Making Selling Social

The following appeared first in the April 8, 2013 issue of Ad Age:

Some say we can’t value social marketing efforts directly. Others claim that if we can’t attribute a return on investment, we shouldn’t be doing it. But maybe we’re all missing the point. Maybe the problem is not whether social value can be measured in dollars. Perhaps the issue is we can’t measure in dollars objectives that weren’t intended to be profitable in the first place. 

Most CEOs and CMOs have a clearly defined objective to make money for their organization. Yet most social marketing programs are still designed to create engagement, gain followers or generate Facebook Likes. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that there’s a disconnect there. Getting to an ROI figure from most social efforts doesn’t take better analysis tools — it simply takes the inclusion of objectives that are centered on generating profit.

Customer loyalty, advocacy, engagement, interest and awareness are all important in the marketing funnel, but the assumption that they supersede the “baser” activity of selling is pure hubris. If customers don’t also desire “buying” relationships with us, then we have no business being in business.

We need to get to a better balance with our social marketing efforts and speak to the entirety of the customer permission set, including how they want to buy from us. Only then can we form measurable profit objectives that intersect with these permissions. Because, the object of social marketing is not simply to collect audience appreciation, but to make every customer experience shareable — including the purchase.

For example, Zappos has been heralded as a “social brand.” But that’s not entirely true. Zappos is a “customer service” brand. The majority of their “social marketing” investment actually goes into hiring the right people and creating amazing customer experiences. I still share about the time I sent an anonymous gift with Zappos. During the transaction the operator fawned over me repeatedly for making such a wonderful gesture. It was a little embarrassing, but I was gratified. Then came the surprise, because over the next two weeks this operator shipped to me gift package after gift package of cookies, socks, books and even a messenger bag in appreciation of my act of kindness. It was amazing! 

Sure, Zappos still collects likes for posts about new articles of clothing or holiday well-wishes. But they have a broader mission of making the sales experience personal, meaningful and ultimately shareable.

In a nutshell, Zappos doesn’t do social to generate sales. Zappos makes selling social.

Further, the assumption that the spectrum of social media is being ruined by the “old” tactics of push selling is disingenuous. Push and pull always need to work together. We can say that Louis C.K. or Radiohead have proved that fan-led pull efforts are the new way to market. But have you noticed that nearly all of these “fan-led” successes are built on the backs of years and sometimes millions of dollars in old-school push promotions? 

Going back to the Zappos example, they may use social to generate pleasant relationships, but they also buy a boatload of social ads that push product. What’s more, they are one of those vendors who use “stalking” ads that display the products you last looked at on their site. And frankly, despite the creepy factor, customers don’t mind for the most part, because the relationship they’ve built is centered on us buying stuff from them.

If we want to look for the real value of social to an organization, it’s that it shreds the veil between marketing and operations. It puts on public display every customer touchpoint within the company. So, we need to stop creating passive programs that simply use social media, and start thinking of social marketing as a discipline of doing business in a manner customers want to share. Selling must be social. Because only then are we able to measure the profitability of social marketing.