Head to head: is social media really the future of marketing?

At a recent event, Mark Ritson and Adam Ferrier went head to head in the debate ‘Is social media the future of marketing?’

This article originally appeared in The Versus Issue, our February/March issue of Marketing magazine.

MK0217 200Two of the industry’s most outspoken men took to their opposing corners in front of 250 marketers at the Arts Centre Melbourne for the ADMA Victoria Marketing Lunch Debate.

In the affirmative was Adam Ferrier, consumer psychologist and global chief strategy officer at Cummins & Partners.

In the negative, Mark Ritson, consultant and adjunct professor at Melbourne Business School.

Ritson had stats and expletives. Ferrier asked the crowd to join hands and talk it out.

And the winner? Ritson’s tough love strategy won the day. Here we recount both cases and leave to you to draw your own conclusions.

Mark Ritson: “Social media is 2.5% of the future of marketing.”

Ritson stencil“Social media is not bigger than strategy. We’ve become tactical morons and we’ve lost our strategic skill set. When you start any question with ‘digital’ or ‘social’ you’re missing the point,” began Ritson. He wasted no time in accusing, in his view, poorly trained marketers of overselling social media’s reach.

“It’s a channel that claims much, boasts millions of users but – all too often – falls down when it comes to the specific data itself.

“As marketers, you’re massively fucking unrepresentative, massively over-indexed,” he taunted the audience, driving home the point that marketers wrongly think the average Australian is like them.

He referred to a recent study by Experian that found that 66% of Australians don’t follow any brands on social media. In terms of organic interactions at least, Ritson views social media as a pointless endeavour for Australia’s top brands, the posts of which tend to generate woefully small levels of engagement.

Turning to ad spend, PricewaterhouseCooper’s (PwC) ‘Australian Entertainment and Media Outlook’ estimates that total ad spend figures will rise to around $18 billion by 2020, and digital is expected to account for more than half of it. Drawing on current estimates, Ritson maintained that a significant proportion of that will go to search, not social.

The focus on digital, he said, tends to reduce print spend and also take a big chunk out of free-to-air television. But the evidence fails to justify such choices.

As, fundamentally, advertising channels, Ritson’s view was this: “Social media platforms have a big place in a small part of marketing: marketing communications.” He called for an end to the pointless ‘digital versus traditional media’ dichotomy and a return to putting strategy first. “Marketing starts with customers, strategy, targeting and positioning,” he said. Only then should it turn to making decisions about tactics.

He was asked, “Where are we without the content and information that’s in social media? What have we got to analyse?”

The retort came. “The answer, Sir, is market research. It’s a thing we used to do a long time ago before we started using social media audiences as an entirely unrepresentative slice of the market.

“I despair of the fact that we don’t do it, and the gentleman’s excellent question explains it: because we’re wanking about talking to people on social media, rather than getting a representative sample of the market, segmenting it, targeting it and building our businesses from it.”

To sum up, Ritson maintained that social media can never be the future of marketing because there is so much more to marketing than communications. He referred to a recent argument with someone who claimed marketers would never be involved in pricing. “We invented pricing. We took it from economists and we made it work. This guy thought I was an idiot, because he couldn’t understand why on earth marketers would do pricing – they’re the colouring in department.

“The reason he thinks we’re the colouring in department? Because we are. We are a great discipline, but we are selling ourselves down.

The consulting firms are taking all our work while we’re stuffing around on Facebook.”

Adam Ferrier: “It’s all about social media, 100%.”

ferrier headshotFerrier began with a behavioural experiment, calling on the crowd to produce the arguments to help him win (“You guys know a lot about the space, give me the best argument you possibly could to defeat Professor Ritson!”). At the heart of his case was a call to think bigger about social and elevate it beyond branding, communications or advertising.

While Ritson focused on social’s impact for Australia’s legacy businesses, Ferrier turned to the fastest growing businesses, both in Australia and globally, a third of which he said have social media “baked into their business model”.

“The brands of the future realise that everything they do is marketing and they build it on social platforms – for these businesses social is 100% of their future,” Ferrier said.

“Mark (I’m sorry, Professor Ritson) has a traditional view of marketing, it’s about the four Ps, and it’s not about the entire business,” Ferrier said, looking to Fortune magazine’s number one fastest growing business, globally. “Natural Health Trends Corporation exists by people buying into the business and using their social networks to disseminate the product. That business would not exist without social media,” he said. “These other two businesses – Uber and Airbnb – would not exist without social media.”

Next came the issue of resourcing. “Of the 2.1 million businesses in Australia, very few are large,” he said, pointing out that the relative affordability of social media can help level the playing field and enable smaller businesses to grow.

The biggest point of distinction between Ferrier and Ritson is how social media’s potential is understood. For Ferrier, the issue isn’t about social trumping strategy. “Once you have the prima facie principles in place you can start to do stuff that’s a little bit more wonderful, a little bit more creative and co-create solutions,” he said, accusing Ritson of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”.

“If you don’t look at [social media] as a communication device, but rather as a business opportunity tool; it’s everything.” In Ferrier’s view, many of the emerging businesses around the world currently could not exist without social platforms, and it’s these businesses that “are driving the economy, a way of life and how we work day-to-day”.

At a business level, social platforms offer the hugest opportunities, he said, and if modern brands can understand that everything they do is marketing, and “if they can base that in a socially rooted concept, that self-propels, then they’ll win”.

Ultimately, the challenge is for marketers to create engaging ideas.

“The onus is on us to create stuff that’s not wallpaper, but to use creativity to create things that are good enough for people to interact with.”

Finally, he returned to his round table session and asked the crowd to reflect on how they felt talking through the challenges among themselves.

“Because here are your two options: TV and being lectured to or social. Have a chat among yourselves, let’s work it out together. How will you feel about that brand?

“If you have a brand that can open itself up and be porous to its consumers, and allow them to help co-create the brand, just like all of the businesses of the future are starting to, then people value these businesses more, they get more involved, there’s more shareholder equity. It makes good business and strategic sense. It’s all about social media.”

* * * * *

To purchase a copy of The Versus Issue or a subscription to the mag, visit the shop »

* * * * *

Image copyright: lunja / 123RF Stock Photo

  • Alan Smith

    Here’s our take:

    1.Social analytics tools help you discover exactly who individual customers and prospects are, where they are, and the motivations and context behind what they have chosen to say. Very different from advertising in mass media (sometimes called interrupting).
    2. It makes sense to go where consumers actually are, which is on the social web using devices held in hands.
    3. Some of the talk taking place on social media (most, even) might well be family updates. Some, though, isn’t. It’s not how much or little of that talk that’s important. Being able to find the conversations on topics relevant to your brand is.
    4. Social lets you discover those individuals having conversations you care about. Now you know who to ignore as well. That improves your marketing ROI and might even reduce your overall spend.
    5. Failure is acceptable when you know where and why you’ve failed. Social and digital let you change the ROI conversation to “how is this working, what do I change?”
    6. Dumb vanity volume measurements (simplistic counts of numbers of followers, etc.) are outdated. Measurements of engagement based on reach, network, relevance and more, all built on algorithms rather than human assumptions, provide meaningful insights and can be linked to sales.
    7. Social and digital force brands to communicate on the consumers’ terms, to consider their preferences.