emperor's new clothes

I have a hive in my bonnet about the snake oil that is sold about social media.

I can’t shake this feeling that marketing directors are spending hundreds of millions on social media consultancy that serves virtually no useful purpose.

Thousands of digital agencies, native social agencies, conversation agencies, etc, have emerged in the last decade like the umbrella salesmen in Manhattan when the first drop of rain falls.

Marketeers are spending a fortune on political cover to demonstrate that they are “on top of” the latest medium for pushing the brand under the nose of consumers.

We all know, and agree, that markets are now conversations. I have absolutely no quarrel with the Cluetrain Manifesto and with the need to adapt the style of communication to meet the challenges of our social world. “One to many” is dead.  The world is alive with conversation.  Years ago there was a show on TV about how the idea of immediate community was in retreat.  I remember the presenter standing in a suburban street, saying “this is no longer your community”.  He paused for dramatic effect and then said “this is now your community” before holding aloft his filofax.  We’ve come along way since then.  Twitter, Facebook, etc, are now vital communities.

What pisses me off is the idea that is sold by social agencies that the medium is more important than the message.

A two-bit social agency, of which there are countless, will tell you (dressed up with buzzwords) that they’ll essentially boost your retweet count and “drive engagement” with your brand like never before.

But this is nonsense. You can’t “drive engagement” without a cracking idea. It’s the idea that travels. The message is far more important than the medium. In fact, I’d go further. The message is now paramount and the medium matters less than it ever has.

Back in the old days (the nineties), PR was all about papers and broadcast. The challenge was in getting a story on and in. The conversations were in pubs, occasionally on the train, at home and round the watercooler at work. Email worked a bit. That has changed beyond all recognition. The 24 hour news cycle has been replaced by the 24 minute social phenomenon. We all converse now. PR people need to be conversational and not just messengers.

It’s easy to see the appeal to marketeers.  Never has a part of the marketing mix been so perfectly designed for measurement.  An agency can set you up with an “engagement dashboard” that gives you real-time data on Tweets, retweets, Facebook likes, location of “engaged consumers”, what device they’re using, what time of the day you’re getting “optimum engagement” and more.  It’s brilliant.  Or is it just self-referential?  Does it measure sales?

If a social agency is just about the means of delivery and measurement of that, it just isn’t going to work for you, however impressive the self-serving metrics. They might buy 10,000 retweets from somewhere (have a google – you’ll see), but those retweets are like sugar. They’ll show an impressive graph and then you’ll get the slump. All of those people have two followers or one or none and they’re not engaged. They’re just clicking something.

A retweet, when it works well, or better still a question or a challenge, is a microscopic act of patronage. It isn’t simply a click. You need to earn your way into social. You can’t buy your way in or run it with some hocus pocus algorithm. To give your social conversation legs you need to say something interesting and compelling.

Social ‘experts’ have learned this, of course. They started crafting tweets that said stuff like “This man walked into a shop. What happened next will amaze you.” It’s called linkbait and again it doesn’t work because it leads to disappointment. It’s a flash in the pan.

There’s an article in the New York Times (“Why rumors outrace the truth online”) with an interesting graph. It shows that the dissemination of absurd truths outpace debunking of them by some measure. Now that’s useful to know, but not for shallow exploitative linkbait purposes. It’s useful because it tells us that a finely crafted counter-intuitive story will travel around the world, catalyse sustained and sustainable discussion and debate and serve a client’s interests beautifully. But that’s ALL about the message and nothing much to do with the medium.

Our omnibus research for a client shows that the average UK resident has used six or more methods of digital communication in the last six months. The numbers vary little across the age spectrum. It doesn’t matter much whether you’re 18 or 60 in other words. The chances are that you are now pretty digitally engaged. That’s because being social in the digital world is now very easy. Most homes operate more effective digital call centers than the businesses that they frequent. Social isn’t rocket science. It’s the battle of ideas. It’s the message, NOT the medium.

Selling a marketing director the idea that your social consultancy, with its in-depth knowledge of social channels matters more than having a brutally simple and effective story is selling him or her a lemon.

Let me just take that waist measurement again, Emperor.

PS: of course there are some excellent social agencies who have the message at the heart of what they do – and feel the need to dress what they do in a language that seems to get more traction with the budget-holders.  Fair enough.  My broadside is aimed at the chancers, of whom there are many.

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