For over 10 years the mission of social media practitioners has been to build a presence for your company on every social media platform available. The time, effort and energy expended by companies to achieve this has significantly increased your expenses without a corresponding increase in revenue. And what have you gotten for it? Friends, followers, fans--and probably few new customers. Perhaps the problem is social media itself; perhaps it isn't a viable business medium despite all of the hype. Consider these inherently problematic aspects of social media before you decide:
• Consumers see only what they want. Sales and marketing programs are successful when they get a strong message in front of consumers at the right time. Social media platforms can't do this. They, like the mobile devices they are often delivered upon, are consumer controlled technologies--companies can't control what content consumers will actually see. Companies can post during times when they are likely to have the largest reach, but they have no ability to influence who within their community will and who won't see the content. Contrast this with what Comedy Central learned: they could increase their audience on holidays by targeting younger people who were stuck visiting relatives. These consumers (who are potential customers) were often looking for a distraction and were more receptive to good content during those moments. Social media can hope to do this, but it can't actively intervene at those critical moments.
• Selling isn't a one-time event. You'd like to believe that your content is so compelling that someone sees it and they just have to buy--and deep down you know it isn't true. Good marketing and sales process--even good branding--is built upon consistency: an appealing message delivered on a consistent basis in a (relatively) consistent fashion. This causes the message to stick and when the opportune moment arrives, makes your brand or its offering foremost in a consumer's mind. But this is a somewhat outdated approach. PetCareRx learned this: they had much better results when they repeatedly prompted consumers to purchase right at a critical moment, such as just before a pet's medication was due for repurchase. Social media can hope generalized content produces this desired response but it can't be personalized it or deliver it in a way that will have the highest impact.
• Success is incremental. Great companies are great at converting consumers to customers, and they are also great at convincing those customers to then purchase more and purchase more often--often purchasing higher priced products or products with a higher margin. This is critical to long-term success because creating a new customer is significantly more difficult, and expensive, than creating an incremental sale. National Oil & Gas (owners of brands such as Marathon, Phillips 66, Sunoco, and Clark) applied this to achieve significant results by incenting customer who purchased fuel at the pumps to also purchase inside their collocated convenience stores--where profit margins were significantly higher. Social media can hope to steer existing customers towards that next purchase--it can hope to incent them to purchase products that have a higher profit margin--but success is unlikely.
The Proper Role of Social Media
Given these problems is social media a worthwhile investment? Absolutely--it still cannot be avoided by all but a few, most dominant brands. But to be used effectively it must be used with the understanding that companies are not in control of these platforms; they cannot actively control consumers during these interactions in the same way that they have traditionally using well crafted marketing and sales processes; they will always be at a disadvantage in what I call the corporate-consumer relationship. Therefore, if the goal of your social media initiative is to deliver tangible business results (and it should be), then it should always seek to return the company to a position of greater influence over consumer behavior--the position in which it's most effective. More specifically, the content delivered by your company via social media platforms must always be designed to influence consumers in this way.
To do this, content must whenever possible directed consumers back towards platforms that your company controls. And the only areas that you actually control are your own customer-facing physical locations and their digital equivalents: websites and eCommerce sites owned by your company. In both of these physical and digital spaces you can craft the consumer experience into what will convert consumers to customers most effectively, and do so at the highest percent of profitability. You can most effectively capture critical consumer data--what I call bridging data--that allows you to contact and influence these potential customers long after they leave these company controlled locations. And within these environments you can see how each individual consumer reacts to the environment and things within it. This will allow your company to not only target each consumer with highly personalized follow-up content designed to influence them to the company's best ends, but also see how your community reacts to specific prompts and redesign these environments to more effectively produce the results you are seeking.
There are some companies--again, only the most dominant brands--that can simply deliver content to their community via any social media platform and consumers will buy. Some few companies have amazing products and services explained via impactful content backed by brand recognition strong enough to do this. The chance that your company is one of them? Very small. The rest of us must do more if we are to succeed in the new social economy.
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