogue (currently social media) without carefully considering how effective it really is in getting a message across.  While some do benefit, bear in mind that social media does not treat all sectors and brands equally.  

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