MARKETING

How to Avoid the Social Media Marketing Curse

Social media was supposed to be a silver bullet for online marketing. But consumers aren't cooperating. Here's what to do.
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Social media was supposed to be the new silver bullet for marketing. Forget normal advertising: Your company could create online relationships with customers and prospects, becoming trusted and welcome. Only, things didn't go quite as smoothly as promised. For example, social media marketing could turn off people and make them long for a dislike button.

Marketing quantity, with too many messages, could also repel people. Even Facebook's zero organic reach, where the social network throttled down per-post engagement, turned out to be far more complicated than most people thought, with total monthly engagement potentially going up, not down.

Well, there's another twist, and it's a tough one. According to a new Gallup study, worrying about how many people you reach via social is probably a waste of time, because, according to them, they don't bother to listen anyway. A "clear majority" of 62 percent of the 18,525 people say that social media has no effect on their purchase decisions. Another 30 percent admit to "some influence," while only 5 percent say that social media have a "great deal of influence" on their purchase behavior.

If you just look at Millennials (i.e., those born after 1980), almost half said that social media had no effect on their purchase decisions. They should be among the most receptive, and they are, relatively speaking. But the absolute numbers are not encouraging. For Gen X, 57 percent say social media has no impact; the number is 68 percent for Boomers.

Even people who liked product pages on Facebook or followed accounts on Twitter were not as warm as you might think. Only 53 percent said that social media had some influence, and 34 percent said there was no influence. To sum it up, the report said: "They are far less interested in learning about companies and/or their products, which implies that many companies have social media strategies in place that may be largely misdirected."

There are some things you can do:

  • Engaging customers can drive social engagement, meaning the effort customers will make on your company's behalf. Unfortunately, too many businesses try the reverse, working to get followers and likes and expecting that to result in customer engagement.
  • Don't end your efforts with social media. You'll need alignment at every point you can reach a customer. For example, although 11 percent of consumers follow their banks on Facebook and 5 percent do so on Twitter, 79 percent visit the branch for services. In retail, 56 percent of customers are heavily influenced by in-store displays.
  • In keeping with that last point, don't make the mistake of thinking that heavy social media users are representative of everyone. When social networks define active users as those who are on the service at least once a month, it's because they can't claim the same numbers for those who are active every day, or even week.
  • Be "genuine and personable" on social media. Try to sell, and people will ignore you. They're practiced and good at it. (Just think of how easily you tune out ads and messages of all sorts when you are online.)
  • Be responsive. When people complain or leave feedback of any kind, be ready to respond. Right then. If not, you will quickly come across as insincere.

Gallup also stresses the importance of compelling content, but that may be a different discussion. You can think you have the best content, but with the wrong relationships to people, it will fall flat. With the right relationships, you'll find your way to good content because you will find it important to do so.

It also helps to remember that surveys, even with large numbers of respondents, aren't revealed wisdom. There are some questions, such as those asking people how much they would pay for a product or what motivates them, to which the answers may be far different from reality. People often lie, particularly to themselves.

Last updated: Jun 25, 2014

ERIK SHERMAN | Columnist

Erik Sherman's work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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