Measurement Still Plagues Social

I came up from my promotional buzz-tour for Fast Takes and realized, "Hey! I have to keep the stories for The BeanCast fresh if I want any content for a 'best of' marketing podcast!" And it didn't take me long to find a doozie of a story.

There's a lot of buzz going on around a study from Knowledge Networks about whether "social media is failing as a marketing medium." This article was particularly good at summing it up for me.

But here's the thing: We can debate whether the study legitimately looked at "social marketing" or just at ads on social networks. We can also debate whether the survey numbers reflect the real-world results people are achieving. But I think this study highlights the deeper problems in the social space, which are that we can't agree as to what social marketing even is and we have no definitive means of measuring success.

Ideas Without Agreement

Now admittedly, there are lots of proposal floating around on both of these issues. It's not like social marketing and social measurement are completely undefined. Some people are really on to some interesting ideas that I believe are working quite well. (Having just listened again to Scott Monty and Christopher Barger on measuring social success in Fast Takes #2, I'd say they are great examples of how to get it right.)

But at the same time I was in a MySpace presentation recently that showcased the "targeted ad" possibilities on their network and called it "social marketing." There are thousands of "gurus" out there who still say they can prove the ROI of the medium. And most of the measurement companies are still attempting to gauge success in a site-specific way, rather than trying to understand total customer impact across all touch points.

Direct Response is Still Direct Response

Here's a point that has to be made: Just because you wrap up a direct marketing effort and put it on a social site, it doesn't make it any less of a direct marketing effort. Can we at least agree on this? A campaign based on clicks-through is not a social campaign, it is direct response.

This is not to say direct response is a bad thing. I believe in it. I think it works. But calling it social does two things that are detrimental to understanding the effectiveness of social marketing: First, it says that social has to drive sales in order to have value; and second, it limits measurement to this single touch point (and single site) in what should be a multi-touch program of comprehensive engagement.

"Social Campaign" Does Not Just Mean "Facebook Page"

Which brings me to my next point: We need to stop calling Facebook pages "social marketing campaigns." A Facebook page or a twitter account or even a forum user identity are just tools. Using these tools to put out content is simply the implementation of a tactic or the launching of a promotion.

A true social strategy is something bigger. It spans all the customer touch points, creating opportunities for public and visible interactions with our customers -- interactions that touch individuals, but change mass impressions. And often it means going to where the customers are, rather than just drawing them into your site.

With this kind of understanding of social, you can see why measurement is all over the place. You need tools that cast the net wide enough to hear everything that's out there, from magazine to TV to online social networks. And it involves various tactical disciplines from PR to sales to customer service to branding. Not easy!

What's Old is Now New Again

And that leaves me with my last point: We've spent so much time "bucketfying" advertising into tactical disciplines -- with clear measurement and managed risk -- we've lost focus on what the customer wants. Jonathan Sackett, Chief Digital Officer at The Martin Agency, summed it up best in a recent talk he gave during 

ECHO Award judging when he asked, "Aren't we just talking to ourselves?"

As much as we try to get customer insights and speak to the hearts and minds of our audience, we've instead made marketing into a spectator sport. We create messages that please our internal audience and satisfy our legal department, then turn it loose for an up/down vote by the public. Even when it does speak to the heart, it's still somehow removed from the "person."

But what good social marketing should be doing is tearing down this sanitized wall. It should be getting back to the roots of marketing where the identity and brand where integrally tied to the individual experience each customer had in interacting with employees. That's scary for most of us. And it becomes even scarier the larger a company gets, because "dumbing down" marketing into simple and codified rules is our safety net for controlling the uncontrollable forces of customer opinion.

We Are No Longer The Only Voice

Trouble is that now our customers and critics have been empowered with the means to be heard every bit as clearly as us. So while in the past we could distill a message for the masses and be the only voice speaking, now individuals and groups have the communications tools and the growing ability to change, enhance or destroy our brand identity. Need I remind you of Amazon Fail or the Domino's video?

Which brings me back to the reason for writing all this: We can say that "social marketing is not in the plan" or criticize it as "not working" or simply ignore it if we so choose, but that doesn't make the problems it is addressing go away.

Our customers want to know we are listening. That doesn't mean they want to necessarily interact with us. It doesn't mean that they want a special offer or desire to join our little "social club" on Facebook. It means they want to see genuine examples of who we are, what we represent and how these values are put into action by everyday employees.

None of which can be measured! Except maybe in a sudden surge of advocacy and sales.

So let's not throw the baby out just yet. Let's at least try to understand what social means before we lead with how it's "not working." Certainly stay critical and question, but at least realize there is a growing need for these tools. And at least make the effort to find smarter ways to bring a social perspective into our marketing plans and gauge it effectiveness over the long-haul.

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