Why social media and marketing dont mix

The reason why social networking websites are so popular

You’ve seen the news, been to the conference and watched the YouTube video. You can’t hide from it; social media is huge. In fact Facebook has almost 8 million users in Australia alone and Twitter is growing at a rate of more than 1000% per year. Face it – your grandmother is probably on some sort of social network by now — just cross your fingers you don’t end up coming face to face with her on chat roulette one night.

But why are social networks so popular?

Social networks are the new town halls, the village greens, the community noticeboards; the piazzas of 2010. They allow people to communicate with each other, but just as importantly, they allow people to create an online extension of their personality. It’s that simple. In fact, it’s where the name ‘MySpace’ comes from. The creators allowed people (kids mostly) to create their own personal space on the web.

Once upon a time people had secret diaries, bedroom walls covered in polaroids, a box of love letters hidden under the bed and a little black book of friends names, phone numbers and birthdays. Everything was on paper, and people shared information with their friends by handing it to them in person. Now all that personal stuff is stored digitally and people share it via email, or by uploading it to their favourite social network.

And people share rather a lot of stuff.

In fact, the average internet user spends almost 20% of their working day sending and receiving email (according to Radicati), more than five hours a month on Facebook, about two hours a month on Google and an hour and 20 minutes each month on YouTube (according to Nielsen).

And those are the figures for the average user. There are plenty of Facebook and YouTube fans who spend more time on those sites than they do sleeping.

It’s no wonder then that marketers are so keen to get their messages into these mediums.

Where marketers have been going wrong

The problem is, people don’t like sharing their personal space with marketers. Ask anyone who’s ever been called at 8 am on a weekend by their phone company, had a Jehovah’s Witness at their door or been offered a penis enlargement solution. People accept that they’ll see advertising on TV, and in the right-hand column on Facebook, but once brands start trying to infiltrate conversations outside the space where they have permission too, people get annoyed.

Shopping centre giant Westfield ran a promotion in the lead-up to Christmas last year. The idea was that if you changed your Facebook status to “All I want for Christmas is a $10,000 Westfield Gift Card” you went in the running to win one. It certainly wasn’t a terrible idea at face value. It generated a lot of publicity for the brand with more than 200,000 people changing their status, but inevitably, the novelty wore off quite quickly and a dozen popular anti-Westfield groups sprung up, including one titled IF ALL YOU WANT FOR CHRISTMAS IS A WESTFIELD GIFT CARD, I DONT WANT TO KNOW, which attracted more than 4,600 fans — only marginally less than the official application, which at last count had 6,778 fans (and keep in mind they were in it to win something). Other groups included THE LAST THING I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS IS A WESTFIELD GIFT CARD, and my personal favourite, Hey Westfield – stick your stupid f%#king gift card up your f%#king arse!!!

Despite actually working with Facebook on the campaign, Westfield also managed to fail on a couple of technical fundamentals as well. The entry mechanism was clearly against Facebook’s Terms of Service which stated that:

“In the rules of the promotion, or otherwise, you will not condition entry to the promotion upon taking any action on Facebook, for example, updating a status, posting on a profile or Page, or uploading a photo.”

And, as Damien Damjanovski explains in his Refined Geek blog, there were some other pretty basic things they could have done to create more buzz, like getting people to become fans of the brand rather than just updating their status.

Fashion brand Witchery recently provided one of the most notorious examples of a brand abusing the trust that exists in social networks. You’ve probably already heard the story, but in a nutshell, they posted a video on YouTube showing a paid actor holding a very prominently displayed jacket which had been left behind by a cute male owner. The video was her ‘plea’ to the public to help find him. The tale attracted widespread media attention, no doubt because of its similarity to the ‘NY Girl of My Dreams’ story which thrilled the world two years earlier, and the actor even went on live breakfast television claiming the story was true. It was, of course, completely made up and Witchery copped an enormous amount of flack for blatantly lying to the public.

The agency behind the campaign, Naked Communications, claimed the campaign was successful and cited independent research which backed their strategy up. But the raw data showed that 60% of people who were aware of the campaign were either unphased, sceptical or felt negatively about it. The sudden departure of the agency’s CEO straight after the debacle didn’t exactly send a message of success either.

Facebook advertising – just because you have permission to talk doesn’t mean they’ll listen

Trying to surreptitiously infiltrate social networks is one clear example of where marketers are going wrong, but sadly, even if you have permission to reach people via social network advertising, the chances of actually getting through to them are slim.

According to industry blogs and Facebook’s own forums, advertising click through rates (CTR) in the network average around 0.01-0.1%. If you can get more than 1 person in 1000 clicking your ad, you’re apparently doing well. Compare this to the average click through rate of Google’s AdWords program, which is around 1-5%, and you’ll quickly understand the difference between advertising something to a consumer who is actively searching for your product or service, and someone who mentioned something vaguely related to your product or service a year ago when they created their Facebook profile.

That’s not to say Facebook advertising doesn’t work. More often than not it’s just not the best place to be looking for prospects because they’re probably not in the mood.

Going ‘Viral’ on YouTube (and how much money you need to spend to make it happen for free)

So what about YouTube then? According to their official stats:

  • Every minute, 20 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube
  • 51% of users go to YouTube weekly or more often
  • 52% of 18-34 year-olds share videos often with friends and colleagues

Given that more than half the US population watch more than 100 videos on YouTube each month (according to ComScore), Youtube is more popular than any television network in the world. Considering it’s free to put a video on the site, you’d be forgiven for thinking that YouTube sounds like a marketer’s wet dream. It’s not.

According to Business Insider, more than half of all videos on YouTube are viewed less than 500 times and 30% of them get less than 100 views. A mere 0.33% are viewed more than a million times. 

While there are some great examples of corporations getting their clip to go ‘viral’, there is no magic formula to make it happen.

Producing entertaining content helps and making people laugh is a sure fire way to attract a little bit of attention (at least from friends of your friends), but there’s absolutely no way to predict how many people will end up seeing your video and that makes it incredibly hard to justify the production costs to whoever holds the purse strings.

You can’t make a video go ‘viral’ and given that 90% of videos are viewed less than 5,000 times, unless your production costs are close to zero, hoping your clip will spread over the internet like a rash is a costly gamble.

Tourism Queensland recently provided one of the best examples of how to use YouTube in the marketing mix. Beginning with a series of classified ads in the job sections of newspapers around the world, they advertised a position for an ‘Island Caretaker’ on the Great Barrier Reef – a 6 month contract paying $150,000 to basically have a tropical island holiday and blog about it.

It was a slow news week and news outlets from around the world quickly picked up on the quirky story. The total global advertising budget was rumoured to be in the millions, but the free exposure the organisation got was worth hundreds of times more than that in advertising value equivalency (an antiquated public relations term which means ‘the amount of money you’d have to pay to get the same amount of coverage via advertising’).

The result was around 250,000 views of the centrepiece video on YouTube – which is not a small number, but testament to the fact that if you want to guarantee more than a few thousand people see your YouTube video, you need an integrated global advertising and PR campaign, a big wad of cash and a generous slice from a lucky pie chart. In fact, as Tourism Queensland digital marketing manager Sarah Whyte explained to me, “the media publicity was a fundamental element underpinning the campaign — certainly in propagating the viral in the first instance.”

Social media as a customer service platform

Thinking back to that stats I mentioned earlier, you’ll remember that social media is big. People are used to communicating with each other online. It’s convenient, they can do it 24/7 and if companies are prepared to provide an online channel for their customers to use, they’ll respond happily.

Big companies, from Google to ABC Childcare, now use online forums as a way for their customers to get in touch with them 24/7. Company representatives keep an eye on the questions, but more importantly, so do other loyal customers, who often chime in with a helpful answer first.

People love to feel important and letting them speak proudly about a company they love is probably the best way to create brand ambassadors.

Optus and Telstra have also had huge success using Twitter as a customer service platform. Dedicated customer service teams monitor messages from the public and are committed to getting back to them quickly and professionally.

However, opening up your customer service to an online audience is fraught with risk.

When they’re upset people love to complain loudly and they love it even more if they know they have an audience. Once you give them a platform to yell, they will. And if potential new clients are using the same forum (or Twitter account), seeing a long list of gripes from existing customers isn’t exactly going to make you look awesome. And if you can’t get back to people as quickly as they think they deserve an answer, you’re going to make yourself look like you don’t care.

Once you start communicating on a social media channel you can’t change your mind and then shut it down again either. You’ll look like you’re crazy, or you don’t care. It’s like talking to your mum on the phone. If you suddenly stop calling one week she’ll think you’re on drugs. That being said, if you happen to work in the social media customer service department of a large company and forget which account you’re updating, people are going to think you’re on drugs anyway, as Westpac found out last week:

So what’s the moral to the story? How can you successfully use social networks to flog stuff, I mean, market things?

Social networks are spaces for individuals to communicate with each other, to hang out and to document their lives. It’s a place for friends (in fact, that’s MySpace’s strapline). If you want to get attention you’ve got to go about it the same way you would if you were trying to make a new friend: be interesting, be funny, talk about stuff they like and don’t be overbearing. Having a reputation that precedes you doesn’t hurt either – it’s much easier to make friends with a friend of a friend, and in the same way, if your social media strategy is backed up with a solid PR and above the line campaign, you’re more likely to make an impact.

Want more examples of how to do it right?

Stay tuned for my next column and we’ll go through a detailed list of Australian companies doing awesome things with social media at all levels – from small businesses, right through to the biggest banks. If you can’t wait, check out James Duthie’s great list of Australian businesses and brands on Twitter. It’s a year old now, so it’s probably a bit out of date, but it’s a great place to see some examples in action.