How Social Media Is Choking Your Business To Death
By Neil St. Clair
This article was originally published on Forbes.com (November 21, 2014)
A bit histrionic, perhaps, but it's true–social media is not helping you build business, and it's wasting your time and money. At worst, it's creating a choke point for your staff where they waste needless hours "socializing" in the hopes of results that don't exist.
There, I've said it. I feel better.
No, I'm not the reincarnation of Andy Rooney railing against the new. Nor am I E.B. White's nephew, abhorred that 140 characters and #hashtagging has displaced meaningful discourse and proper grammar. I'm 28 years old. A "child of the millennium" and Facebook user 911,619 from way back in 2004.
In the past you've heard me rant on about how "Digital Marketing Is Destroying Your Business," and I included social media as part of my diatribe. Well, now it's time to look a bit deeper. My job here is simple: to convince you to dump social media as a primary marketing tool. This is especially true for startups but includes established brands as well, all of whom need to focus harder on bottom-line-moving strategies.
As marketers, sadly, what we hear is "hot" and the "next big thing" means that we've got to jump on board full-throttle, and then we don't know when to throttle back.
The Reports of Social Media's Return on Investment Have Been Greatly Exaggerated
Now, a few caveats, I'm not suggesting that you don't build in the ability to allow people to share content, or that you shouldn't have the requisite social accounts to use on occasion. What I am suggesting is that you don't dedicate any staff solely to it, nor does any team member (especially strategic executives) spend more than 10 minutes a day tweeting, liking, and all the rest. And, above all, never pay to improve performance or visibility. Why? There's no RoI in it, and, if I'm being generous, any RoI that may exist is still elusive in its proof statement.
A recent article, whimsically titled "Tweet This" by the CMO Survey at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business, shows that, at present, 9.4% of marketing budgets are spent on social media. This is expected to more than double to 21.4% in the next five years (a 128% increase in spend). Ok, well clearly if the "351 marketing leaders" surveyed here are allocating more spend that must be enough proof of social's RoI, right?
Sigh...sadly, we marketers are too often follow-the-leader-off-the-cliff-lemming types. How do we know this? Because, the next sentence of the same survey reads, "However, [these marketing leaders] overwhelmingly report that proof lags spending, and only 15% of marketers report their companies can show the impact of social media...."
Full stop. So what you're saying is that you, "marketing leader," plan to more than double the budget on a marketing tool that you can't prove works. [A confused look should be creeping over your face now, slowly turning into a rictus of repulsion.] This is like doubling-down on a hand in blackjack when you've got five showing and then staying. The logic here escapes me completely. And it's not as if we can claim that social media is too new; that it hasn't had time to prove it's value. Twitter's been around since 2006, Facebook 2004, and LinkedIn 2002. Experimentation is part of the marketer's life, but isn't a decade-plus enough lab time?
As marketers, sadly, what we hear is "hot" and the "next big thing" means that we've got to jump on-board full-throttle, and then we don't know when to throttle back. And when "marketing leaders" make these big bets, it trickles down to SMB marketers, startup marketers, and college-aged marketers. In the end, this creates a vicious cycle that ensures CMOs think programmatically and not creatively about what best connects their efforts to bottom-line results.
It may sound a bit odd to advise young brands to abandon social media as a primary marketing apparatus. After all, Twitter is to Millenial Marketers what TV was to Baby Boomers. However, what we're seeing is that social media is more effective as a tool for engagement of an already established audience rather than a meaningful way to gain a de novo audience that converts to customers. It's a crucible for conversation rather than a discovery mechanism.
Similarly, the media (being both a former member of the traditional (at NY1) and a current member of the digital (at AlleyWire.com) I can speak to this with some credibility) doesn't use social media to "discover" your company, but rather to distill trends. This leads them to Google where they discover content you've created on the topic they're interested in, which in turn, leads them to reach out.
And while I know everyone will say, but look at company "X" that tweet they did went viral and they crushed it, I'll counter by noting that not only is "virality" excessively rare and unpredictable, but you're forgetting not all viral elements are positive. Anyone remember Justine Sacco and IAC's debacle?
I will contradict myself here to say for certain brands some of the visually-centered social media makes great sense to gain audience–fashion comes to mind on Pinterest. But for younger companies which need revenue, not audience, it ends up becoming an all-consuming marketing time-waster. And once you start socializing, you can't stop if you want it to have "success," i.e. as defined by the odd metrics of social media. You have to feed the beast, you feel compelled to get on every platform from StumbleUpon to Reddit to Google+, which means you have to hire staff, which in turn adds to your operating costs and distracts you from the real channels of effective marketing–like content and events.
This was my personal experience at AlleyWire. We're a media company, and while our pieces are shared on average about 100 times after posting, or about 217 times per 1000 sessions, we found that was a nice-to-have which didn't create opportunity. Similarly, our pro-active social media efforts meant thousands in expenses and management effort (increasing my grief-to-gross ratio) that pinched my net margins and my time. Eventually, I just shuttered that part of the operation until we have the luxury to waste our time. For now, our social media efforts are limited to others tweeting or posting from our article pages. And guess what? Our overall revenues have increased and our viewership has stayed steady. So microcomsically, it seems, at least in my case, social media was a hindrance, not a help.
A final word on B2B companies. I'm still constantly amazed at how often they feel they must play the social game. It's understandable that @Abercrombie (Abercrombie & Fitch) wants to tweet out to its tweeners, but does @maerskline (Maersk Shipping) really need such a robust presence? My guess is no one has ever called the Danish home office and said, "'God dag fint sir,' your last tweet on modal shipping containers was wonderfully compelling, may I please pay you several million dollars to ship my goods?" I'm being snarky, of course, but the point is that Maersk didn't need to spend the time, and one assumes money, to receive a bit of "brand lift," and neither do you.
Time to Stumble(Upon) Home and Face(book) the Hashtag
In closing, I'll step back a bit from my "hardline" position to point out an alternative scenario where social media does make sense for most any type of company–and that's in building the personal brand of a founder or key player. Business is mostly built on human relationships. Maersk may not need a social presence, but having an account for Nils Andersen (its CEO) may actually have some benefit in building trust or credibility or just putting a friendly face to a multi-national, multi-billion-dollar brand. Some may think it's crass for a CEO to tweet, but remember Millenials will be running the world soon.
So the next time you're thinking of "tweeting" your company's mascot doing the hula, think twice. Make a video, write a blog post, hold a press conference, something, anything that gets you to untweet yourself–your business will thank you.
Neil St. Clair is a respected social entrepreneur, journalist, and philanthropist. He is currently CEO & Founder of social change consultancy, NES Impact as well as fear-focused venture studio, Notimor. An advocate for children and gender equity, he founded and chairs The NextMen Foundation. Follow him on IG @neilstclair